The devastation caused by hurricane Sandy has given rise to a lot of thinking and discussion about the vulnerability of our civilization to the impact of destructive environmental events. The term "environmental event" describes a range of natural disasters that can cause widespread physical destruction, loss of life, and social disruption. Certainly, major storm events and floods like hurricane Sandy fall under this definition. But the concept also includes the extensive droughts that we've seen in the Midwest this summer, as well as wildfires, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. To be sure, some of these environmental events are the result of massive geological processes over which our human civilization has no control – volcanoes and major earthquakes are clear examples. It is more clear that severe weather events, like hurricanes, hot spells, and droughts, are at least partly the result of climate instability that has been brought about by human-induced global warming. The significant and growing number of destructive environmental events raises serious issues about how we might better cope with these events as they arise.
In the aftermath of hurricane Sandy there has been a lot of talk about the "resilience" of our complex social and physical structures in the face of major disruptions. Resilience is a very appealing concept. It intuitively suggests the ability to bounce back quickly and resume normal functioning after suffering a major disruption or shock. Resilience has long been an important concept in thinking about psychological health, and there is an extensive body of theory about how resilient people develop techniques to cope with all the many inevitable stresses and disasters that they face in their lives. Building on these concepts, there is now a lot of thinking going on about how we can make our society's institutions more resilient, so they can better cope with disaster and bounce back quickly to normal functioning.
What can we learn from the concept of resilience, and how resilience thinking can help us to better prepare for large-scale, disruptive events over which we seem to have no control? Resilience can best be understood as a systems concept. Increasing climate instability has raised serious concerns about maintaining all those institutions and structures which provide the basic functions that support our civilization. These systems supply us with housing, food, water, heat light and power, transportation, communication, medical care, and waste removal. A disaster like hurricane Sandy vividly demonstrates that our society cannot long survive without these basic services. Our basic support systems rest on a foundation of structural elements – that is, things like buildings, roads, vehicles, and all the interconnecting pipes and wires that provide us with our essential services. These structures operate as an interconnected system by supporting the flow of materials, energy, and information that provide their essential functions. It is clear that electricity must flow through the wires, natural gas through the pipes, and gasoline through the service stations, in order for modern city life to function at all. So the problem of coping with environmental events is first, how to keep these systems working to keep a large population safe in the face of a major destructive impact; but then, second, how to arrange the system so that they are resilient – that is, so that they can bounce back and resume normal operation quickly after the event.
There are several ideas that can be applied to improve long-term resilience of our social and economic systems. One approach is to create multiple pathways that can be used to provide essential goods and services. For example, a communication system is more resilient if it consists of multiple channels. A communication channel between two people that consists of a single wire is not resilient; you might say that it is "brittle," because if the wire is cut, the system breaks, and communication stops. On the other hand, if you can establish multiple communication channels, then one or more of these channels may be cut and communication can still take place. The concept can be easily extended, for example, to the provision of food. If all food comes through a very narrow channel of distribution to your local supermarket, and that channel is cut , you have the makings of an emergency. You could make your food provision system more resilient by creating other channels for the provision of your basic foodstuffs. These might include storage of food that can sustain you for short periods during an emergency. Alternate pathways can also be created by developing a community food system where neighbors undertake to supply food collectively to all members of the community. Then, if one person is hit particularly hard, others can supply them during the period of emergency. Many people are also increasing the resilience of their household energy systems by purchasing generators or portable heaters. These measures are very helpful during a short-term emergency; in the long run, they depend upon the ready availability of fossil fuels, which is one of the critical problems during a widespread and long lasting crisis. The most resilient pathways are those that don't rely at all upon fossil fuels, such as lots of insulation in the house, and daylighting for essential tasks. Building resilience by creating multiple pathways obviously requires thinking ahead. The pathways won't be there when the emergency strikes unless we have thought about the essential features of the system that might need to be replaced when disaster strikes.
A second idea that improves system resistance is "bend don't break." This approach can be applied to individual structures that may have to withstand hurricane force wind or earthquake shocks, by making them less rigid, or by designing them to deflect the force of wind and water. On a wider scale we could seek to make the housing system as a whole more resilient, by not building houses and other essential structures in places where they have to withstand major environmental impacts. Obvious danger areas are the coasts, river flood plains, and fire-prone Western forests. The approach of "bend don't break" consists rather dramatically with the current popular approach, which is to harden the system so that it can better withstand the impact. Hardening may consists of projects like building dikes and seawalls, or beefing up the physical strength of structures so that they can stand the pounding of wind and waves. In fire-prone areas, the housing system can be hardened by building fire resistant structures, but also by investing in large scale fire fighting equipment. Hardening can work in the short run, but as it is expensive, and, from a long-term point of view, it requires constant ongoing costly maintenance. And in the long run, hardening always fails in the one big disaster that we never thought would happen. The resilient approach is to anticipate the coming impact and adjust the system structure so that it doesn't directly resist the impact of the event.
