It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Resilience Meanderings

"Sustainability" is a useful concept, but so is resilience.

The interesting new book The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon talks about resilience of complex societies as one of its themes.

I've recently added Resilience Science to my blogroll over yonder ---> It has a lead story on drought right now. (More Canadians. Hmmm....)

Currently its contributors are members of Resilience Alliance (RA), a research network of scientists and practitioners from many disciplines who collaborate to explore the dynamics of social-ecological systems. Key RA concepts include resilience, the adaptive cycle, and panarchy. The RA works to develop a practical theoretical foundation for a sustainable civilization. The RA develops sustainability science along three paths:

  • Contributing toward theoretical advances in the dynamics of complex adaptive systems
  • Supporting rigorous testing of theory via: participatory regional case-studies, adaptive management, minimal-modelling, and the use of scenarios and other qualitative modelling tools.
  • Developing guidelines and principles that will enable others to assess the resilience of coupled human-natural systems and develop policy and management tools that support sustainable development
And John Fleck has something to say about the R-word in a recent article in the Albuquerque Journal:
Our growing population and resulting increasing water demand also leave us vulnerable to natural dry spells. And in the West, the tree ring record shows those dry spells can be severe and very long lasting.

A friend who lives in Colorado made an interesting point last week. Colorado went through a similar experience in 2002— a bad drought made far worse by the increased demands of a growing population.

"Colorado society is less resilient than in the past," my friend said. "Georgia society is also less resilient than in the past, not more. You'd expect that an advanced society would become more resilient over time. Instead, we're moving backward."
So what does it all mean, Mr. Natural? Exactly why are we moving backwards?

Let me recommend another book, probably more highly than I'd recommend anything else I've read lately. That would be Jared Diamond's Collapse. Read the book, or if you only want to put in an hour, watch the movie. I always think the tail, er sorry, tale, of the Easter Islanders is the most instructive part of that remarkable work.

The Easter Island statue ideology worked very well for a long time. It was only at the point of its peak success that it failed. People failed to see that what had brought them so much joy and prosperity in the past was exactly the same as what would bring them tragedy and devastation in the future. The thing became peculiarly elaborated as people lost sight of their circumstances and focused idiotically on the symbols that had helped them triumph in the first place.

We are madly confusing the symbols of our prosperity with the thing itself, driving ourselves into a frenzy of production and consumption when our circumstances call for laziness, above all, laziness. I recently heard an Important Person (more on this shortly) mention, in the context of the petroleum quandary, that people demand mobility.

I disagree. People want resilience. People want comfort, security, respect, joy and love. We set up a society where achieving some semblance of these things requires frantic motion. People become ridiculously attached to their vehicles because they can no longer imagine a world which is not dreadful without them, but there's no biological imperative for mobility (or, similarly, for gainful employment) any more than there is a biological imperative for giant black igneous rock heads.

There is surely a biological imperative for resilience, which translates into the desire for wealth or gigantic igneous heads or something.

What we need is an explicit quest for global resilience. There's enough nasty stuff heading down the pike from our predecessors' actions without us adding to it our own selves. We need to set things up so our individual desires move the society toward less, rather than more consumption.

It's a tall order, put that way. Imagine a president running for re-election on a platform of "Four More Years of Peaceful Economic Decline!"

1 comment:

Dano said...

Our society is so divorced from the natural world that we wouldn't know resilience if it hit us on the head. I get lots of blank looks when I inject resilience into sustainability discussions (people don't understand that either). We're moving backwards because of this lack of knowledge, and our society in general is not sustainable.

Best,

D