Bounce Forward: Building Resilience for Dangerous Times

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Neil Cummings
What is resilience, really? Island Press defines the concept as “the capacity of a community to anticipate, plan for, and mitigate the risks—and seize the opportunities—associated with environmental and social change."

When Superstorm Sandy came ashore in 2012, thousands of New Yorkers were plunged into what seemed like an earlier century. No lights. No heat. No refrigeration. No elevators. On the upper floors of high-rise apartment buildings, the taps went dry and toilets would not flush.

For the poorest New Yorkers, this went on for weeks. Less than a mile from the seat of global capitalism where stock traders were back at work soon after the storm, residents of public housing rifled through dumpsters full of discarded food looking for something to eat.1

Sandy was many things: a disaster that cost hundreds of lives and billions of dollars, a wake-up call on climate change, and a reminder of the fragility of the systems that hold our civilization together.

It is a reminder we would do well to heed. We live in a time of wrenching change and widening inequality; of growing vulnerability to disaster. The good news is that there is much we can do to make our communities stronger, fairer, and more resilient. That does not, however, mean “bouncing back” to the status quo that got us into this mess in the first place. Instead, it means bouncing forward to a world that is more sustainable and just.

The New Normal

It’s safe to say that we’ve never been here before. While change is a constant in natural and social history, the pace, scale, and impact of change today is utterly without precedent.

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Reeve Jolliffe
Manhattan’s West Village experienced a blackout in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Part of that change is environmental, reflecting our wholesale transformation of the natural world. Over the last half century or so, human beings have altered the planet’s ecosystems more than in all of previous history combined—clearing forests, diverting rivers, replacing the riotous diversity of nature with uniform monocultures. Those changes have improved the lives of many, but they have weakened nature’s ability to protect and sustain us in the long term.2-4

Most ominously, we are changing the climate. Through industry, agriculture, and the business of daily life, humans have increased the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent above pre-Industrial Era levels, trapping heat and warming the planet.5 The impacts are increasingly visible: in monstrous storms and devastating droughts, in spiking food prices, and wrecked infrastructure. Climate-related disasters in North America have nearly quintupled since 1980.6

On our altered planet, the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. Temperature records are broken on a regular basis and “hundred-year storms” arrive every few years. October 2015 was the warmest in recorded history by a wide margin—a record that may be broken again by the time you read this. And 2015 is shaping up to be the warmest year ever.7

As the planet warms and climate disasters multiply, there are more people in harm’s way than ever before. The global population has tripled in the last hundred years, with most of that growth taking place in coastal areas that are exposed to rising sea-levels.8,9

At the same time, our world is rocked by enormous technological and social changes. More than any previous generation, we are connected by dense global networks of commerce and communication. Those networks can accelerate the spread of innovation, information, and opportunity, but they can also spread disaster. For example, the financial crisis that began in 2007 was triggered by risky mortgage lending in the United States, but in an interconnected global economy, its impacts continue to reverberate around the world. Other threats—from Ebola to terrorism—can easily hop a plane and go from local to global overnight.

The complex systems that keep our lights on and our refrigerators full would have dazzled our agrarian ancestors—but they are surprisingly vulnerable. For example, Big Food’s globe-spanning supply chains are easily disrupted and its vast monocultures susceptible to drought and disease.10 The electrical grid is ridiculously fragile. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, if saboteurs or disaster were to destroy just nine substations and one transformer manufacturer, “the entire United States grid would be down for at least 18 months, probably longer.”11 A massive solar storm, similar to one that occurred in 1859, could take down the grid and interfere with essential electronics—putting the world as we know it on indefinite hold.12

In the face of these new and sobering risks, all people are not equally vulnerable. That’s because we live in an era of stark and growing inequality. The richest one percent of the world’s population lays claim to 46 percent of the world’s wealth; the bottom half—some 3.5 billion people—together possess less than one percent of global assets.13 Not surprisingly, the poor bear the brunt of climate and other disasters.14 In this unequal world, the affluent seize opportunities and shield themselves from harm, while the poor face greater risks with fewer resources. These dynamics are self-reinforcing: the rich get richer while the poor fall farther behind.

