Why is resilience so important? While it’s nearly impossible to foresee and plan for every future event, there are attributes that can help a person or system to better adapt to any change, and find fulfillment in the vast range of circumstance that the world tends to offer. Because the impact of change on our lives often depends on the gap between our expectations and our reality, one could go so far as to say that lack of resilience is one of the key causes of suffering, whether starvation and disease in the wake of overtaxing the environment, or economic depression in the wake of over-sold debt. I worry we’ve created a culture and social structure that undermines the resilience of our selves, our communities, and our broader environment. While this blog will look at specific constructive responses in the future, the positive principles discussed below can offer a general set of ideas to begin applying in our day-to-day lives.
This is the second of a three part series on resilience, concentrating on the factors that contribute to the resilience of a system. The first part (on ecological resilience) you can find here.
It is impossible to separate our own resilience from the resilience of the communities of which we are a part. While personal equipoise and strength can overcome many of the obstacles around us, economic crises, famine, war, strife and more subtly the decline of values and knowledge that support our own personal resilience can have profound effects on our lives. More positively, our communities provide our best hope of tackling large problems, and creating a sound foundation for resilient and happy lives.
What is social resilience? I’m going to get a bit theoretical, so bear with me. In general, I think of social resilience as the ability of a society to maintain or reassemble it’s primary functions and benefits as the world around it changes. Like the way we ride a bicycle, society maintains its overall balance by making all kinds of small adjustments as conditions change. However, in the same way that once we tilt too far to one side on our bike, the cyclical forces at play turn from stabilizing to de-stabilizing, and we crash. In this sense, I think it’s most useful to think of resilience as the range of conditions a society can face wherein its self-stabilizing cycles continue to function.
I think all of this is easier to take in graphically. In the pictures below, the green line (1) is the “maximum inputs”, ie. the best conditions an environment can provide if everything is working perfectly—so the most fresh water the system can generate, the most sun, the most energy, the most food, the least disturbance in weather or geology, the most technological innovation, fully-functioning financial systems, maximum demand for products produced by that society, etc. The red line (2) is the “resilience threshold,” the minimum state of conditions under which a society can maintain its functions (beyond which self-reinforcing cycles drive it to chaos). The gap between these two (3) is the system’s “structural resilience”, ie. the range of conditions under which the society will maintain its self-stabilizing functions. Finally, the black line (4) is the conditions themselves as experienced by the society, which can be thought of most importantly in terms of its “variability”, ie. how much these conditions tend to differ from one period to the next. An important part of this variability is that because the conditions the society faces are an aggregate of different interacting pieces, the variability of the overall conditions the society faces will be less than the variability of the individual pieces—ie. a society that has multiple ways of producing food would see less variability in its conditions even if the weather is bad.
I think this model is useful for visualizing the resilience of a society. For example, below is what a modern high-tech, high complexity society would look like under this model. In this kind of society, maximum inputs are extremely high because technology, complex coordination and significant physical capital allows for exploitation of wide range of resources (think massive offshore oil platforms, city-sized fishing boats, the ability to blow the top of mountains for minerals, etc.) These characteristics similarly make for an objectively high-demand but stable use of inputs—complex societies allow for the transfer of food and energy across vast distances, rapid and widescale responses to disasters, etc. However, this apparent stability and the history of continually increasing ability to generate inputs also leads the resilience threshold to rise precipitously—the fabric of modern society nearly collapsed over an entirely self-generated financial crisis with no actual external change. Similarly, dependence on very high amounts of energy for every activity and a high degree of specialization (discussed below) means a drop in inputs that could not be met could very easily lead to self-reinforcing disorganization.
Non-Resilient High-Tech/High Energy/High Complexity Society
While I’ve found its often fashionable amongst a certain strain of environmentalist to see low-tech societies in a positive light, it ignores the high rate of collapse amongst low-tech agriculture societies or more recent examples (such as the hundred of thousands of people dead in flooding in Bangladesh or the earthquake in Haiti, relative to a handful dead in similar incidents like Hurricane Andrew or the San Francisco quake in the US.) In the case of this kind of society, though lower complexity and a greater history of subsistence makes for a lower overall resilience threshold, weak institutions, high dependence on foreign demand or capital, and limited access to technology make for a similarly low max input level and a high variability in experienced conditions.
