The art of adaptation: Living with climate change in the rural American Southwest

Julie Brugger, Michael Crimmins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


As adaptation has come to the forefront in climate change discourse, research, and policy, it is crucial to consider the effects of how we interpret the concept. This paper draws attention to the need for interpretations that foster policies and institutions with the breadth and flexibility to recognize and support a wide range of locally relevant adaptation strategies. Social scientists have argued that, in practice, the standard definition of adaptation tends to prioritize economic over other values and technical over social responses, draw attention away from underlying causes of vulnerability and from the broader context in which adaptive responses take place, and exclude discussions of inequality, justice, and transformation. In this paper, we discuss an alternate understanding of adaptation, which we label "living with climate change," that emerged from an ethnographic study of how rural residents of the U.S. Southwest understand, respond to, and plan for weather and climate in their daily lives, and we consider how it might inform efforts to develop a more comprehensive definition. The discussion brings into focus several underlying features of this lay conception of adaptation, which are crucial for understanding how adaptation actually unfolds on the ground: an ontology based on nature-society mutuality; an epistemology based on situated knowledge; practice based on performatively adjusting human activities to a dynamic biophysical and social environment; and a placed-based system of values. We suggest that these features help point the way toward a more comprehensive understanding of climate change adaptation, and one more fully informed by the understanding that we are living in the Anthropocene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1830-1840
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2013


  • Adaptation
  • American Southwest
  • Anthropocene
  • Case study
  • Climate change
  • Nature-society mutuality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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