Defining Resilience

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Pembina Institute
Humans have increased the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent above pre-Industial Era levels.

In these turbulent times, the concept of “resilience” has growing appeal. Lately it’s been the subject of serious books and breezy articles, of high-minded initiatives and countless conferences. After Sandy, it was triumphantly plastered on city buses, declaring storm-ravaged New Jersey “A State of Resilience.”

But what is resilience, exactly? Recently, Island Press—a nonprofit that provides ideas and information on environmental problems and solutions—set out to answer that question. To that end, we reviewed relevant literature in the natural and social sciences and interviewed dozens of scholars, activists, and practitioners. Based on that inquiry, we define resilience as “the capacity of a community to anticipate, plan for, and mitigate the risks—and seize the opportunities—associated with environmental and social change.”15

Resilience is an idea with potentially transformative power. The need to protect our communities from climate impacts and other threats asks us to rethink the systems that supply our basic needs. It asks us to live within planetary limits and to avoid further destabilizing natural systems. It asks us to eradicate the inequities that magnify vulnerability to disaster, and to distribute opportunities more fairly—so that all people have a chance to adapt and thrive in a fast-changing world.

But the transformative potential of resilience is far from assured. Too often, resilience is defined narrowly as a community’s capacity to “bounce back” after a disaster. For example, the self-declared “State of Resilience” rebounded after Sandy by building even bigger houses on the Jersey Shore.16,17 Bouncing back to a status quo that degrades the environment, increases greenhouse gases, and widens inequality will only make us more vulnerable in the longer term.

Here, we offer an alternative path—a framework for communities to consider as they endeavor to become more resilient to the shocks and surprises of the future. This framework is neither definitive nor universal; it is best seen as a jumping-off point for communities to begin their own conversation.

Ask–Analyze–Act

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The process of building resilience is not value-neutral; decisions about what to protect and strengthen reflect deeply entrenched values and power structures. Should public funds be used to build seawalls around Wall Street or to put solar panels on a housing project? The first step is to ask what in the community must be strengthened, against what threats or changes, and for whose benefit.

The next step is to analyze the systems that supply a community’s needs. Resilient systems and communities have certain characteristics in common:

  • Diversity: A system with diverse components will have a wide range of responses to change and is therefore unlikely to fail all at once. This is why a healthy, mixed forest is less vulnerable to fire or disease than a tree farm. Similarly, a city with a diverse economic base is less vulnerable to economic upheaval than one that relies on a single industry.
  • Redundancy: A resilient system has multiple ways to perform basic functions, so that the failure of any one component does not cause the entire system to crash. For example, a multimodal transportation system that includes a variety of public transit options as well as opportunities for walking and bicycling will weather disruptions better than a system that relies wholly on automobiles.
  • Modularity: Modular systems that can be self-sufficient when disconnected from larger networks will fare better in times of change. For example, people living in a city with a robust local food culture (nearby farms, a farmer’s market) will be less likely to go hungry if there is a disruption in national or global supply chains. Modularity allows a community or system to manage its connectivity to larger regions and the world; it is a way to guard against “contagions” from a hyper-connected, globalized economy.
  • Tight feedbacks: A resilient system has tight feedbacks, allowing it to quickly detect changes in its constituent parts and respond appropriately. If a reservoir is low, for example, water conservation measures may be put in place. But in today’s globalized economy, consumers may be thousands of miles away from the source of resources on which they depend—so feedback loops go slack. Inequality also weakens feedbacks, as affluent communities routinely outsource production and pollution to poorer ones.
  • Social capital: For an individual, social capital is about relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. In communities, social capital can be measured by levels of trust, cohesion of social networks and the quality of leadership. In a disaster, social capital can literally mean the difference between life and death.18 Resilient communities build social capital with public spaces that encourage interaction and with traditions and institutions that enable neighbors to help one another.
  • Agency: Resilient people have a sense of control over their destiny; resilient cities fully engage their citizens in decision making. Fundamentally, agency is about power: personal and political. Strategies to build agency include community organizing, education, public health and society initiatives, and civic engagement.
  • Equity: Equity means that opportunities—and risks—are equally shared. It is a building block of social cohesion—the sense that “we’re all in it together” that enables communities to cooperate in times of disaster. And equity improves performance on a broad range of human development indicators—physical and mental health, public safety, social capital—that form the bedrock of individual and community resilience.19
  • Inclusiveness: Inclusive social institutions—economic, political, and cultural—can strengthen resilience at every level, by increasing social capital, agency, and equity. In an inclusive society, power and opportunity are shared broadly, not concentrated in the hands of a few. Inclusive governance has practical benefits. For example, it tightens feedback loops so that problems are more readily detected, and it expands the depth and diversity of knowledge available for problem solving.
  • Innovation: A resilient system generates novel responses while learning and adapting to changing conditions. In nature, this is accomplished by evolution. In human society, it requires innovation—the ability and willingness to try new things. The capacity to innovate derives from the qualities described above. A diverse system generates more novelty than a monoculture; in social systems, innovation often comes from the margins. An inclusive society is better able to engage the agency and creativity of all of its citizens. And tight feedbacks provide timely and accurate information about changing conditions, which is essential for appropriate innovation.