Non-Resilient Low-Tech Society
That said, for some low tech societies like Bhutan, some hunter-gatherer groups, or newly founded ecovillages based on permaculture, limited reliance on external capital and demand, combined with a high degree of awareness of natural functions and community cohesion, can allow for a relatively higher max input and low variability of conditions while having an even lower resilience threshold than other types of “poor” societies.
Resilient Low-Tech Society
The most resilient type of society may now be available to us for the first time in history, by combining some of the knowledge and capital gained during the industrial build-up of Western society with the de-centralization, integration with natural cycles and high community cohesion of a low-tech resilient society.
The Holy Grail of Resilient Societies
With this model in mind, how do we move toward that holy-grail of resilient societies—ie. high max inputs, low resilience threshold, and limited variability? Below let’s take a look at the specific elements that determine them.
Determinants of Max Inputs
Using Everything as a Resource
Preservation and Dispersion of Knowledge
Determinants of Resistance Threshold
Redundancy and Decentralization
Conservative estimates about the future
Determinants of Variability
Limited reliance on a single resource
Limited demands on the surrounding environment relative to what it can provide
Determinants of Max Inputs
Using Everything as a Resource
For most of human history, max inputs was fairly simple. The sun shone at a certain rate, plants turned that energy into storage at another, and humans could use the energy they got in turn for a fairly narrow range of activity. This put pretty strict limits on how fast and how far we could travel, the kinds of structures we could create, and pretty much anything else anyone wanted to do. Then someone noticed that a horse could do a whole lot more with that energy than a human could. It’s important to see that this change was a psychological one—a recognition of the way that something previously viewed as unknowable chaos could in fact be a part of human order. Windmills, watermills, even ramps (as a way to utilize gravity as a resource) are all examples of ways to harness this expanded recognition of what’s usable.
The rapid expansion of fossil fuel use, while radically expanding what we can physically access, appears to have inadvertently pared back what we can access with our minds. During our travels, we met a man who meets nearly his entire diet from foraged greens, fruits and nuts—and this is in England, where most of the productive forests were entirely wiped out. With a little bit of training, the green blur of foliage becomes a buffet and a medicine chest—an example of how maximizing available inputs does not need to imply heavy machinery. Taken from a broader perspective, the ability of natural systems to rapidly break dead matter into building blocks usable for life, to self-regulate water and clean the air, is so astronomical that we seem to ignore it. Incredible work is being done right now to use mushrooms to clean up chemical spills, wetlands to clean sewage, bamboo to literally grow bikes, or simply using the abundance of forests to meet our need for food with minimal work. Similarly, everything we consider waste, from our bodily elimination to our disposable products, could be with a bit of creativity, transformed from a problem to another resource that would expand our max capacity, and hence our resilience. That said, it would be dangerous to ignore the extraordinary power that fossil fuels have presented, nor to ignore research into new sources of energy in the name of simplicity. We’ve won the world’s biggest energy lottery—we should be thinking about how to invest it, not how to spend it.
It’s important to understand that from a resilience perspective, the expansion of usable inputs is only effective insofar as it is not used to further expand demands. The invention of clothing and fire (expanding the max input of heat) would give greater resilience to humans living in a temperate area, allowing for survival in say, a particularly cold winter. However, it also allowed humans to expand into hitherto unlivable areas—even so far as to cross the Bering Straight during the last ice age. For those people, clothing and fire was a source of new dependency, rather than resilience.
Preservation and Dispersion of Knowledge
While technology is often thought of in terms of gadgets, it is better conceived of as the ability to make those gadgets, along with everything else that we use. Even if all the physical capital in the world were wiped out, some amount of rebuilding would be possible insofar as the know-how remained. Much of the decline in living standards during the last stages of the Roman empire occurred as a result of the loss of knowledge—for example, around literacy, math, running water and sanitation. The preservation of this knowledge in select monasteries and successive Arab empires laid the groundwork for the revival of more complex urban centers during the Renaissance. Taking this example, the problem of long-term knowledge preservation cannot be considered only in terms of storage, but more critically in terms of distribution and use.
