In biology, when we talk about “adaptation,” it is usually to describe the slow evolutionary process by which an organism fits itself to their environment over the course of many generations. For example, the mechanism that allows mussels and barnacles to cling to rocks is an adaptation that protects them from getting washed out by strong waves. Organisms that cannot restructure themselves and their behaviors – whether you call it stubbornness or a Darwinian failure – will eventually be the losing player in the great game of natural selection.
On the other hand, “acclimatization” happens much faster, in a matter of hours, weeks or months. When salmon migrate from freshwater streams to the saltwater of the ocean, they will stay at the edge of freshwater and saltwater for a few days to allow their bodies to adjust to the higher salt concentrations. This is how they acclimatize to new environmental pressures.
Both of these biological mechanisms apply to instances when an environment has shifted, requiring a responding adjustment, for the ultimate purpose of finding balance again.
Let’s consider how these mechanisms apply to our current state of affairs, in a world where everything has changed and will continue to.
We have two major forces right now driving environmental change and testing our ability to find balance. The first is a global pandemic, and the second is global climate change.
In the short term, the COVID-19 crisis is testing our ability to acclimatize. In a matter of days, we switched to working from home. Just a few days later, we eliminated nonessential travel altogether. Many of us have flipped an internal switch that tells us to reuse that piece of aluminum foil a few more times to avoid having to go out for more. We’re staying home, conserving supplies and being more intentional with our consumption. Many of you are choosing to support small local seafood markets and restaurants rather than brave the ominous grocery stores—a switch that is reducing the carbon footprint of your dinner plate. We are finding a new balance that protects us from a dangerous virus. As a side effect, these acclimatization behaviors are also having a documented beneficial impact on the planet.
Global climate change is testing us as well. With each passing hurricane, we get better at boarding up windows and deploying sandbags. We are building houses differently and sometimes building them in safer locations. But mostly, changes are happening faster than we are adapting. Almost yearly now, fishermen report fish stocks in places they haven’t historically been which leaves fishery managers in a tough spot—Do they double down anyway on the management decision they made? Or do they change course based on new evidence from the ocean? Do we create a more flexible system that can respond to rapidly changing systems and real-time data sets? Or do we maintain business as usual?
Scientists argue that humans are the most highly evolved species because Homo sapiens emerged during an extended period of rapid climate variability that forced us to be highly adaptable.
But now is not just a time for adaptation—we need to be exercising those acclimatization muscles too. We don’t have multiple generations to implement the important solutions that are needed now. COVID-19 has demonstrated that when we make swift and impactful adjustments, we can have tremendous success in achieving our goals for a healthy planet. Continue to be meaningful with your consumption, keep using litter sweeps as an excuse to stretch your legs, and opt for local seafood that comes with a lower carbon footprint and supports ocean-friendly fishing practices.=
Our marine ecosystems are out of balance, but together we can restructure the way we interact with them. This is an environmental effort that requires short-term acclimatizing – making critical changes right now – rather than looking to future generations with hope that some good choices will evolve somewhere along the way.