The Dynamics of Social Resilience

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This essay explores the dynamics of resilience in social systems. Rather than presenting a specific hypothesis and testing it, I offer an invitation to thought. I first introduce a theoretical model for considering different facets of resilience, and then illustrate these dynamics and briefly discuss how to consider the current dominant system in this light. In the face of climate change, ocean acidification, dwindling freshwater, disappearing wilds, and more positively the rapid expansion of technological innovation, the range of circumstances facing our species and societies has been perhaps never so uncertain over such a short time frame. Understanding how to prepare and react to this range of circumstances (rather than any specific scenario itself) is the basis of resilience thinking.

What does a resilient system look like? In general, I think of social, ecological, and even personal resilience as the degree of disruption a system experiences in response to changing circumstances. In other words, with every change in conditions, whether in climate, energy, or finance, a system will undergo a series of internal changes—physical, institutional, and even cultural. Whether those internal changes serve to amplify or dampen the initial shock is the core of the resilience framework presented here. As with riding a bicycle, social and ecological systems do not completely rearrange themselves whenever they are faced with a bump in the road; instead, small adjustments can serve to moderate the chain reaction set off with every disruption. While these adjustments can accumulate and lead to significant change over time (as if a road bike were able to morph into a mountain bike after repeatedly encountering rocky terrain), this type of change differs meaningfully from situations where internal changes magnify the initial shock, leading to a fast (and likely traumatic) reorganization. “Reorganization” in this case is a bit euphemistic—the breakdown of social institutions and physical capital can often mean extreme suffering and death for those who go through it; one can imagine the failure of the state in Somalia or the devastation following the earthquake in Haiti.

It’s essential to recognize that in this framework resilience is a dynamic concept; it’s an attribute of how changes amplify each other within the context of a constantly changing system, rather than the degree of deviance a system experiences from some hypothetical “steady state” benchmark. This perspective touches on a broader debate about the nature of resilience in both ecological and social systems; one criticism potentially leveled against both the steady-state vision in economics presented by Herman Daly and the “balance of nature” view(s) in ecology articulated by Frederic Clements and H.T. Odum is the implied notion of an “optimal” state or size for an ecosystem or society, rather than a vision that encompasses the radical shifts in complexity and structure that have occurred throughout history as conditions have changed. This debate is important for understanding resilience, and will be addressed in greater depth in the follow-up to this piece, forthcoming in a future issue of Minding Nature. However, for the purposes of this essay, intended instead as a walkthrough of the elements that make up a resilient system, these issues are relevant in the same way that fluid dynamics are relevant to a carpenter—surely related, but not needed to be resolved in their academic entirety to get a handle on the sound practices involved in building a roof.

Figures 1 through 5 present a graphic framework to understand the point where a system’s internal mechanisms flip from dampening to amplifying changes. In each figure, the green line (1) represents the “maximum inputs,” or the best conditions a society can access—so the most fresh water the system can generate, the most sun, the most energy, the most food, the least disturbance in weather or geology, the most technological innovation, fully-functioning financial systems, maximum demand for products produced by that society, and so forth. The red line (2) represents the “resilience threshold.” This is the minimum state of conditions under which a system can internally dampen changes, beyond which self-reinforcing cycles drive it to disorder and necessitate radically new structures. The gap between the maximum inputs and the resilience threshold (3) represents the system’s “structural resilience,” the range of conditions under which the system will maintain its dampening functions. Finally, the black line (4) represents the conditions themselves as experienced by the system. These can be thought of most importantly in terms of “variability”—that is, how much these conditions tend to differ from one period to the next. An important part of this variability is that because the conditions the society faces are an aggregate of different interacting pieces, the variability of the overall conditions the society faces will be less than the variability of the individual pieces—for example, a society that has multiple ways of producing food would see less variability in its conditions even if the weather is bad.