While the success of the scientific method in terms of creatively adapting to physical laws colors our view of technology and the knowledge behind it, the universal aspirations of physics and experimental science more generally is not the only kind of knowledge. Local societies all around the world have intensive knowledge of their local environment in ways that are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter or master to apprentice (don’t believe me? Go have a pizza in Naples). Knowledge of local plants and animals, as sources of food, medicine and clothing, underlay the ability to create a surplus throughout most of human history. Much of this knowledge came about through careful observation combined with trial and error. Because every place is different, nor every system easily broken down into controllable variables, this kind of knowledge is an essential companion to more recent scientific advances in contributing to our overall “max inputs”.
The internet is incredibly exciting as a means of improving the storage and dispersion of this kind of knowledge, particularly in its open-source/wiki incarnations. I think it is hard for people of my generation (having grown with the internet) to truly appreciate its power. The ability to instantly access meaningful local information, niche how-to instructions, see our specific questions answered via forums, or even entire courses via Khan Academy or the increasingly large online lecture structure, is a revolution. It may seem like a truism, but I still think it’s worth emphasizing that the ability to share information or learn new skills cheaply and across great distance automatically improves the resilience of every society that has access to it, and represents one of the most hopeful pieces of our current civilization. I try to remember that every time I’m looking at cat memes on Reddit.
Determinants of Resistance Threshold
Redundancy and Decentralization
One of my favorite South Park episodes involves the widespread shutdown of the internet, which turned out to have stemmed from the jamming of a massive modem under the Rocky Mountains, that needed to be restarted. Much of what was funny about it is that the internet really doesn’t work that way—a distributed network of servers provides the “backbone” on which the internet is based. This decentralized structure is what gives the internet its resilience—there is no place you can go to shut it down.
A similar principle applies to society. It seems common sense that a town dependent on a single doctor will be in trouble when that doctor gets sick (or, more tragically, when that doctor is involved in a multi-car pile-up). Of course, its often impractical to have more than one specialist—but are there ways to duplicate the functions? Imagine that doctor as part of a regional network of doctors, supported by people with training as EMTs, able in a pinch to access a network of instructions and information (or video chat with a specialist) via the internet. Even better, add a high level of health and emergency knowledge to every person in the town so that those crucial first minutes of a stroke or heart attack are recognized.
True redundancy requires not only this type of dispersion, but decentralization. In other words, it doesn’t help much to have a number of doctors, EMTs, and informed citizens if they all ride around in one van together. Similarly, the resilience of your new medical response network won’t be much improved if it relies on a single dispatcher. A researcher for the Rand Corp, Paul Baran, studied the link between decentralization and resilience in the 1960s, in an attempt to understand what kinds of communication networks could withstand enemy attack. His research found that a distributed network was by far the most resilient, and similar research has applied the same model to the distribution of power and water. He made a graphic representation that I think makes the point well.
The danger of centralization was demonstrated painfully during the US financial crisis. Decades of de-regulation, culminating in the repeal of the Glass-Steagal act, led to the consolidation of millions of small regional banks into the massive banking giants that have become household names today—JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Lehman Brothers. The argument at the time was that their size and consolidation made them more resilient—that failure in one region could be offset with profits from another. While on one level this may be true, it also set the groundwork for systemic collapse, as problems in one part of the bank set up the entire bank for failure, and because of their massive size within the economy, they became “too-big-to-fail” without disrupting the rest of the system. True redundancy, which assumes limitations on centralization, would have helped to prevent the collapse, and certainly eased the clean-up. In fact, Canada, which has much less centralized and more highly regulated banks was one of the few countries whose financial systems emerged relatively unscathed from the crisis. Centralization similarly led to the rapid collapse of Tzarist Russia during the Russian Revolution—the concentration of imperial bureaucracy in St. Petersburg (and the lack of significant civic structures elsewhere) made it relatively easy for a group of students to seize the country. As the US military has discovered, distributed networks of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved a much more resilient target than Saddam Hussein’s conventional Bagdhad based army.
