Will the Resilience Movement Help the World Cope With the Resource Crunch?

Leon Kaye, a corporate sustainability consultant and editor of GreenGoPost, caught my attention recently when he predicted that “resilience” will be “the next big word for 2012,” now that “green” and “sustainable” are getting stale. He writes,

Resilience is a word that captures much of what has occurred over this past year: the Arab Spring; the anger that has boiled over into first the Tea Party and then the Occupy movements; strapped municipal budgets; and coping with an onslaught of natural and man-made disasters around the world. Whether we are talking about economic resilience, political resilience or social resilience, the R word captures what many at the grassroots are facing at a volatile time…

… resilience embodies stubborn problems including the global fiscal crises, environmental degradation, corporate governance, social injustice and the mounting frustration with politics.

A Transition group meets in Quebec, CanadaI first encountered the idea of a “resilience movement” a year or two ago when I started paying attention to the Transition movement. Resilience is a key concept advocated by Transition founder Rob Hopkins. (See my previous article, “The Transition Movement – Preparing for a World After Peak Oil.”)

(Photo: A group meets to discuss a Transition initiative in Quebec, Canada. Credit: Très-Saint-Rédempteur en TransitionCC BY-SA 2.0.)

However, now I’m seeing the term “resilience” appearing in other contexts, such as in the green building movement, and even in a report from a top management-consulting firm.

Hopkins traces the idea of resilience as a societal trait back to the seminal 2006 book Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, by Brian Walker and David Salt. In their book, they write,

At the heart of resilience thinking is a very simple notion — things change — and to ignore or resist this change is to increase our vulnerability and forego emerging opportunities. In so doing, we limit our options.

In his article “Thinking ‘Resilience,’” William E. Rees, professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, writes that

[Resilience thinking] recognizes that the sustainability of the human enterprise on a crowded and resource-stressed planet depends on our ability to conserve the resilience of socio-ecological systems. In this context, resilience defines the capacity of the system to assimilate disturbances without crossing a threshold into an alternative and possibly less “friendly” stable state. A desirable socio-ecological system characterized by high resilience is able to resist external disturbance and continue to provide biophysical goods and services essential for a satisfactory quality of life.

To bring about a sustainable world, Rees argues, “resource-management efforts must shift from reshaping nature for the purpose of satisfying human demands to moderating human demands so that they fit within biophysical limits.”

Researchers have extensively studied resilience in socio-ecological systems, but Hopkins thinks resilience in communities is a crucial area that deserves more exploration. In his 2011 book, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times, Hopkins says that communities can build resilience as “a collective design project.”

Local foods at a farmers marketBecoming a resilient community means becoming adaptable, says Hopkins. This requires a focus on localization: “In practice, a more adaptable community trains its young people in a wide range of skills, more decisions are taken at the local level, the community owns and manages more of its own assets and has access to some of the land adjoining it.” (Photo: Local foods for sale at a farmers market. Credit: United States Department of Agriculture, CC BY-ND 2.0.)

Hopkins thinks the greatest threats communities will face in coming decades will come from peak oil, climate change, and economic disruption. These forces will push communities toward localization in such areas as food, energy production, and manufacturing. Localization can be relative; as Hopkins points out, it is unlikely that every town would find it practical to make its own steel. Stressing how unprepared communities are for a more locally-focused economy, Hopkins relates an insight he had at age 18, sitting outside his school with his friends discussing how they had all done on their just-completed A-levels:

I vividly remember looking around my friends thinking what a useless lot we were. None of us could really cook, none of us could sew, and none of us could build, grow food, or repair anything. We didn’t know how to use a saw, a hammer, or a chisel. None of us had ever planted a tree, repaired a bicycle, or fixed a shoe. If we were all to be washed up on a desert island together, I doubt that any of us would even have had the wherewithal to eat each other.

Hopkins acknowledges that Transition is not the only path to societal resilience. Public policy also plays a role, he believes.

Can Resilience Be Fostered on a Macro Scale?

A recent study by management consulting giant McKinsey & Company stresses the large-scale role that government can play in fostering resilience in the face of a resource-constrained world. In its recent report, Resource Revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food, and water needs (November 2011), the McKinsey Global Institute defines resilience as “the capacity to avoid, repel, or adapt to risks and shocks.”

