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What is Resilience?

What is Resilience? By Chris Chaney Resilience: capacity of a system to experience shocks while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedbacks, identity, without shifting into a different regime. ( One of the key components of the Transition Movement is the effort to build local resilience. You probably are familiar with the word, but what does "resilience" mean in the context of Transition, and why is it important? It's hard to deny that there is turmoil in the world. To try and deny that we affect and are affected by that turmoil is unwise and an effort to ignore the plain truth. We all see gas prices fluctuate wildly as a result of political, economic and environmental turmoil. Whether those fluctuations are based on real factors, or speculative shenanigans, the reality is the effect of socio-politico-economic stressors on our lives are real and perceptible to all. Our participation in the global economy also affects those factors as we perpetuate the refinement or manufacture of goods and services by casting our economic votes at them. Western foreign policy, which favors Western economic beneficiaries, drives much of the political and economic activity in the world, at the expense of the poor of the world, both foreign and domestic. The expenses exacted from the poor include declining environmental conditions, reduced availability to affordable and healthy food, scarcity of clean and adequate water supplies and social oppression from various sources. It sounds as if I am describing conditions in Sub-saharan Africa, but these conditions exist in American cities and towns with increasing frequency. Let us not deceive ourselves by saying bad things cannot, and are not, occurring in our own backyards. A recent Bloomberg article ( by Max Abelson, while at first seeming to have been mispublished from the Onion, addresses the financial trials of wealthy Americans. Its hard to sympathize with people who are bemoaning the the reality that their kids will no longer be able to attend a posh private school while your own children have no option except public schools; while even that option is becoming to expensive for you and your family. However, the fact that the wealthiest Americans are feeling painful economic pressures is a disturbing indicator that our economy is in distress. No one has been spared the bumps and bruises doled out by the Great Recession. The poor have less margin for error in economic matters. So it seems as if the wealthy could scale back and remain resilient in the face of the turmoil of the modern world because of their greater financial flexibility. But what of the poor and what of those who refuse to scale back? Resilience comes in many forms, and through conscious efforts to make oneself, one's family and one's community resilient we can all persist beyond the current trials. To do so we must understand the truth of the matter, and we must move forward with purpose toward a goal of resilience. We must let go of what E.F. Schumacher calls a "predatory attitude which rejoices in the fact that 'what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us.'" Wisdom, in the context of resilience, comes from being able to discern between needs and wants and being able to let go of the wants when the prohibit the acquisition of those things we need. To refuse to sacrifice wants for needs is unwise and destroys your innate resilience. Another definition of the word resilience is this: ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; (© Random House, Inc. 2012) "The ability to recover from...adversity;" this is what I want to discuss. Two things we need to define for the purposes of this discussion are: 1) the unique adversity we face today; and 2) what is meant by resilient recovery . I will also address our ability to recover. There is no point in delving into the other two issues without examining whether or not we still have the ability to turn things around and begin rebuilding our confidence and sufficiency as a community of people: local, national, and global. I keep using words like "turmoil," "trials," and "adversity." Some would argue that there is nothing wrong with the current state of affairs, especially in the Developed World. I choose not to address those arguments at this time. My purpose is not to refute that particular notion because I believe the majority of people are rational and can see the truth of the matter. We've had to take off our shades because the future doesn't look quite as bright as it once did. Mankind is testing the limits of carrying capacity of the earth. My Christian beliefs don't allow me to accept that humanity is capable of omnicide (self-destruction of a species), but I do believe that social and environmental calamity is possible. History shows that massive die-offs are both possible and factual. Millions of people have died since the dawn of time due to plagues, natural disasters and human caused wars and societal collapses. There is nothing Biblical, nor of the temporal realm, which precludes the possibility of catastrophic population die-offs as a result of human action. We live on a finite planet. It is a sphere unconnected by any physical bridge to another such world. The finite nature of our Terran home implies hard limits to how much we can grow in population, technology, economics, and within our own ecosystem. And, as Wendell Berry writes in his Harper's essay "Faustian Economics:" "We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one." And as the late Ray Anderson repeated often in his book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist there "there [is] no place called 'away' for throwing things." If we continue to take raw materials and turn them into single serving utensils bound for our exploding landfills we risk our very health and quality of life. If we continue to burn fossil fuels as the current rate we "threaten civilization," but (continuing