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Dianne Cordell / US Department of Agriculture
A farmer’s market in Glen Falls, New York. A robust local food culture builds a city’s resilience in the face of potential disasters.

Finally, communities must act by protecting, restoring, adapting—and, if necessary, transforming—the systems on which they depend. Building resilience in complex systems may require all of the above.

Take, for example, the electrical grid, which, as noted above, is staggeringly vulnerable to disruption. A more resilient grid requires persisting—urgent action to protect vulnerable links in the chain. It also requires adapting—measures to make the grid more redundant and modular, as some are doing now. For example, Co-Op City, a housing complex in the Bronx, kept their lights on during Superstorm Sandy with a microgrid that disconnected temporarily from the larger system.20 But ultimately—given the limited supply and disastrous climate effects of fossil fuels—the existing electrical grid must be transformed to one that relies instead on a diverse array of renewable power sources.

Resilience requires a holistic view: focusing myopically on the system at a single scale, or managing for a single outcome, is likely to yield surprises from unanticipated feedbacks. So managing resilient communities begins with an understanding of systems and their functions at many scales, from many perspectives. And, it calls for a certain amount of humility; an admission of what we cannot know.21

To avoid a narrow focus, interventions to build resilience can try to solve more than one problem. For example, energy efficiency in affordable housing can help low-income people save money on utilities. It also makes homes more habitable during power outages, so that residents can shelter in place during a disaster. And it reduces energy usage, mitigating climate change and improving air quality and public health.

There are many other such win–win solutions. For example, the Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland are employee-owned, for-profit companies—laundry services, urban farms, and renewable energy—whose green jobs pay a living wage and enable workers to build equity. Because Evergreen is linked to the supply chains of the city’s anchor institutions, it helps keep financial resources in the community. Evergreen builds resilience by protecting workers from the vicissitudes of the global economy and also by protecting the ecosystems on which the city depends.22

Bounce Forward

Facing an unknowable future, we can build resilience with win–win strategies like distributed, renewable energy; local food; and greater social equity. These strategies will help protect our communities from a broad range of disruptions, and help create a world that is more sustainable and just.

Resilience, in essence, is about strengthening our connections to the natural world and to one another. We may live in cities, divorced from nature, but we are not exempt from nature’s laws. To survive and thrive in these disruptive times, we need to reconnect to the values that enabled our species to overcome hard times through the millennia.

Those values were out in force after Superstorm Sandy, when “Occupy Sandy” mustered volunteers to provide food, clothing, transportation, generators, and other vital assistance to storm victims. One Occupy supporter summed up the group’s philosophy: “We’re all in this together, so let’s help each other out.”19