The idea that humans, put into a state of crisis, will inevitably revert to Hobbesian chaos and selfish destruction has been rigorously debunked. More often, doors are opened, volunteers assembled, and care the rule of the day (though obviously there are exceptions). Whether it’s on a large scale, such as the estimated million people who took part in the clean-up in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, or a local response, such as the 49 out of 50 people saved from the rubble of the Loma Prieta quake in California by 8 nearby construction workers, community spirit and mutual care is the glue that keeps us together when problems appear. Much has been written on social capital and resilience, linking it to everything from better disaster response, better health , economic vibrancy and lower crime and corruption .
The idea of social cohesion can of course be thought of on a broader scale as well. Much of the breakdown of the western Roman empire occurred as the army was progressively converted from farmers to slaves, as inequality and corruption in the empire took a toll on the existence of this “middle class”. The end of this process saw individual officers and patrician families splitting off from the rest of Roman society into armed estates that formed the basis for the feudal economy of the oncoming Middle Ages. Revolutions throughout history, from France to the US to Cuba, Iran and most recently Egypt, have typically been precipitated by significant schisms in the living standards and culture between the bulk of the population and the ruling elite. One of the original works (from 1377) called the Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun noted that the life cycle of civilizations often followed the rise and fall of “asabiyyah” or group-cohesion, which is high in nomadic societies, whose ability to help each other and overcome obstacles eventually leads them to conquer larger empires whose citizens have become detached and uncooperative (at which point they become the stationary empire, and the cycle starts over…) If we don’t trust each other and share our lives, we’re not only miserable—we’re weak. When discussing concepts such as income distribution or labor mobility, such notions as community cohesion rarely enter the equation. Perhaps it should.
My fiance’s grandmother comes from another world—one in which moldy-bread was said to be good for your teeth to encourage the children to eat it, nearly half the children died before their first birthdays, and war was a daily reality. Coming out of this hard world, she comes equipped with a radically different skillset than I do, raised on the boom of 90s and the effortless mechanization of the world around me. She can raise, kill and clean her own food, cut, dry and weave her own wool, make soap and all manner of small remedies. If a real crisis hit, the kind where the two days of food on a super-market shelf are insufficient, I am comparatively ill-equipped to do much about it. Now I’m imagining adding all of my friends to the mix—raised on take-out, elaborate theory and ipods. The sad truth is we wouldn’t last long.
Of course, personal resilience encompasses more capabilities than just knowledge. A survey by the University of New Orleans on hurricane evacuation plans found that over 100,000 New Orleans residents (many of whom lived in the areas that experienced the worst social meltdowns) had no means to evacuate: no car, not enough money for a bus ticket, no friends or family who could help them. I’m going to go ahead and guess that a hurricane hitting the Hamptons would have a different effect.
If a system momentarily weakens or breaks down, if the individuals within it are hardy, they can rebuild. A community of weak individuals, unable to provide for themselves or others, unskilled, unhealthy and unhappy, will always struggle, even with some of the other elements in place—but should the system that supports them falter, even for a moment, it cannot be rebuilt, because the people that are a part of it cannot live even a short while without it. A resilient community depends on the resilience of its members. More actively, a resilient community will foster it. Education, health, mobility—by giving these things to our neighbors, we ensure a stronger neighborhood for ourselves.
Conservative estimates about the future
Say you’re planning to go to the airport. It’s about twenty miles from your house, so without traffic it takes about twenty minutes to drive. Then of course there’s checking your bags in, if there’s no line, that’s about ten minutes, then security, again, with no line, another ten. How long before your flight boards do you leave? Would you leave forty minutes before? If the flight is important I know I certainly wouldn’t—there could always be traffic (so maybe forty minutes for the drive is more reasonable) and everyone knows how much of a mess security can be—often when you would never expect it. The more of a buffer I build into my decision, the more “resilient” I am to changes in the world—traffic, closed streets, construction, incompetent check-in agents, a guy ahead of me in the security line transporting hundreds of small liquid-vials of different sizes, etc.