Figure 1. General Model


This model is useful for visualizing the resilience of a society. For example, Figure 2 shows what a modern high-energy, high-complexity society would look like under this model. In this kind of society, maximum inputs are extremely high because technology, complex coordination, and significant physical capital allow for exploitation of a wide range of resources (think massive offshore oil platforms, city-sized fishing boats, the ability to remove the top of mountains for minerals, and so forth). These characteristics similarly make for an objectively high-demand but relatively stable use of inputs across time—complex societies allow for the transfer of food and energy across vast distances, and rapid and wide scale responses to disasters, for example. However, this apparent stability and the history of a continually increasing ability to generate inputs also lead the resilience threshold to rise precipitously—the fabric of the dominant social paradigm nearly collapsed twice in the past century over an entirely self-generated financial crisis with very little external change. Similarly, dependence on very high amounts of energy for every activity and a high degree of specialization (discussed below) mean a drop in inputs that cannot be met and could very easily lead to self-reinforcing disorganization. Bringing all of these factors to a head is the effect on max inputs from the use of energy to drive all other resources beyond the point of renewability, meaning that, over time, needs and complexity under this model can be expected to increase while real ability to respond to change declines.


Figure 2. Non-Resilient High-Tech/High Energy/High Complexity Society


In some counter-cultural narratives, the resilience of energy-intensive and complex “developed” societies are juxtaposed unfavorably against lower-energy societies that are less centralized and closer to the land. While there are certainly elements of these societies that may be more resilient, painting with too broad a brush ignores the high rate of collapse or devastation amongst low-energy agricultural societies, such as the hundreds of thousands of people dead from the flooding in Bangladesh or the earthquake in Haiti, relative to the much smaller number of casualties in similar incidents like Hurricanes Sandy and Andrew or the San Francisco earthquake in the United States. In the case of this kind of society—though lower complexity and a greater history of subsistence likely makes for a lower overall resilience threshold—weak institutions, high dependence on foreign demand or capital, and limited access to technology make for a similarly low maximum-input level and a high variability in experienced conditions. Whether or not these conditions are the necessary flipside of the wealthy model shown above is a reasonable question beyond the scope of this essay.


Figure 3. Non-Resilient Low-Tech/Low Energy Society


That said, it’s possible to imagine some societies (potentially represented by a few of the remaining pockets of indigenous cultures that survive) that combine a limited reliance on external capital, energy, and demand, with a high degree of awareness of natural functions and community cohesion, which can allow for a relatively higher maximum input and low variability of conditions while having an even lower resilience threshold than other types of “poor” societies.


Figure 4. Resilient Low-Energy/Appropriate Tech Society


The most resilient type of society may now be available to us for the first time in history, by combining some of the knowledge and capital gained during the industrial build-up of our fossil-fuel-dependent society, with the decentralization, integration with natural cycles and high community cohesion of a less energy-intensive mode.


Figure 5. The Holy Grail of Resilient Societies


With this model in mind, how do we move toward that holy grail of resilient societies—one that consists of high maximum inputs, low resilience threshold, and limited variability? Because such a model would have to arise out of current structures as they move through the changing conditions of the future, it is impossible to plan in any step-by-step way, but we can assess some of the different dynamics that could support movement in that direction. Below are the dynamics I’ve found useful to think about when trying to understand the building blocks of a resilient society, though doubtlessly there are more. First, the determinants of maximum inputs. These include the ability to deploy resources and the preservation and dispersion of knowledge. Second, the determinants of the resistance threshold. These include redundancy and decentralization, community spirit, resilient individuals, and conservative estimates about the future. Third, determinants of variability. These include limited reliance on a single resource, respect for the complexity of the environment that sustains us and a humble approach to our place within it, and feedback.

Ability to Deploy Resources

Critical to the notion of resource deployment is that the potential, rather than the current use, is what matters, and often these can be at odds. From a resilience perspective, the expansion of usable inputs is only effective insofar as it is not used to further expand dependency. The invention of clothing and fire (expanding the maximum input of heat) would give greater resilience to humans living in a temperate area, allowing for survival in, say, a particularly cold winter. However, it also allows humans to expand into areas that hitherto have been uninhabitable—even so far as to cross the Bering Strait during the last ice age. For those people, clothing and fire were a source of new dependency, rather than resilience.

