It takes more than growth and development for a city, an economy or an ecosystem to flourish—it takes resilience.
Baal,Van,Mark | September 2010 issue
Biloxi is gone. That’s what Toshiro Kida, a 21-year-old graphic design student at Yale University, thought when he arrived in the Mississippi coastal town during the summer of 2005. After watching Hurricane Katrina sweep across the Gulf Coast, he and a friend got in the car and drove 2,500 miles to Biloxi. The two students were scandalized and angry at the U.S. government’s lethargy. “I wanted to help out,” explains Kida.
He was shocked when he got there and saw the damage from the hurricane. “It reminded me of the photos I’d seen of Hiroshima in 1945,” he recalls. “Everything was leveled. It was impossible to navigate because there were no landmarks.”
Katrina hit Biloxi, population 50,000, on August 29, 2005. Eighty-six people died. Incredulous that such a thing could have happened in the world’s richest, most powerful country, Kida volunteered to help out. He worked at a first aid station and later pitched in to clean up some of the wooden houses that had grown moldy after the waters receded.
Kida stayed in Biloxi for six months. While he was there, he noticed that some neighborhoods recovered quickly while others languished. The areas where residents had stuck around—against the authorities’ urging—bounced back fastest. House by house, residents cleaned up. Working in teams, they carried ruined furniture out to the street and washed the mold from every chink. Meanwhile, most other neighborhoods had either lost their inhabitants to refugee camps elsewhere in the country or left reconstruction to the government. Little progress was being made in either case. Kida observed the same process in New Orleans, where he went after his stint in Biloxi. There, too, he saw big differences in how fast neighborhoods recovered. The Vietnamese community centered around Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church, under the leadership of pastor The Vien Nguyen, came home, fixed up the neighborhood, and picked up where they’d left off. Nguyen wasted no time repairing the church and starting to hold mass again to let everyone know the neighborhood was back in business.
Residents contacted utility companies and got electricity and running water back on in advance of people in other areas. “The centrality of the church to the community has been instrumental in this success, both through the shared sense of faith and unity afforded by the particularly tight-knit neighborhood structure,” Kida concludes. “Social capital played an important role.”
The key to these rare post-Katrina successes, Kida realized, was resilience—a concept that’s been cropping up with increasing frequency as the next step after sustainability. Scientists and entrepreneurs are looking at ways to apply resilience of the kind seen in Biloxi and New Orleans to ecological, political and economic systems to help solve some of our biggest challenges.
Resilience differs fundamentally from sustainability, according to Andrés Edwards, founder of EduTracks, a green building and business consulting firm. “Resilience is the ability to absorb ecological, social and economic changes,” he says. The whiteboard behind him in his Fairfax, California, office is covered with sheets of paper, Post-its and a picture of a yellow-and-green butterfly atop two leaves—the cover illustration for his book, Thriving Beyond Sustainability.
In Edwards’ view, resilient systems respond nimbly to change. “Change is inevitable,” he says. “In the case of sustainability, you ask, ‘How do I get by? How do I survive?’ In the case of resilience you ask, ‘How can I thrive?’ Let’s really look at how we can adapt our systems to achieve resilience.”
Resilient systems are able to handle disruption and reorganize themselves while maintaining their function, structure and identity. In theory, the Earth’s ecosystem is like this—continuing to function despite the many shocks to the system. An example of natural resilience is the way the oil spill in the Gulf was largely dispersed through natural marine processes. Ideally, resilience would kick in wherever ecological threats were present. Glaciers wouldn’t just stop melting, for example, but the ice would reform.
“Resilience thinking is a crucial missing piece of the climate change jigsaw,” writes Rob Hopkins, cofounder of the Transition Network, an organization that seeks to end communities’ dependence on fossil fuels. “Resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability.”
The concept of resilience comes from ecology, which investigates why some ecosystems collapse in response to shocks while others adjust and thrive. Resilience thinkers have identified three key factors. The first is diversity. For instance, a society that derives energy from multiple sources (say, coal, nuclear power, sun and wind) is less vulnerable if one source is lost. The second is modularity: Big systems made up of small interchangeable components are more flexible. And the third factor is short feedback loops: When the consequences of your actions hit close to home, they’re harder for you to ignore.