Another way to apply "bend don't break" is to create a system that absorbs and dissipates energy rather than bearing the brunt head on. The clearest examples of this are shown by the function of coastal barrier islands, sand dunes, and wetlands in dissipating the energy of wind and storms from hurricanes. This lesson was learned rather dramatically during hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where the loss of wetlands allowed storm wind and water damage to penetrate much farther inland. On the East Coast during hurricane Sandy, much of the damage was caused in areas that were completely exposed to the energy of wind and waves, without the protection of sand dunes or coastal wetlands. Another good example of dissipation is provided by a system of storm water management that consists of a distributed network of swales, wetlands, and infiltration ditches that allow storm water to spread out over a wide area and infiltrate into the ground, as compared to a storm water system that funnels all water from impervious pavements and rooftops into a system of pipes drains it away as quickly as possible. When the pipes are quickly overwhelmed during a major storm event, the system proves itself to be brittle, and major flooding occurs.
Another important consideration that can make a social system more resilient is the strength of the communication and shared learning among members of the community. A community can be more resilient if it builds and supports a strong network which includes people who have diverse backgrounds, skills, tools, and equipment. In times of crisis it is extremely useful to know who is a good electrician, plumber, carpenter, or who has good medical skills. If people are isolated, they are much less able to deal with system breakdowns. Local skill building can acknowledge that a certain amount of top-down help and support is important, particularly in crisis situations that are limited in area, and where resources from outside can be brought in to help. However, as the area that is impacted by an event gets larger, it is necessary for the people within the impacted area to become more self-reliant. This means a much higher level of dependence on the network of existing skills and abilities that can be brought to bear. Local support networks are particularly important during large scale and long lasting events, as we have seen in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.
The study of natural ecosystems offers another interesting perspective on how we might react more sustainably to destructive environmental events. It is clear that natural systems are frequently disrupted, and frequently devastated, by a variety of possible environmental events, not unlike the events that disrupt our human society. These events include hurricanes and floods like Sandy, and also wild fires, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, floods, disease, and invasive species. In the face of these onslaughts, the normal functioning of ecosystems is seriously disrupted or even destroyed. What happens in nature, however, is not necessarily a "bounce back" form of resilience in which the ecosystem returns to its previous state. Disruption opens opportunities for new species and new patterns of behavior that may completely change the ecosystem functioning. Ecologists refer to these radical changes in reaction to disruptive environmental events as "reorganizations." Life goes on, but in a different form. New community structures arise, and new species flourish. The critical idea here is that there is no inherent process or drive that tends to return an ecosystem to its previous state after significant disruption. Rather, organisms adapt by using available resources to develop a whole new range of structures and relationships that are more successful under the new conditions. We might learn from this observation by stepping back a little bit from our natural determination to return to a world that we may have lost after an environmental disaster. The best approach may not be to direct all our efforts towards reestablishing "business as usual." Perhaps our future would be more secure if we took a close look at ways in which we could reorganize our destroyed communities along lines that are more adaptive, rather than rebuilding them on a failed model.
Scientists tell us that destructive environmental events are likely to become more common. There is a very reasonable probability that we are entering into a period of our civilization that has been characterized as a "slow emergency." The ongoing march of global warming, together with the destruction of natural systems, and resource depletion, all threaten to bring about many more large-scale environmental events that disrupt or largely destroy the systems that we have created to support our economy and our well-being. Some of these events may be major storms and droughts, but some of them may be slower and more insidious, like the loss of species, decline of agricultural productivity, slow sea level rise, or the spread of new pandemic diseases. All of these threats are much more damaging to human systems that are very rigid, and which require the maintenance of fixed structures and constant flows of energy and material. In preparing for the large-scale, slowly developing environmental of events that seem to be on the horizon, we can improve the functioning of our support systems by paying attention to these four approaches for improving resilience: 1) create multiple pathways, 2) apply "bend don't break" thinking, 3) build strong community networks of essential skills, and 4) before rebuilding after a disaster, think about reorganizing the system. To cope with the very real likelihood of major damaging environmental events, we must think much more about how to build resilience into all of our systems, including food, water, transportation, communication, and housing. Can we learn how to absorb the shock of change, bend and adapt, but not break?