The same principle applies to society, and is one of the driving principles of financial collapse. In the run-up to the Great Depression, excitement about a rash of new technologies (electrification of the countryside, greater adoption of the automobile, improved manufacturing technology) initiated a speculative boom in the stock market, which shot to ever greater heights as people made ever more optimistic assumptions about the future (and whose collapse ushered in a larger breakdown of the entire financial system). The same phenomenon occurred in the 90s, as valuations were attached to companies like “pets.com” to the point at which they would have needed to grow (as a single company!) to larger than the entire current economy to break even. This type of fever often feeds on itself—in the run-up to the most recent financial crisis, banks and speculators looked at data series often as short as three years to form ever-more optimistic assumptions about how likely they were to be paid back on loans, leading to the creation of the now “toxic” subprime assets—which at the height of the bubble were often given out as “NINJA” loans, bank-speak for No income, No Job, No Assets. We know how that ended. Similar dynamics led to the current problems in Europe, as the idea that a euro lent to Greece was the same as a euro lent to Germany led to massive debt booms in the countries of the southern Mediterranean that don’t produce enough to pay it off. One of the leading theorists on financial crises, Hyman Minsky, goes so far as to say that periods of relative calm literally lead to crisis, as memories of the last crisis fade and increasingly ebullient assumptions lead to the extension of more and more bad credit on easy terms (which in turn sustain the illusion of calm growth).
Assumptions about growth are in fact the basis of our entire modern financial system. Your bank account that you think of as “money” is in fact a loan to the bank, which the bank intends to pay back with the loans it makes and the assets it buys (this is why financial crises can escalate so quickly—when people talk about Greece defaulting on their debt, it means average Greek citizens could lose life savings invested in deposits at the banks that own it). Banks can create this money at will—you go to get a loan for a house, the bank approves the loan, and increases your account by the amount of the loan, which then gets paid to the person you’re buying the house from. It may be a hard concept to wrap your head around the first time, but all money under our current sytem is in fact a form of debt. And what is debt but an assumption about the future growth of the overall economy? In this sense, the entire edifice of modern finance (including the retirement investments, home and student loans that determine the shape of many people’s careers and lives) is predicated on the concept that the economy—everything we produce every year, will continue to expand infinitely. For many large financial firms, it is assumed that the growth of the US over the past hundred years (around 1.5% a year taking out inflation) is the “steady-state” of the economy, and a reasonable assumption for any large country over long periods of time.
The question is—is that assumption, built on the peculiar history of the past few hundred years in the West, the financial bubble of them all? Growth is typically presented as an automatic feature of economic life, that we just get smarter and produce more with the passage of time. History, however, presents a much more complex picture—one of empires rising and falling as they exceed the ability to produce food from their land (and overextend themselves with debt), of great centers of learning like Alexandria rising up and disappearing, of entire regions experiencing relative calm growth for a few centuries (the Sumerian and Babylonian Empires in the Middle East, the Roman Empire in Europe, the Han Empire in China, the Omek, Mayan, Aztek empires in the Americas) before dissolving back into village subsistence. As Clive Pointing writes in his Green History of the World, most of modern human history (ie. ignoring the 2 million years of relatively unchanged conditions leading up to the past ten-thousand) has been an arms race between population and food production, with larger populations and more complex societies pushing into less fertile areas and resorting to conquest to temporarily support their growth, then being pared back by disease and famine. As opposed to the view of history as a upward-squiggle towards some ever more beautiful future (a relatively new idea introduced in pieces in Victorian England and the Enlightenment, and implicit in most recent perspectives of history), the reality of much of human experience has been one of testing and returning to a series of natural limits.
Through this lens, the countries of Europe were largely able to break out of this paradigm via two mechanisms—colonialism, which allowed countries to bypass their food limits by passing the problem to their colonies (England was importing nearly all its food as early as the 1800s, while its primary food-producing colonies saw a regression in living standards), and novel ways to turn stored energy from the sun (coal, and then oil) into usable energy. These fossil fuels in turn (oil in particular) were then used to find novel ways to grow more food as colonialism began to break down, a process which ushered in the “green revolution” that famously staved off Thomas Malthus’ and his later imitators predictions of famine. Oil can be considered a form of ecological debt—millions of years of the earth’s saved energy. One barrel of oil is equal to about ten years of human labor—it is difficult to separate what we consider the miracle of economic growth from the massive explosion in energy use during the past two hundred years. Thus far we have not shown the ability to produce meaningfully more in our economy without drawing down on this account—and the assumption that we can continue to do so (or that the technology fairy will save us, to cop a term from Paul Krugman) is built into the financial and social architecture of our daily lives.
