Survival Strategies

May 31, 2021   •   By Johanna Drucker

The Human Scaffold: How Not to Design Your Way Out of a Climate Crisis

Josh Berson

DAILY LIFE IN Los Angeles is replete with examples of zealously self-righteous recycling, “green” consumption, and other activities that suggest that we might, just might, be able to engineer solutions to the climate crisis through ever more sophisticated infrastructure and resource management at the personal and collective levels. Pare down our belongings. Get an electric car. Grow our own tomatoes or reduce shipping costs with direct farm-to-table deliveries. Josh Berson’s new book, The Human Scaffold: How Not to Design Your Way Out of a Climate Crisis, offers a counterargument, which is that physiological adaptation and cultural strategies, not technological solutions, should be foremost when we try to imagine “how to live” in response to climate crises.

In describing the “human scaffold” of adaptive behaviors, Berson draws on anthropological studies of approaches to survival across a wide range of cultural groups and over long time periods. His chapters outline distinct frameworks of adaptive strategies: “Treadmills,” “Scaffolds,” “Equilibria,” and “Landscapes,” before arriving at the “Ditch Kit” (“what you take with you”). While this last section offers a summary discussion, Berson is too skeptical of the mechanistic hubris of operationalization to propose any formulaic solutions. Under each of these rubrics, Berson describes ways in which cultural patterns enact a dynamic between the human-made world and the environmental biome. In offering an alternative to applied design as a way to address climate crises, he suggests an approach based on understanding the complex interrelations of bodies, world, and culture across variable timescales.

Each section is built around a meta-concept, thus the notion of the “treadmill,” a “machine for minimizing the biomechanical and sensorimotor complexity of locomotion,” becomes a framework for thinking about ways humans have learned various degrees of control over such fundamental tools as fire. He offers a nuanced discussion of the use and management, curation and production of this transformative and transforming resource, rather than presenting it as simply instrumental. The “scaffold” of the title refers to behavioral patterns that emerge from “determinate but plastic constraints” in the codependence of people and their environment. This extends even to manners of walking, posture, adaptations to food sources and thermal conditions, in order to achieve degrees of “equilibria” in socio-physiological terms. He shows how different timescales shape the way human actions are understood in terms of cause and effect. Some consequences unfold at a very slow, episodic timescale that might exceed a human lifetime but have benefits for a group or environment. The question is how we come to understand such consequences. What Berson calls “social fate” is an intimate part of survival, as becomes evident in the core of the “landscapes” discussion. He emphasizes how the porousness of the connections between individuals and networks (environmental and cultural) makes the effects of pollutants inescapable in multiple realms (sound, air, water, earth). The environment is in us, we are not merely living in it.

In one vivid example, Berson takes up thermal equilibrium as a crucial area of adaptation. He recounts the fact that, when Europeans arrived in Tasmania in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they found that the inhabitants of the chilly terrain were barely clothed. Unlike their relatives among the indigenous people of the Australian continent (from which rising sea levels had isolated them 30,000 years earlier), they wore only cloaks, and little else protected their otherwise naked bodies from the temperatures. The Tasmanians seemed to have forgotten skills that had been part of the common source culture and relied on (mal)adaptive behaviors to cope with the cold. A change in social attitude, rather than a continuous use of technology for clothing, had made survival possible. Affirmative behaviors produced a conviction that what individuals were experiencing was not cold or discomfort. While the details of this situation are more complex than this brief summary, Berson presents this account in order to explore the ways human physiology and cultural adaptation to climate are related.

In asking what happened to the knowledge that the original peoples of Tasmania possessed, Berson considers various collective strategies of “niche construction.” How did these people lose skills they could have used for their own well-being after they became an isolated population? Survival strategies depend upon the transmission of knowledge — how to hunt, forage, and enact other transformations of materials into sustenance. The fashioning of tools, for instance, often involves many steps and parts, and these have to be created according to particular specifications to arrive at a functional result or a symbolically valuable artefact. These techniques of production, like those of other aspects of culture, are learned through imitation of body movements. Berson sees knowledge transmission as a physiological enactment and emphasizes kinesthetic empathy as a crucial aspect of learning. The bodily repository of these gestures is part of what he ultimately describes as the “skills reservoir” of a culture. Contemporary humans have lost much of the knowledge essential for that basic survival. Berson recognizes that returning to a Neolithic or Paleolithic condition of existence would plunge modern humans into catastrophe­, and references to Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road are woven throughout the text as a leitmotif. The apocalypse is never very far away in current reflections on the climate.

Berson’s core concept is that of “enactive scaffolding,” the emergence of behaviors within a social group that become an adaptive strategy. Berson’s idea of enacting involves bodies and environments as well as actions that push physiological adaptation over a period of time. This span involves generations, not just individuals, who collaborate in an emergent pattern that is willfully shaped by these activities — such as exposing oneself to cold, heat, or other stresses.

Returning to the temporal dimensions of the relation between human cultures and their environments, Berson describes three categories — the episodic, the biomic, and the somatic — in order to examine how behaviors are influenced, in part, by the understanding of outcomes within various timeframes. Something is episodic if its outcomes are clearly contained within a perceptible scale, so that the intent of actions is clear. Biomic temporal scales refer to the biological world (biome) whose cycles might be much longer than human lifetimes when experiencing consequences related to our actions. Human understanding of these processes may be based on shared cultural memory — for example, fire and controlled burns, the long-term benefits of which might not be perceived by the actual initiator. Somatic time horizons are individual and physical. These various dimensions are critical to consider within the adaptive behaviors necessary to cope with climate crises. Each implies a strategy within a distinct (though overlapping) temporal horizon. Most crucially, the decision to take any particular action — on the part of a group or individual — is enmeshed in the temporal projection of its possible outcomes.

Berson’s epistemological view is embodied in his use of the term “boro,” which refers to a patching technique used in Japanese textile manufacture. Rather than lay out a comprehensive vision of adaptation for survival, he remains committed to an epistemological humility, a refusal of what he terms the “dimensionality reduction” that is typical of solution-based recommendations. The “patchiness” of his boro approach stresses the multiple time horizons at work simultaneously in human behavior and its environmental consequences. Attention to the “skills reservoir” that is able to be maintained and passed on through various modes of knowledge transmission comes as close as Berson is likely to get to any recommendations arising from his analyses.

Berson’s values are shaped by his self-confessed aspiration to live like an epiphyte, a plant that exists without dirt, synthesizing its metabolic needs from air and light. This aspiration, along with his description of only possessing belongings that fit into two knapsacks, has a romantic tinge that he is fully aware needs qualification. To live in such a way requires some means, but also dependence on the work of others who maintain structures, houses, rooms, and systems. The appeal of such an existence is its light footprint, mobility, and lack of encumbrances. But Berson is not a naïve romantic, and his discussion of the current vogue for “de-cluttering” and a “minimalist” existence is sharply insightful with regard to the extent to which such longings are a manifestation of First World privilege, where shedding the excesses of affluence is itself a luxury.

Ultimately, Berson argues that we cannot afford to conceive of environmental change as external to human behavior and physiology. Berson’s analysis of the transmission of knowledge and behaviors, of cultural patterns of adaptation and even maladaptation, and his commitment to thinking bodies and behaviors as integral to the systems and infrastructures that intersect in the material world, is richly detailed. What becomes clear is that a technologically enabled, consumerist approach to environmental crises will not work. That conclusion feels absolutely right when it comes to conceiving of adaptations for survival — not to mention pointedly pertinent to the patterns of daily life in Los Angeles.


Johanna Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies and Distinguished Professor of Information Studies at UCLA.