“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

On my recent visit to the Galapagos Islands, naturalists were abuzz with worry about global warming. What would become of the islands’ wildlife if their environments change? Paradoxically, it was the Galapagos Islands that helped Charles Darwin answer similar questions in 1835. The volcanic islands were colonized by flora and fauna, mostly from mainland South America. Their resulting adaptations exemplified how species can endure diverse conditions.

One example is the Galapagos giant tortoise. South American tortoises got swept into rivers and then out into the Pacific Ocean, where they floated in the current and eventually washed ashore in the Galapagos (yes, apparently tortoises float). Even though conditions vary dramatically across the archipelago, tortoises managed to colonize a dozen islands. Those living in wet, grassy areas evolved short necks and rounded shells suitable for a life of grazing. Those on arid islands adapted long necks and saddleback shells, enabling them to stretch upward to eat cacti.

Tortoises hold nothing on human beings, who are the masters of adaptation. Even before modern technology, humans managed to carve out niches in every environment imaginable, from the Arctic to the hottest desert. Harnessing energy has been a crucial element of human advancement. The chart below (psu.edu) illustrates the dramatic evolution of fuels over the last two centuries:

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We went from a world in which most everyone burned wood to one dominated by coal, which was then surpassed by oil. Since then, natural gas and nuclear power have become major contributors. Renewable energies such as solar and wind also are growing in the background.

Many factors contribute to energy preferences, including access, efficiency, price, storage, convenience – and our environment. Chernobyl and Fukushima raised concerns about nuclear power, curtailing its growth. London’s Great Smog of 1952 served as a catalyst for Britain to transition away from coal. China is experiencing similar air quality challenges now, where coal accounts for about two-thirds of its energy mix. Like Britain, China is responding – investing about $80 billion a year on cleaner energy. I witnessed this urgency first-hand two months ago at the Asian Energy Summit in Shanghai, where a parade of speakers offered ideas to accelerate the switch from coal to shale gas (link to my Chinese shale proposal). Such changes illustrate the extent to which energy preferences can evolve.

For centuries, alarmists have proclaimed that the world will run out of food or energy, or be ruined by pollution. Yet it was not the United Nations that saved us from catastrophe. Rather, millions of individuals did it in the background, through changing habits and countless innovations. From recycling (which has surged to more than 30% of garbage) to hydraulic fracturing (which unlocked immense reserves of clean-burning shale gas), there is every reason to be optimistic about our future. Doomsayers wrongly assume that human preferences are static. Moreover, no one can model the impact of technology yet to be invented.

While the climate delegates are toasting their brilliance in Paris, individuals everywhere are already solving their problems – gradually and incrementally. The Chinese philosopher Laozi long ago observed that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The latest climate change forecasts will be thwarted again because they underestimate the hidden power of billions of people taking a few steps. As Darwin argued, “we are always slow in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps.” The good news is that the world will keep striding forward no matter what happens in Paris.

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About the Gaille Energy Blog. The Gaille Energy Blog discusses innovative proposals in the field of energy law, with a new issue being posted each Friday at http://www.gaillelaw.com. Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of two books on energy law (Shale Energy Development and International Energy Development).