To return to our airport analogy—our approach relative to history is the equivalent of waking up twenty minutes before we need to arrive at the airport, begging for money on the corner and being given all of it by a terminally ill philanthropist, finding a taxi across the street for the first time in the neighborhood, high-tailing it to the airport with zero traffic, and discovering not a single person in the security line to get in our way. Yes, it happened once. Probably not a good idea to count on it.
Determinants of Variability
Limited reliance on a single resource
Imagine if tomorrow there was no oil. There’s the first order effects that you couldn’t drive to work, but nor would there be food on the super market shelves for more than two days, or anyone who knew how to grow more. Our houses would be unheated, all our goods suddenly impossible to manufacture, because they relied on plastic parts, or the energy needed to run the machines that made them could not be provided, or the supply chains that brought the pieces together or took them to market no longer moved. Oil is unlikely to disappear tomorrow, but it could become much more expensive, and the thought exercise above gives a sense of just how deeply dependent our society has become.
Nor is this idle speculation. In Ireland, the arrival of the potato in 1570 seemed like a godsend—it contains nearly all the vitamins and minerals needed to survive and is easy to grow and store through the winter. Over 65 years (1780 to 1845) the potato allowed the Irish population to double, from 4 to 8 million, and by that point one third of the Irish population was entirely dependent on the potato for all of their nutrition, and with few other ways or skills to sustain themselves. When the potato blight hit, starvation and disease led to around 1.5 million deaths (around 18% of the population) and another million in emigrants.
Similar tragedies have occurred throughout Africa, Latin America and India as Western colonial powers, corporations and aid organizations pushed farmers to switch from varied subsistence crops to cash crops, first for consumption in colonial home markets, and more recently under the supposedly beneficent mandate of “development”. When the crops failed (often because growing single crops over a large area results in disease and soil erosion) or the global market price dived, mass-starvation occurred in areas that were previously self-sufficient. This phenomenon in turn leads to the creation of the massive slums (with their resultant safety and hygiene catastrophes) on the outskirts of the rising megalopolises that serve as shrines to specialization.
This principle applies similarly to societies dependent on any single form of producing value. Detroit was famous for its reliance on the automobile—nearly every element of the economy, from its advertising, insurance and real-estate to its bartending was in one way or another dependent on the American car-manufacturing behemoths. As these companies withered (and shipped their jobs elsewhere) Detroit’s population shrank by over a million people—over 60% of the population from its peak. The exodus has left behind a wasteland of empty houses where perhaps one old pensioner or family left behind does their best to carry on. The city government has now put in place a plan to eliminate over 50% of Detroit’s streetlights to complete the process of abandonment
Modern economics would have you believe that labor mobility or transfers from a central government makes this an issue not worth thinking about, but this seems naïve in the extreme. When a community’s ability to create value is lost, what goes with it? Anyone who’s ever moved knows the stress, cost and often pain—not to mention the waste (furniture and household goods dumped only to be repurchased in bulk upon arrival, when the economics of shipping are unfavorable). What about a whole town? Do the elderly, familiar with the streets, knowledgeable about the local community, up and leave along with the young workers that keep the town afloat, departing for unfamiliar places at costs beyond their control? Do the friendships, projects, loves and lore, similarly disappear? Are those left behind, unable to move for reasons of age, disability, or money, meant to disappear as well? This kind of death is neither fast nor easy, and often destroys far more value along the way as crime and desperation escalate alongside it. Nor is the mobility without environmental cost—land ruined and discarded, half-built or abandoned houses with heavy chemicals and piping set into the ground, met on the other side by extreme stress on water or fertility in the areas of ostensible economic boom, along with the emissions and related pollution of transporting all of the goods to these increasingly overbuilt centers of economic power.
Over-reliance on a single crop or resource can allow an economy or population to grow far beyond the general limits of a system—which often looks great when those conditions remain in place. But when those conditions change, that reliance becomes a nightmare. How often do we seek efficiency—or more accurately, the creation of a society perfectly suited to the circumstances and resources that exist in a single moment—over meeting our basic needs in the most resilient way possible?