The exponential increase in the use of fossil fuels has, in many cases, had a similar effect; the expanded access they’ve enabled has been matched by a larger dependence on their availability. This dependence occurs on two levels: one, as a resource with a nested chain of dependency, it is not easily freed for other uses; and two, its particular qualities lead to the depletion of other resources (including itself) through use. It’s interesting to see how the energy cost for preparing for the impact of global warming is often viewed as prohibitive relative to the demands of the rest of the economy, and that view provides some sense of what to expect when that impact actually occurs. In terms of depletion, while fossil fuels have enabled us to respond with extraordinary energy to physical crises and to radically expand what can be used as a resource, that apparent expansion masks a longer-term degradation inherent in its use. In the same way that oil once poured out of the ground after being hit with a shovel and now must be blasted out of tar sands in a complex, polluting, inefficient industrial operation, access to everything from minerals to water now requires radically more energy to access than before, making additional supplies dependent on even more energy and the increasingly complex systems that energy enables. For these reasons, the ability to access and deploy resources is inseparable from their independence, reserves, and renewability.

Preservation and Dispersion of Knowledge

Technological access to resources is often as much a matter of awareness and design as existing capital. Even if all the physical machines in the world were wiped out, some amount of rebuilding would be possible insofar as the know-how remained and similar conditions were found. While the “fall of Rome” is a hotly debated topic, it is clear that the sophistication of Roman technology was no longer widely available or replicable after the fall of the Western empire and that a significant amount of written knowledge was lost—much of what was left became inaccessible as knowledge of Greek and general literacy declined.[1] The preservation of this knowledge in select monasteries and successive Arab empires laid the groundwork for the revival of more complex urban centers during the Renaissance. Taking this example, the problem of long-term knowledge preservation cannot be considered only in terms of storage, but more critically in terms of distribution and use, which are in turn dependent on the broader social structures through which that knowledge is deployed. Part of the loss of technology in Rome was not merely a matter of lost knowledge but of the disintegration of the complex social structures that allowed for the mobilization of vast labor pools, the sourcing of materials from afar, and the coordination of specialists. To provide a modern example, preserving and distributing the knowledge of how to make an iPhone is not very relevant if the social structures, energy, intermediate machines, and technologies that allow the creation of microchips, electronic components, and the software to use them are no longer available; without these accompanying factors, the design schematic is essentially meaningless (and doubly so if the education based on that context is similarly defunct).

Responding to this issue, we need to preserve knowledge to the best of our ability across the range of social conditions in which it can be deployed. While the success of the scientific method, in terms of creatively adapting to physical laws, colors our view of technology and the knowledge behind it, the universal aspirations of physics and experimental science more generally is not the only kind of knowledge. Smaller-scale societies all around the world have intensive knowledge of their local environments in ways that are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter or master to apprentice. Knowledge of local plants and animals, as sources of food, medicine, and clothing, have enabled people to create a surplus throughout most of human history. Much of this knowledge came about through careful observation combined with trial and error. Because every place is different, and every system is not easily broken down into controllable variables, this kind of knowledge is an essential companion to more recent scientific advances in contributing to our overall “maximum inputs.” The general knowledge accumulated through the scientific method, and the practice of the method itself, can be applied at a local level albeit with less sophistication, complexity, and expertise. Paying attention to how this is done is critical to our understanding of how much we can expect accumulated knowledge to contribute to resilience.

Redundancy and Decentralization

The notion of nested dependency explored above is critical to resilience. If each action in a long chain of actions is linearly dependent on the one that came before, and each of those actions is provided only by a single element of some kind that cannot be replicated by other parts of the system, then it is extremely easy for major disruptions to occur. In the 1960s a researcher for the RAND Corporation, Paul Baran, studied the link between decentralization and resilience in an attempt to understand what kinds of communication networks could withstand enemy attack. His research found that a distributed network was by far the most resilient, and similar research has applied the same model to the distribution of power, which one can visualize by comparing our current grid system, built on massive singular power plants and neighborhood-scale switches, to a self-reinforcing network of home-scale solar or micro-hydro generators (to give one example).[2] Figure 6 shows a copy of a graphic representation by Baran that makes the point well and can be grasped intuitively.

