Alertnet has a post on climate change and the poor that opened with one of my least favorite narrative techniques – surprise about local capacity and knowledge for adaptation.

I was struck by the local community’s scientific knowledge about climate change. I’d often heard that such communities know a tremendous amount about changing weather patterns – and can easily tell a good year from a bad one in terms of droughts or floods – but that they don’t know much about ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ or ‘climate change’.

Not so in Manikganj District. The community performed a drama for us and it was clear that they knew exactly what these relatively western scientific terms mean both in theory and in practice.

I was also struck by how the community – supported by the local nongovernmental organisation, GSK – has developed a range of strategies and activities to cope with longer floods, higher floodwater levels and the erosion that each year washes away more and more of their crop and homestead land into the nearby Padma River. There was no drama here. And I was deeply affected by the industrious positive way the people of Manikganj District meet these challenges and carry on with daily life.

I confess to a bit of fatigue at the continued voicing of surprise at finding out that those in the Global South who are dealing with the impacts of climate change actually have ideas, and often successful strategies, for managing those impacts.  Implicitly, every time we do this we back our readers up to a place of comfort (“those poor/dark people don’t know much”) and then get to act surprised when it turns out they do actually have knowledge and capabilities.  I’d like to think that the first half of my book flips this script, arguing consistently that the people I have been working with are staggeringly capable, and therefore it is the breakdown of livelihoods and adaptation that is interesting, not its existence.

To be fair, though, I blame myself and my colleagues working on adaptation and livelihoods for the persistence of this narrative technique.  Once we get past that all-to-common intro, the post gets into concrete discussions of how people are adapting – good, useful grounded description.  But what I long for, and what I am working on (articles in review and in prep, folks) is moving beyond the descriptive case toward a more systematic understanding of adaptation and livelihoods decision-making that enables some level of generalization and systematization. Indeed, by failing to approach livelihoods and adaptation decision-making in this manner, we enable the very frustrating lead-in technique I described above – every case becomes unique, and every effort to manage the impacts of climate change is therefore an isolated surprise.  If, in fact, it is not at all surprising that people have at least some knowledge and capacity for addressing climate change (and this is really not surprising at all, dammit), we need to get past simple description to capturing processes that might be leveraged into better early warning, better programming, and better understandings of what people are experiencing on the ground.