Limited demands on the surrounding environment relative to what it can provide
The people of Easter Island created a complex society within a remarkably barren world—an island with no fresh water, poor soil, and few animals to speak of, supported a society of around 7000 people capable of quarrying, carving and erecting 20 foot tall (and 30 ton) stone statues and moving them wherever they wished. Both the difficulty and secret of this feat was transportation- which the islanders achieved using felled trees as rollers to move the statues into position. Because the statues were the primary indicator of a chief’s status, competition to build ever larger and numerous statues increased, leading, over a few hundred years, to the complete deforestation of the island. With the trees gone, the soil washed into the sea, leaving the islanders unable to grow the sweet potatoes on which they depended, nor build their houses or the canoes which they used to fish (or escape), nor have fuel to cook. When Europeans arrived in the 1800s, they found a population of 3000 people, living primarily in caves, dependent on cannibalism and barely capable of spoken language. A society can undermine its own resilience by placing ever greater demands on the environment that supports it.
Similar dynamics have led to the collapse of advanced societies throughout history. Nearly all of the major empires of the fertile crescent (Babylonians, Akkadians, Sumerians, etc.) ultimately starved to death as their need for increasingly massive irrigation projects to feed their military and religious elite led to the rising of the water table, which deposited increasing amounts of sodium on the top layer of soil, transforming one of the most fertile areas of earth into a desert of white salt. Through history invading armies were known to salt the fields to prevent anything from growing—in the case of all these early empires, they chose instead to do it to themselves—in effect declaring war on their own children.
The ability to employ fossil fuels has led to this type of self-warfare on a level the Sumerians could never have dreamed. The massive aquifer that supplies fresh water to much of the population of China is close to going dry (after taking millions of years to fill), while a similar phenomenon is taking place with the aquifer that supplies water to the main agricultural regions of the US. In some sense, global warming represents the ultimate example of humans undermining their own resilience on a massive scale. In this case, the overwhelming of a specific environmental service (the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon and the ability of plants to recycle it) creates the foundation for environmental destruction at a global level, meaning that unlike past crises, there’s nowhere to go.
Overwhelming demands on the surrounding environment don’t need to take the obvious form of outputs like food or water. Much of the damage of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans came not from the hurricane but from the structure of the city—approximately 50% of the city (making up much of the worst-flooded areas) lies below sea level, requiring large man-made levees whose failure during the hurricane is regarded by most researchers as one of the critical features of the disaster. In this sense, it’s important to visualize environmental dependence not just in terms of resources, but in terms of the deviance from the environment’s “stady-state” and the needed human intervention required to maintain that deviance. Anyone who’s ever driven into Las Vegas knows the eerie way it rises from the desert sands—a phenomenon now repeated across much of the southwestern US and in Middle Eastern megalopolises like Dubai. Building cities below sea level is a good way to end up with a flood, while building them in a desert is a good way to end up with a drought (or starvation, if the ability to import food is ever exhausted). Similarly, as discussed in our last post, building a food-system around mono-crop fields that nature desperately wants to turn into a diverse forest is a good way to end up with famine.
Modern humans lived for over 2 million years (up to about 4,000 years ago) in nomadic gathering tribes, working approximately two days a week to feed and clothe themselves (based on research on the few remaining gathering groups living in Africa and Oceania). This stability and abundance was possible because these societies placed minimal stress on their environment—they had few goods, did little in the way of clearing the land, and were often on the move, allowing the area to recover. Under this arrangement, drought, fire, and other natural disasters were relatively easy to deal with—there was often enough to go around anyway (since the demands were already limited), and should conditions deteriorate further, the group would move. Obviously such a life is no longer possible and it seems to me to be a somewhat silly question (given our modern lens) as to whether it would even be desirable. But what we do get a glimpse of is what a resilient society does and does not look like. When we live on the edge of what an ecosystem can provide, we gamble our future on the ingenuity of our scientists to create something from nothing. Disaster, man-made or otherwise, becomes a question of famine, war and death rather than one of deprivation or flexibility.