Figure 6. Distributed networks are more resilient to disruption


A similar analysis can be applied to social and political institutions. As the U.S. military discovered in Iraq (and continues to find in Afghanistan), distributed networks of insurgents embedded throughout a population can be significantly tougher in the long run to remove than a hierarchical, standing army. While centralized authorities can in some cases foster resilience by providing transfers of resources through their networks (the difference in response to the financial crisis between the federalized U.S. and more loosely organized EU being an interesting example), such a system’s additional resilience is now dependent on the resilience of the central hub, essentially reducing the resilience of the network to the resilience of a single component.

Community Cohesion

The idea that humans, put into a state of crisis, will inevitably revert to Hobbesian chaos and selfish destruction has been rigorously debunked and tends to say more about the proponent than society. More often, doors are opened, volunteers are assembled, and care becomes the rule of the day (though obviously there are exceptions).[3] Whether it’s on a large scale, such as the estimated million people who took part in the cleanup in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, or a distributed response, such as the culturally expected support for the elderly and young from their families in Italy in times of crisis, community spirit and mutual care are the glue that keeps us together when problems appear. Empirically, work from Bangladesh on a village-by-village level suggested that villages with higher social cohesion faired significantly better in the face of natural disasters.[4] Taking a broader view, the Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, one of the first works on broad historical dynamics (from 1377), noted that the life cycle of civilizations often followed the rise and fall of asabiyyah, or group-cohesion, which is high in nomadic societies whose ability to help each other and overcome obstacles eventually leads them to conquer larger empires whose citizens have become detached and uncooperative (at which point they become the stationary empire, and the cycle starts over).[5] Revolutions throughout history—from those in France and the United States to those in Cuba, Iran, and more recently Egypt—have typically been precipitated by significant schisms in the living standards and culture between the bulk of the population and the ruling elite, schisms that were created when escalations in food prices highlighted the systems’ inability to provide for the people whose buy-in was required.

Resilient Individuals

People from the post-war generation in the United States and Europe often note the stark differences between themselves and their parents, who having been through war and depression, could often raise, kill, and clean their own food; cut, dry, and weave wool; and make soap and all manner of small remedies. If a real crisis hit, the kind where the two-day supply of food on a supermarket shelf is insufficient, later generations, raised on take-out food, theory-heavy educations, and virtual entertainment may find themselves comparatively ill equipped to do much about it. Of course, personal resilience encompasses more capabilities than just knowledge. A survey by the University of New Orleans on hurricane evacuation plans found that over 100,000 New Orleans residents (many of whom lived in the areas that experienced the worst social melt-downs) had no means to evacuate: no car, not enough money for a bus ticket, no friends or family who could help them. If a system momentarily weakens or breaks down, a community of hardy individuals can rebuild the system and aid each other. A community of weak individuals—unable to provide for themselves or others, unskilled, unhealthy, and unhappy—will always struggle, even with some of the other elements in place. Should the system that supports them falter, even for a moment, it cannot be rebuilt or successfully adapt, because the people that are a part of it cannot live even a short while without it. A resilient community depends on the resilience of its members. More actively, a resilient community will foster a resilient system.

Conservative Estimates about the Future

It’s a sound principle when planning to drive somewhere to allow more time than the trip would take without traffic, as it is very rare that we find perfect conditions. The same principle applies to society, and is one of the driving principles of financial collapse. In the years leading up to the Great Depression, rampant land speculation and excitement about a rash of new technologies initiated a speculative boom in the stock market, which rose to ever-greater heights as people made ever-more optimistic assumptions about the future (and whose collapse ushered in a larger breakdown of the entire financial system). This type of feverish behavior often feeds on itself—in the run-up to the most recent financial crisis, banks and speculators based their assumptions on data series as short as three years to form ever-more optimistic assumptions about how likely they were to be paid back on loans, which were increasingly handed out on loose terms (culminating in so-called “NINJA loans,” for No-Income, No-Assets, No-Job). One of the leading theorists on financial crises, Hyman Minsky, goes so far as to say that periods of relative calm literally lead to crisis, as memories of the last crisis fades and increasingly ebullient assumptions lead to the extension of more and more bad credit on easy terms. These actions, in turn, sustain the illusion of calm growth until that bubble collapses under its own weight.[6]

While financial theorists apply this notion to cycles of boom and bust on the scale of decades, on a larger scale it’s worth noting that the entire edifice of modern finance (including the retirement investments, and home and student loans that determine the shape of many people’s careers and lives) is predicated on the concept that the economy, everything we produce every year, will expand indefinitely. Is that assumption, built on the peculiar history of the past few hundred years in the West, the financial bubble of them all?

