Saturday, November 26, 2011

Adaptation: aging populations, youth culture and extreme events

My house mate, an older woman who has, in her day, bossed around quite a number of organisations, is loosing her sight.

It's come suddenly: in the past six months, she has gone from 'not so great' to barely able to read.

She's been quite chipper about the whole thing - a stolid approach that says much about her strength of character: in life, things happen, we get older, things change, best to make the best of it. She's been quite proactive: bright white lines on the steps, orange tabs on the stove and microwave so you can see when it is turned off, carefully going through her cookbooks and putting to memory her favourite recipes, visiting the local constellation of folks who are responding to blindness.

Slowly, though, the anger, resentment and grief is coming to the fore. Today she told me she wanted to break china pieces, she was so angry - but then she'd have to buy new ones.

I recommended throwing potatoes against (external) walls. She liked that idea.

I also asked if she was reaching out to her children. She says they are not really aware of the extent of the problem. When she said this, her voice sighed - she did not want to bother them, and, I suspect, wondered at how well they could really cope with this. She's one of those strong single mothers who carved a career for herself and her family of four at a time when that was not the social norm: her dignity - and perhaps her pride - demand that she stay 'independent' as long as possible.

Today, though, she asked me to read the gas and electricity meters and enter them into the online payment system. There are a hundred small things like that that need to be done, and when everything takes three times as much concentration, it's exhausting.

Meanwhile, the up and coming generation (those currently in their late teens) are going to be inheriting a climate-changed world where adaptation is critical: last week included a lengthy conversation on the state of London and adaptation with one of the experts in urban adaptation. Short story: London isn't doing much. Why not? It's not exactly on the agenda. Getting people to take action on mitigation is hard enough. Are the young people prepared? Will current cuts in the University system enable them to be prepared - not scientifically, but socially, to deal with the physical and social changes that come with an increase in extreme weather events?

My spider senses are wondering about these perking conditions: an older woman too stubborn to fully reach out to her family; a young generation that may not be getting the mentoring it needs to learn how to share the expensive burden of changing and caring for one another left by those who have come before. Both are and will continue to adapt - but will their adaptations be successful? Will they turn closer to one another or further away? Will the younger generations (including my own) be able - and willing - to pay for the needs of those who are retiring and those who are loosing their abilities in such a way that can maintain all of our dignity?

Adaptation has (at least) three components. One is having a diversity of options. Even as her sight decreases, can she get help in some other way? As Universities close their doors, will others pick up the training and mentoring needs of young people, especially for the politcally sensitive tasks before us? Another is flexibility - being able to move between the options. If she has the option to get support, does she have the flexibility to do so, or is she locked into her current pattern? And the third is agency - the perceived belief and the actual ability that you can, indeed, move. That change is, indeed, possible. Is she constrained by her mindset that her children can not or are not interested in helping her, that this would be a burden instead of a gift?

All of these are important. But it is the agency - both perceived and real - that makes the difference. Perhaps that is why all this talk about entrepeneurs is so popular at the moment: a general recognition that we need people who believe they can make a difference and then do the hard work of doing it - preferably in a way that is fun, interesting, and innovative. I've known a lot of entrepeneurs, both inside and outside of institutions - the good ones are patient and careful as well as fast and, at times, furious. They have something else that often isn't talked about in the discussions of agency: teleos. That is, purpose. And maybe it is that which is missing - not just a vision, but a sense of collective and shared purpose - not in some vague strategic statement, but in that, we are here to live fully, and to support one another to do so - now what? kind of way that gets to the depth of our soul. The kind of purpose that is both 'good enough' to keep going and stirring enough to move towards transformation.

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