Alternatively, designs which reinforce the natural ecosystem make disasters both less likely and less severe. The Green Belt Movement, founded by Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, encouraged Kenyan women to plant trees to rebuild the soil and watersheds of their local areas. Since 1977, over 40 million trees have been planted, which has resulted in the reclamation of significant amounts of land that had turned to desert. Trees, by virtue of their roots, anchor the soil, preventing landslides and erosion, while their trunks act as windbreaks, while they recycye the carbon our industry (and lungs) produce. In this sense, every tree is it’s very own disaster prevention system. Beginning to design our societies, from our homes, transportation, food and industry, to align with natural cycles, rhythms and surpluses, presents a forward looking path toward greater resilience in the context of our modern lives.
Imagine a kingdom, ruled by the iron-fist of a drunken king. Vassals come and report a drought, he laughs and asks for more wine. Another comes with reports of barbarians massing on the border, and the drunken king beats him and sends him away. It will not be long before famine and war arrive on the doorstep of the capital, and the drunken king and the society he rules are unlikely to survive. Anecdotal stories from Germany during World War 2 suggest that some of Hitler’s largest strategic errors were a function of his officers’ fear of reporting bad news, and similar dynamics, of poor reporting, limited information, or the inability to act on information given often constitutes the basis of many major crises that could have been averted. Feedback, ie. a system’s ability to incorporate and distribute incoming information, is key to resilience.
Hurricane Katrina provides a particularly poignant example of the need for communication in acute disasters. As Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense in the US said, poor communication was the primary culprit of the wider societal meltdown and slow response during Hurricane Katrina. Institutional firewalls led to the military waiting four days to send in any real force, whereas the coast guard, which was more empowered to respond to conditions on the ground, was fully mobilized. Communication between state and local authorities was so bad in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, that engineers sent to fix communication infrastructure were often unable to get past police blockades, while search and rescue teams from nearby areas remained undeployed because of lack of administrative approval. Meanwhile, the collapse of the physical communication infrastructure, in this case phone towers and back-up generators thoughtlessly placed on the ground floors in flood zones, meant that local actors within the city itself were unable to coordinate or understand what was going on.
Feedback need not be limited by poor communication alone, but by an inability to observe the information in the first place. Marie Antoinette’s famous pastry-based dismissal of the starving French peasantry can be thought of as a form of feedback breakdown. Similarly, in our modern economy we rarely see the consequences of our consumption—for most consumers in the wealthier parts of the world, it is always someone else’s river polluted, someone else’s mountain strip-mined, someone else’s children working 18 hour days in a factory, someone else’s famine and civil war from eroded soil. All of these problems, which are quite often the direct consequences of consumption, blend into the constant background noise of hurricanes, tsunamis and wars that feature daily in the newspaper and as such become abstractly unfortunate but really someone else’s problem. In this sense, broader instabilities can build in ways that the individuals responsible cannot viscerally understand, and thus will not avert.
As discussed above, the participant/consumer structure of the internet along with its decentralized structure presents a meaningful hope for how feedback can be improved. Multiple media studies have found that news shows up far sooner on Twitter than traditional news outlets, and with less susceptibility to manipulation (as the Arab spring bore witness). At the same time, this participant generated media has opened up the possibility for distant consumers to better see the consequences of their actions, though it’s unclear whether that feedback will ultimately be used. Combining this production/consumption function with cellphone networks has shown itself as a powerful feedback generator—Indian farmers now share information about seeds, best practices, market prices, and disasters without having to rely on rickety and time consuming transportation infrastructure. The greatly improved nature of feedback is one of the most hopeful signs of how modern development can improve resilience, rather than deplete it.
Looking across these dynamics, it’s hard to ignore the sharp contrast between the contributors to social resilience and the values often prized in our modern system. Efficiency, optimization, specialization are often the buzzwords of the day. This is not idle theorization—these values are rapidly replacing more resilient forms of social life across the world, from villages in rural Africa and China to the close-knit towns of Europe and the US. None of these are easy questions—it may well be that the capabilities gained from technological innovation or the build-up of physical capital gives us a greater ability to respond to crises than they undermine via the system necessary to create them. In other words, a program of radical economic simplification started in the 50s likely never would have seen the birth of the internet, which may ultimately offset the damage inherent in its creation. Nevertheless, if we want to create resilient communities for ourselves and our children, understanding and prizing what contributes to that resilience (and what does not) is a good place to start. We may even find that a society that’s more resilient can be more beautiful too.