Growth is typically presented as an automatic feature of economic life. History, however, presents a much more complex picture—one of empires rising and falling as they exceed the ability to produce food from their land (and overextend themselves with debt), of great centers of learning like Alexandria rising up and disappearing, of entire regions experiencing relatively calm growth for a few centuries (the Sumerian and Babylonian Empires in the Middle East; the Roman Empire in Europe; the Han Empire in China; the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec empires in the Americas) before dissolving back into village subsistence. As Clive Pointing writes in his Green History of the World, most of modern human history (i.e., ignoring the two million years of apparently stable conditions leading up to the past ten thousand) has been an arms race between population and food production, with larger populations and more complex societies pushing into less fertile areas and resorting to conquest to temporarily support their growth, then being pared back by disease and famine.[7] As opposed to the view of history as an upward squiggle towards some ever-more beautiful future (a relatively new idea introduced in pieces in Victorian England and the Enlightenment, and implicit in most recent perspectives of history), the reality of much of human experience has been one of testing and returning to a series of natural limits.

Through this lens, the countries of Europe were largely able to break out of this paradigm via two mechanisms—colonialism, which allowed countries to bypass their food limits by passing the problem to their colonies (England was importing nearly all its food as early as the 1800s, while its primary food-producing colonies saw a regression in living standards), and novel ways to turn stored energy from the sun (coal, and then oil) into usable energy. These fossil fuels in turn (oil in particular) were then used to find novel ways to grow more food as colonialism began to break down, a process that ushered in the “green revolution” that famously staved off Thomas Malthus’s and his imitators’ predictions of famine. Oil can be considered a form of ecological debt—millions of years of the earth’s saved energy. One barrel of oil is equal to about ten years of human labor—it is difficult to separate what we consider the miracle of economic growth from the massive explosion in energy use during the past two hundred years. Thus far we have not shown the ability to produce meaningfully more in our economy without drawing down on this account—and the assumption that we can continue to do so (or that the technology fairy will save us, to borrow a term from Paul Krugman) is built into the financial and social architecture of our daily lives.

Limited Reliance on a Single Resource

It’s difficult to overstate the role of oil in our current society. Agriculture, transportation, communications, finance, heat, business models, supply chains, culture—it is very hard to find any part of the life-support system for the seven billion people on the planet that does not in some way rely on cheap and available oil. Oil is unlikely to disappear tomorrow, but it could become much more expensive, which functionally could be nearly as disruptive. The past provides plenty of examples of how this type of dependence can play out. In Ireland, the arrival of the potato in 1570 seemed like a godsend—it contains nearly all the vitamins and minerals needed to survive and is easy to grow and store through the winter. For more than sixty-five years (1780 to 1845) the potato allowed the Irish population to double, from four to eight million, and by that point one-third of the Irish people were entirely dependent on the potato for most of their nutrition, and with few other ways or skills to sustain themselves. When the potato blight hit, starvation and disease led to approximately 1.5 million deaths (around eighteen percent of the population) and caused another million to emigrate.[8]

Similar tragedies have occurred throughout Africa, Latin America, and India as Western colonial powers, corporations, and aid organizations pushed farmers to switch from varied subsistence crops to cash crops, first for consumption in colonial home markets, and more recently under the supposedly beneficent mandate of “development.” When the crops failed (often because growing single crops over a large area results in disease and soil erosion) or the global market price dived, mass starvation occurred in areas that were previously self-sufficient. This phenomenon in turn led to the creation of the massive slums (with their resultant safety and hygiene catastrophes) on the outskirts of the rising megalopolises that serve as shrines to specialization.