McKinsey estimates that worldwide development will bring an additional 3 billion people into the middle class by 2030, up from 1.8 billion today. Those people and their lifestyle expectations will result in unprecedented stress on systems of resource production and distribution.

This coming crunch stresses the value of helping people and communities develop resilience to minimize the effects of the resulting roller-coaster ride.

McKinsey asserts that governments can play an important role in helping build resilience in society:

[P]ublic policy can play a useful role in bolstering the long-term resilience of society in the face of the resource challenge, including taking measures to raise awareness about resource-related risks and opportunities, creating appropriate safety nets to mitigate the impact of these risks on the poorest members of society, educating consumers and businesses to adapt their behavior to the realities of today’s resource-constrained world, and increasing access to modern energy, so improving the economic capacity of the most vulnerable communities.

Solar water heater on a home in South Africa

(Photo: Solar water heating system installed on a home in South Africa. Credit: Abri le Roux, CC BY 2.0.)

Building the “long-term resilience” the authors advocate will in part involve embedding early-warning systems in resource-production chains. Such systems would give investors and decision-makers access to timely intelligence on supply, demand, and risks. Setting up such systems “would require significant public investment in capturing primary data on the availability of resources, indicators of environmental health, the dynamics of the climate system, and more sophisticated modeling tools for analyzing the dynamic relationships between economic growth, resource systems, and the environment.”

Interestingly, McKinsey thinks governments should undertake to provide “global universal energy access” to help make society more resilient. An “entry-level” 250 to 500 kilowatt hours (kWh) per person per year could be provided with an investment of $50 billion per year over the next 20 years to make that feasible.

The kind of resilience McKinsey is advocating will require that individuals at all economic levels make changes in their ways of thinking and in their behavior. Such changes, the authors believe, can be initiated and reinforced through providing demonstrations and role models; providing formal mechanisms such as tax incentives; and developing the needed talents and skills to foster resilience — for example, by training communities in better farming and water management practices.

Green Building and Resilience

The building and architecture industry is showing considerable interest in resilience. Architect Lloyd Alter writes:

In fact, the resilience movement is growing, as is the dissatisfaction with the high tech green gizmo approach to sustainable design. You see it in houses with the Passivhaus movement, where one trades active systems for insulation and sunlight; you see it in the streets with the cycling phenomenon. It is a conscious choice to use simpler, repairable, resilient systems.

Alex Wilson, founder of publishing company BuildingGreen and executive editor of Environmental Building News, writes that the kinds of societal vulnerabilities spotlighted by the resilience movement are addressed in important ways by green building practices:

It turns out that many of the strategies needed to achieve resilience — such as really well-insulated homes that will keep their occupants safe if the power goes out or interruptions in heating fuel occur — are exactly the same strategies we have been promoting for years in the green building movement. The solutions are largely the same, but the motivation is one of life-safety, rather than simply doing the right thing. We need to practice green building, because it will keep us safe — a powerful motivation — and this may be the way to finally achieve widespread adoption of such measures.

(Photo: A certified Passivhaus in Wales, UK. Credit: BRE Group, CC BY-ND 2.0.)

A Passivhaus in WalesResilientCity.org, a non-profit network of urban planners, building and landscape architects, designers, and engineers, provides resources showing how city planning and building design can address the challenges of climate change, resource and energy scarcity, and environmental degradation. The organization has published a set of building design principles for “designing and constructing buildings in a post-carbon, climate responsive building environment”:

  1. “Use low carbon-input materials and systems” — avoiding materials and systems that require a lot of energy or are derived from petroleum.
  2. “Design and plan buildings for low external energy inputs for ongoing building operations”
  3. “Design buildings for maximum day-lighting”
  4. “Design ‘generic buildings’ for future flexibility of use” — not that aesthetics must suffer, but that buildings should be designed with flexibility in mind, “for both first and future uses.”
  5. “Design for durability and robustness”
  6. “Design for use of local materials and products”
  7. “Design and plan for low energy input constructability” — designing buildings that can be built using more manual labor.
  8. “Design for use of building systems that can be serviced and maintained with local materials, parts, and labor”

So, will “resilience” really become the next big buzzword in the green-and-clean arena? It could be an idea whose time has come.



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