Resilience. You may not have heard much about it, but brace yourself. You’re going to hear that word a lot in the future. It is what we have too little of as our world slips into unpredictable climate chaos.
“Resilience thinking,” the cutting edge of environmental science, may someday replace “efficiency” as the organizing principle of our economy.
Our current economic system is designed to maximize outputs and minimize costs. (That’s what we call efficiency.) Efficiency eliminates redundancy, which is abundant in nature, in favor of finding the one “best” way of doing something — usually “best” means most profitable over the short run — and then doing it that way and that way only. And we aim for control, too, because it is more efficient to command than just let things happen the way they will. Most of our knowledge about how natural systems work is focused on how to get what we want out of them as quickly and cheaply as possible — things like timber, minerals, water, grain, fish, and so on. We’re skilled at breaking systems apart and manipulating the pieces for short-term gain.
Think of resiliency, on the other hand, as the ability of a system to recover from a disturbance. Recovery requires options to that one “best” way of doing things in case that way is blocked or disturbed. A resilient system is adaptable and diverse. It has some redundancy built in. A resilient perspective acknowledges that change is constant and prediction difficult in a world that is complex and dynamic. It understands that when you manipulate the individual pieces of a system, you change that system in unintended ways. Resilience thinking is a new lens for looking at the natural world we are embedded in and the manmade world we have imposed upon it.
In the world today, efficiency rules. The history of our industrial civilization has essentially been the story of gaining control over nature. Water-spilling rivers were dammed and levied; timber-wasting forest fires were suppressed; cattle-eating predators were eliminated; and pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics were liberally applied to deal with those pesky insects, weeds, and microbes that seemed so intent on wasting what we wanted to use efficiently. Today we are even engineering the genetic codes of plants and animals to make them more efficient.
Too often we understand the natural systems we manipulate incompletely. We treat living systems as if they were simple, static, linear, and predictable when, in reality they are complex, dynamic, and unpredictable. When building our manmade world on top of those natural systems, we regularly fail to account for inevitable natural disturbances and changes. So when the “unexpected inevitable” occurs, we are shocked. Worse, we often find that we have “all our eggs in one basket,” and that the redundancy we eliminated in the name of efficiency limits our options for recovery. This applies to manmade systems, too.
Our efficient energy and food systems are perfect examples of how monolithic and brittle our infrastructure can become. Political turmoil in the Middle East, storms ravaging offshore oil wells, refinery fires, terrorism, and any number of other easily imaginable, even inevitable disruptions send gas prices soaring and suddenly our oil-dependent economy is pitched into a crisis. Because there is no readily available alternative to how we fuel our way of life — no resilience — our dependence on fossil fuels leaves us especially vulnerable to crisis. Our food system is likewise vulnerable, since it is so dependent on oil-based fertilizers and pesticides and relies on cheap and consistent supplies of gas for farm machinery and shipping.
Redundancy — alternative energy sources, for example -– would have left us options to fall back on in a time of such crisis. We did not develop those options, however, because they weren’t considered “competitive.” That is, if one energy source is cheaper to produce than others — ignoring, of course, all the associated and unacknowledged environmental and health costs — then that is the predominant energy source we will use to the exclusion of all others. Decades ago, oil and coal were cheap and so we constructed an entire energy infrastructure around those resources alone. (Nuclear squeaked through the door only because it was so heavily subsidized by government.) Solar and wind couldn’t compete according to the rigid market criteria we applied, so those sources hardly exist today. We are still told that we will get them only when they become more competitive.
Our focus on efficiency in building manmade systems has been short-sighted because it fails to anticipate change over the long run. Resiliency is eliminated at each turn by owners, managers, and planners steeped in the cult of efficiency and trained to cut out profit-reducing redundancy whenever it appears. In organizations, this usually works well — at least for a while. But our attempt to maximize the use of natural systems has, in this regard, been an unmitigated disaster.
Most of the technological means we use to overcome nature’s inefficiencies seem clever and beneficial until the long-term drawbacks dawn on us. In the Northwest, for instance, dams seemed like a great way to produce electricity and make rivers navigable until, that is, the salmon began to die and an entire Northwest ecosystem that depended on salmon began to unravel. Until they broke under the power of Hurricane Katrina, the levees in New Orleans seemed to be a neat alternative to those messy coastal wetlands and inconvenient barrier islands we had wiped out for keeping storm surges in check.
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