This principle applies similarly to societies dependent on any single form of producing value. Detroit was famous for its reliance on the automobile—nearly every element of the economy, from its advertising, insurance, and real estate to its bartending was in one way or another dependent on the American car-manufacturing behemoths. As these companies withered (and shipped their jobs elsewhere) Detroit’s population shrank by over a million people—more than sixty percent of the population from its peak. The exodus has left behind a wasteland of empty houses where perhaps one old pensioner or family that remains does their best to carry on. The city government has now put in place a plan to eliminate over fifty percent of Detroit’s streetlights to complete the process of abandonment.[9]

Modern economics would have you believe that labor mobility or transfers from a central government makes this an issue not worth thinking about, but this seems naïve in the extreme, particularly in light of our current lifestyles. When a community’s ability to create value is lost, what goes with it? Do the elderly, familiar with the streets, knowledgeable about the local community, up and leave along with the young workers that keep the town afloat, departing for unfamiliar places at costs beyond their control? Do the friendships, projects, loves, and lore similarly disappear? Are those left behind, unable to move for reasons of age, disability, or money, meant to disappear as well? This kind of death is neither fast nor easy, and often destroys far more value along the way as crime and desperation escalate alongside it. Nor is the mobility without environmental cost—land ruined and discarded, half-built or abandoned houses with heavy chemicals and piping set into the ground, met on the other side by extreme stress on water or fertility in the areas of ostensible economic boom, along with the emissions and related pollution of transporting all of the goods to these increasingly overbuilt centers of economic power.

Over-reliance on a single crop or resource can allow an economy or population to grow far beyond the general limits of a system—which often looks great when those conditions remain in place. But when those conditions change, that reliance becomes a nightmare.

Respect for the Complexity of the Environment That Sustains Us

As Jared Diamond catalogued in his book Collapse, the people of Easter Island created a complex society within a remarkably barren world—an island with no fresh water, poor soil, and few animals to speak of supported a society of around 7,000 people capable of quarrying, carving, and erecting twenty-foot tall (and thirty-ton) stone statues and moving them wherever they wished. Both the difficulty and secret of this feat was transportation—which the islanders achieved using felled trees as rollers to move the statues into position. Because the statues were the primary indicator of a chief’s status, competition to build ever-larger and numerous statues increased, leading, over a few hundred years, to the complete deforestation of the island. With the trees gone, the soil washed into the sea, leaving the islanders without the ability to grow and cook the sweet potatoes on which they depended, and without the resources to build houses or the canoes they used to fish (or escape). When Europeans arrived in the 1800s, they found a population of three thousand, living primarily in caves, dependent on cannibalism and barely capable of spoken language. A society can undermine its own resilience by placing ever-greater demands on the environment that supports it.

Similar dynamics have led to the collapse of advanced societies throughout history. Nearly all of the major empires of the Fertile Crescent (Babylonians, Akkadians, Sumerians, and so forth) ultimately starved to death as their need for increasingly massive irrigation projects to feed their military and religious elite led to the rising of the water table, which deposited increasing amounts of sodium on the top layer of soil, transforming one of the most fertile areas of earth into a desert of white salt.[10] Through history, invading armies were known to salt the fields to prevent anything from growing, and in the case of all these early empires, they chose instead to do it to themselves—in effect declaring war on their own children.

The ability to employ fossil fuels has led to this type of self-warfare on a level the Sumerians could never have dreamed. The massive aquifer that supplies fresh water for much of the population of China is close to going dry (after taking millions of years to fill), while a similar phenomenon is taking place with the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies water to the main agricultural regions of the United States. In some sense, global warming represents the ultimate example of humans undermining their own resilience on a massive scale.