It was largely short feedback loops that enabled some neighborhoods in Biloxi and New Orleans to rebuild so quickly. If you fix up your own neighborhood instead of leaving it to the government, you promote socially conscious action and get faster results. That doesn’t mean the government didn’t play a role. The Vietnamese community in New Orleans acknowledged that official aid had been crucial, but residents exerted as much influence as they could on local authorities’ decisions. For example, they successfully negotiated with city officials to prevent hurricane debris from being trucked in to their neighborhood. “In order to create resilience, you need more feedback loops between a community and all government levels,” says Kida.
The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans shows what can happen when the gulf between politicians and citizens is too wide. Fewer than a fifth of residents have returned; many are still scattered around the country in refugee camps. “People forget how important social communities are,” says area writer Kalamu ya Salaam.
Salaam paints a depressing picture, recounting how former residents were denied access to their own neighborhood for months. “You wake up and find yourself beyond the reach of friends, beyond the reach of members of your family, and you are working in a fast food restaurant in Utah somewhere and there is no conceivable way for you to get back to the city you love. How are you going to feel?”
Look through the lens of resilience, and you’ll see the world from a different perspective. Resilience helps explain why the international banking system nearly collapsed. It was insufficiently modular (banks were too big to fail), and it had long feedback loops. For instance, bankers bought bundles of mortgages with no clue whether the borrowers would be able to repay them. How can a banker in Frankfurt, Germany, judge whether someone in Castle Rock, Colorado, might default on a loan?
According to EduTracks’ Edwards, the international banking system is a non-resilient system. To illustrate resilience in the financial sector, he produces a red credit card. ShoreBank Pacific, the ethical bank that distributes the card, invests part of its revenue into local community projects in the U.S. With a loan, says Edwards, it’s “good to actually know the person on the other end.”
The industrialized world’s energy infrastructure is just as non-resilient. At 1:31 p.m. on August 14, 2003, a power station in suburban Cleveland failed. Within three hours, 256 other stations did, too, leaving 45 million people in the northeastern United States and 10 million in Ontario, Canada, without power. Massive blackouts like this one occur regularly, thanks to a heavy dependence on centralized power sources.
A small-scale, decentralized energy supply would be less vulnerable. It might consist of an intricate network of diverse sources, such as wind turbines, solar panels, biomass generators, water turbines and geothermal installations. Such microgeneration systems as they’re called are diverse, modular and local, so their feedback loops are short. If the wires on your rooftop solar panel burn out, you’ll still have electricity thanks to your neighbor’s panel.
Edwards tells of seeing a resilient society firsthand in Tibet. In the late 1980s, he and a friend cycled more than 800 miles through the country. On the cold Tibetan plateau, nomads and farmers told them how the fifth Dalai Lama had issued a decree in 1642 to protect animals and the environment. The Tibetan authorities’ method of ensuring citizens complied with the edict is a good example of a short feedback loop, Edwards says. They used “pasture books” to keep track of the number of animals in each field and prevent overgrazing.
The Tibetans’ main crop was barley, which was easy to store. Baked into bread and eaten in powdered form, it gave generations of Tibetans resilience when harvests failed. In the 1960s, though, the Chinese introduced a wheat monoculture, which was much less resistant to harsh weather. The harvests shrank considerably, leading to malnutrition and famine. “The Tibetan experience stands as a warning to our modern agricultural system that relies on monocultures dependent on petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers,” Edwards says.
In 2008, three years after Katrina, Toshiro Kida went back to New Orleans. The Lower Ninth Ward was still deserted. By contrast, he says, the Vietnamese neighborhood “was back to normal and thriving.”
Earlier this year, Kida went to Haiti after the earthquake. “As soon as I saw the images on television, I realized this was the international version of Katrina,” he says. “I haven’t really had the time and space yet to fully absorb the totality of what I’ve seen in Haiti.”
Kida is setting up an organization to provide assistance to disaster areas, taking the concept of resilience as a starting point. Port-au-Prince should not be allowed to become a Lower Ninth Ward, he says, but helped to thrive again. For this to be achieved, Kida says, governments and aid organizations will have to listen to and cooperate with residents. “The biggest lesson is: Resilience [means] close corporation between communities and all government levels.”