Forget Sustainability, Adopt Resilience [opinion]

For decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” – interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change – have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”. This is the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet and with one another.

It is an alluring and moral vision and, in a year that has brought us the single hottest month in recorded history, a Mid-western drought that plunged more than half the US into a state of emergency, a heat wave across the eastern part of the country powerful enough to melt the tarmac below jetliners in Washington and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, it would seem a pressing one too.

Yet today, precisely because the world is becoming so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, non-governmental organisations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience. This is based upon the premise of how to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems to persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Whereas sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

It is a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centres on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high stress circumstances.

For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure – much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures, but fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages. Combating those kinds of disruptions is not just about building higher walls it is about accommodating the waves.

For extreme weather events, that means developing the kinds of infrastructure more commonly associated with the Army: temporary bridges that can be “inflated” or positioned across rivers when tunnels flood, for example, or wireless “mesh” networks and electrical micro-grids that can compensate for exploding transformers.

We will also need to use nature itself as a form of “soft” infrastructure. Along the Gulf Coast, civic leaders have begun to take seriously the restoration of the wetlands that serve as a vital buffer against hurricanes.

The resilience frame speaks not just about how buildings weather storms, but about how people weather them, too. Here, psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists are uncovering a wide array of factors that make you more or less resilient than the person next to you: the reach of your social networks, the quality of your close relationships, your access to resources, your genes and health, your beliefs and habits of mind.

Based on these insights, researchers have developed training regimens, rooted in contemplative practice, that are already helping first responders, emergency room physicians and soldiers to better manage periods of extreme stress and diminish the rates and severity of post-traumatic stress that can follow. Researchers at Emory University, United States, have shown that similar practices can bolster the psychological and physiological resilience of children in foster care. These tools will have to find their way into wider circulation, as we better prepare populations for the mental, and not just physical, dimensions of disruption.

There is a third domain where resilience will be found, and that is in big data and mobile services. Already, the United States Geological Survey is testing a system that ties its seismographs to Twitter when the system detects an earthquake, it automatically begins scanning the social media service for posts from the affected area about fires and damages.

Similar systems have been used to scan blog postings and international news reports for the first signs of pandemics. And “hacktivists” are exploring ways to extend the power of the 311 system to help people not only better connect to government services, but also self-organise in a crisis.

In a reversal of our stereotypes about the flow of innovation, many of the most important resilience tools will come to us from developing countries, which have long had to contend with large disruptions and limited budgets. In Kenya, Kilimo Salama, an insurance program for small-hold farmers, uses wireless weather sensors to help farmers protect themselves financially against climate volatility.

In India, Husk Power Systems converts agricultural waste into locally generated electricity for off-grid villages. And, around the world, a service called Ushahidi empowers communities to crowdsource information during a crisis using their mobile phones.

None of these presents a permanent solution, and none roots out the underlying problems they address. But each helps a vulnerable community contend with the shocks that, especially at the margins of a society, can be devastating. In lieu of master plans, these approaches offer diverse tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation and creativity – before, during and after a crisis.

As wise as this all may sound, a shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation – a word that is still taboo in many quarters. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.

In a perfect world, that is surely true, just as it is also true that the cheapest response to a catastrophe is to prevent it from happening in the first place. But in this world, vulnerable people are already being affected by disruption. They need practical, if imperfect, adaptations now, if they are ever to get the just and moral future they deserve tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable.

But the world does not work in that way it exists in a constant disequilibrium – trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it is the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That is why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions. They carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.

Resilience takes this as a given and is commensurately humble. It does not propose a single, fixed future.

It assumes we do not know exactly how things will unfold that we will be surprised that we will make mistakes along the way. It is also open to learning from the extraordinary and widespread resilience of the natural world, including its human inhabitants – something that, counter intuitively, many proponents of sustainability have ignored.

That does not mean there are not genuine bad guys and bad ideas at work, or that there are not things we should do to mitigate our risks. But we also have to acknowledge that the holy war against boogeymen has not worked and is not likely to anytime soon. In its place, we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive – rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.

Andrew Zolli Is the Executive Director of Poptech, a Non-Profit That Catalyses Social Impact.

Source : Addis Fortune

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