Overwhelming demands on the surrounding environment don’t need to take the obvious form of “outputs” like food or water. Much of the damage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans came not from the hurricane but from the structure of the city—approximately fifty percent of the city (making up much of the worst-flooded areas) lies below sea level, requiring large man-made levees whose failure during the hurricane is regarded by most researchers as one of the critical features of the disaster. In this sense, it’s important to visualize environmental dependence not just in terms of resources, but in terms of the human intervention required to sustain a community’s survival in the surrounding environment. Anyone who’s ever driven into Las Vegas knows the eerie way it rises from the desert sands—a phenomenon now repeated across much of the southwestern United States and in Middle Eastern megalopolises like Dubai. Building cities below sea level is a good way to end up with a flood, while building them in a desert is a good way to end up with a drought (or starvation, if the ability to import food is ever exhausted). Similarly, building a food system around mono-crop fields that without intervention would turn into a diverse forest is a good way to end up with famine.

Modern humans lived for more than two million years (up to about 10,000 years ago) in nomadic gathering tribes, working significantly less than their agricultural neighbors and descendants to feed and clothe themselves (based on research on the few remaining gathering groups living in Africa and Oceania).[11] This stability and abundance was possible because these societies placed minimal stress on their environment—they had few goods, did little in the way of clearing the land, and were often on the move, allowing the area to recover. Under this arrangement, drought, fire, and other natural disasters were relatively easy to deal with—there was often enough to go around anyway (since the demands were already limited), and should conditions deteriorate further, the group would move. Obviously such a life is no longer possible, and (given our modern lens) whether it would even be desirable is generally a moot question. But what we do get a glimpse of is what a resilient society does and does not look like. When we live on the edge of what an ecosystem can provide, we gamble our future on the ingenuity of our scientists to create something from nothing. Disaster, man-made or otherwise, becomes a question of famine, war, and death rather than one of deprivation or flexibility.


Anecdotal stories from Germany during World War II suggest that some of Hitler’s largest strategic errors were a function of his officers’ fear of reporting bad news.[12] Similar dynamics of poor reporting, limited information, or the inability to act on information given often constitutes the basis of many major crises that could have been averted. Feedback, a system’s ability to incorporate and distribute incoming information, is key to resilience.

Hurricane Katrina provides a particularly poignant example of the need for communication in acute disasters. As Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense in the United States said, poor communication was the primary culprit of the wider societal meltdown and slow response during Hurricane Katrina.[13] Institutional firewalls led to the military’s waiting four days to send in any real force, whereas the coast guard, which was more empowered to respond to conditions on the ground, was fully mobilized.[14] Communication between state and local authorities was so bad in the immediate aftermath of Katrina that engineers sent to fix communication infrastructure were often unable to get past police blockades, while search and rescue teams from nearby areas remained undeployed because of lack of administrative approval. Meanwhile, the collapse of the physical communication infrastructure, in this case phone towers and back-up generators thoughtlessly placed on the ground floors in flood zones, meant that local actors within the city itself were unable to coordinate or understand what was going on.[15]

Feedback need not be limited by poor communication alone, but by an inability to observe the information in the first place. Marie Antoinette’s famous pastry-based dismissal of the starving French peasantry can be thought of as a form of feedback breakdown. Similarly, in our modern economy we rarely see the consequences of our consumption—for most consumers in the wealthier parts of the world, it is always someone else’s river that is polluted, someone else’s mountain strip-mined, someone else’s children working eighteen-hour days in a factory, someone else’s famine and civil war from eroded soil. All of these problems, which are quite often the direct consequences of consumption, blend into the constant background noise of hurricanes, tsunamis, and wars that feature daily in the newspaper and, as such, become abstractly unfortunate but really someone else’s problem. In this sense, broader instabilities can build in ways that the individuals responsible cannot viscerally understand, and thus will not avert.

What Does This Mean for Assessing Our Current Structures

Looking across these dynamics, it’s hard to ignore the sharp contrast between the contributors to social resilience and the values often prized in our current system. Efficiency, optimization, and specialization are often the buzzwords of the day. How often do we seek efficiency—or more accurately, the creation of a society perfectly suited to the circumstances and resources that exist in a single moment—over meeting our basic needs in the most resilient way possible?