in the words of E.F. Schumacher) "if we squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself." We cannot continue to convert nature into garbage. Again, looking to Wendell Berry as he concludes the aforementioned essay: “Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity.” Mr. Berry is describing the choice to embrace Transition and to seek resilience as a preventative mindset, not merely a survival instinct in the face of calamity. We can find ourselves resilient in the midst of an apocalyptic nightmare, but how much better to practice resilience in the relative comfort of our modern framework before we face a post-apocalyptic landscape? The adversity we face in our world today seems to primarily be economic in nature, but if we look deeper we see that the root of our current "financial" crisis is in fact in a scarcity of resources, particularly energy resources, and not necessarily because of some fictional numbers in some Wall Street ledger. As our energy needs increase, our access to finite sources of easy and cheap energy (fossil fuels) becomes more dear and, as well all know, dearness begets an increase in value. I will not delve into the tangential exploration of the hows and the whys of our resource scarcity. That is a study in itself. So for the time being, let's agree that the adversities we face are related to energy supply and production, and ultimately the economics of energy and the vast implication of said economics, and then move on to the next factor in our resilience equation: recovery. We hear a lot about "recovery" from the talking heads. From a medical standpoint, recovery would be considered a return to health. And this is a good thing for an organism in distress. However, we would never consider the recurrence of cancer after a period of remission as a recovery. And yet, the arguments that are being made and the assurances we are being given in regards to a return to our previous prosperity reflect just that sort of situation. To return to pre-2008 conditions would be a return to a terminal decline of our socioeconomic health as a species. On the other hand, recovery is a necessity at this point in human history. We must return to social, economic and environmental health. But we must set our sights on health, and not growth. A mature organism ceases to increase in size, ceases to grow beyond certain physical limits, and yet those with the most vested interest in our corporatist system would have us believe that encouraging a cancer to grow would serve us best. We must change the thinking, and the collective assertion, that we can simply return to business as usual without any kind of sacrifice or consequence. It was Albert Einstein who said: "Problems cannot be solved by the same thinking used to create them." If we haven't learned, and incorporated into our vision for ourselves, the reality that exponential growth is dangerous to our very civilization then we are doomed, not only to repeat the economic arrhythmia of 2008, but to exceed the damage tenfold in the near future with greater catastrophe. If we are to "recover" from our recent and current societal maladies we must look to a time when humanity had not yet exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth, and to scale back our consumption and development to sustainable levels. Recovery will come with costs. Those costs may be difficult to swallow at first glance; once they're accurately tallied. Finally, do we have the ability to recover? If we have lost the ability to recover from our adversities then we are not resilient, and we cannot become resilient through any force of will. The only way to accurately ascertain the truth of the matter is to look back once adversity is overcome. That's not the most palatable answer for most. If it's too late then why make the effort and further expend energy that could be divert towards personal survival, right? Our ability to recover is also rooted in our ability to agree on what our true challenges are, and what the answers to those challenges should be. If we cannot work together as small communities, nations and as a species toward a singular vision of how humanity can live sustainably, then our destiny lies in catastrophic population controls. Our world is not immune from war, famine, plague and natural disasters which can, and most certainly will, thin the herd, so-to-speak. If we do not begin, today, making an effort to increase our chances of overcoming both past trials and the adversity yet to come then we may forever lose the ability to recover fully. We must attain true sufficiency—not self-sufficiency, because to prevail against looming realities we must work together—in order to ensure that humanity can sustain a global civilization for our heirs. And short of that success, we must work diligently in our own communities, and with our closest neighbors, to increase the chances that our places and our peoples will persist no matter what travails come our way. That is not to say that communities should build walls and refuse to cooperate with other communities in their region and around the world. The best strategy to see the most people living resilient lives must start first with individuals working toward their own self-interests, then working toward community interests and finally working toward global interests. This is not a difficult process to understand, as they are all inextricably linked across all levels. What truly benefits the needs of the individual, absent of greed and envy, benefits the community and the world. A resilient community is made up of resilient individuals working toward a common goal. I am certain that our local resilience is not yet lost. I have hopes that the US, and other Developed countries, as well as the global community, can rally around the pressing issues of Peak Oil, climate disruption and economic tribulation while the ability still exists to do so. Resilience is useful.


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