This is not idle theorizing—these values are rapidly replacing potentially more resilient forms of social life across the world, from villages in rural Africa and China to the close-knit towns of Europe and the United States. None of these are easy questions—it may well be that the buildup of physical capital or the capabilities gained from technological innovation give us a greater ability to respond to crises than they undermine via the system necessary to create them. Nevertheless, if we want to create resilient communities for ourselves and our children, understanding and prizing what contributes to that resilience (and what does not) is a good place to start.

In regard to maintaining our access to resources, it seems obviously critical to find means to curtail current use in gross terms while incentivizing the creation of alternatives that are renewable, easily accessible, and non-damaging to the surrounding environment. The implication of this balance is that creating artificial energy and resource scarcity may be even more important than simply pricing externalities in carbon taxes and the like, an idea whose political palatability is unlikely to bring it to the light of day. This suggests, in turn, that the most feasible path forward is creating as many independent alternatives as possible, though doing so would require a degree of economic and political localization deeply difficult to enact in the current climate.

Beyond the nurturing of alternatives, decentralization for its own sake presents another key area where resilience thinking needs to come into play. Luckily, distributed generation in energy has become an increasingly large part of the mainstream dialogue. There are, however, significant institutional roadblocks to more distributed systems, as the centralization of economic and political power provides meaningful benefits to those who redistribute it. The case of a man in Oregon, recently arrested for collecting and storing water from his own property, or the difficulty one faces in, say, getting planning permission to install a compost toilet to decrease dependence on distribution networks of chemical fertilizer, shows how far even existing distributed systems have to go politically to be implemented, before even considering the many other systems we desperately need to innovate.[16]

Across a number of the dynamics above, the Internet presents an exciting means of improving the storage and dispersion of this kind of knowledge, particularly in its open-source and wiki incarnations. The ability to instantly access meaningful local information or niche how-to instructions, to see our specific questions answered via forums, or even to engage in entire courses via Khan Academy or the increasingly large online lecture structure are revolutionary. Beyond this clear benefit to the creation, storage, and dispersal of core ideas and alternatives, the participatory nature of the Internet along with its decentralized structure presents a meaningful hope for how feedback can be improved. Media studies have found that news appears far sooner on Twitter than on traditional news outlets.[17] Combining this production/consumption function with cellphone networks has shown itself as a powerful feedback generator—Indian and African farmers now share information about seeds, best practices, market prices, and disasters without having to rely on rickety and time-consuming transportation infrastructure.[18] The greatly improved nature of feedback is one of the most hopeful signs of how modern development can improve resilience rather than deplete it. The question, however, returning to the theme of nested dependency, is how resilient this system is to disruptions in the energy supplies that keep the massive banks of its servers running, let alone the complexity that enables the specialization to maintain it. Independently fortifying these systems—and preventing control by any single political entity—appears to be one of the key tasks for those interested in seeing resilience move forward.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, system designs (in architecture, city planning, agriculture, transportation, education, and even culture) that reinforce the diversity and health of the surrounding ecosystem make disasters both less likely and less severe. The Green Belt Movement, founded by Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, encouraged Kenyan women to plant trees to rebuild the soil and watersheds of their local areas. Since 1977, over forty million trees have been planted, reclaiming significant amounts of land that had turned to desert.[19] Trees, by virtue of their roots, anchor the soil, preventing landslides and erosion, while their trunks act as windbreaks, and they recycle the carbon our industry (and lungs) produce. In this sense, every tree is its very own disaster-prevention system. Beginning to design our societies—from our homes, transportation, food, and industry—so that they align with natural cycles, rhythms, and surpluses presents a forward-looking path toward greater resilience in the context of our modern lives.

Critically, this essay leaves wide open the political and cultural question of how we begin to weave this kind of thinking into our social institutions, aspirations, and dialogue. While I believe this framework may be helpful in considering how to improve the resilience of social structures, all of these thoughts are ultimately limited by the mindset and paradigms that have produced them, and in the end resilience is often found in the discovery of new paradigms appropriate to the changing circumstances. Perhaps there is no greater contribution to the resilience of our societies than to support a diversity of alternatives within them, as this, in the end, may be the most powerful tool we have to face the unknown world we find with each new day.

[1]. Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press 2006); Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 13-14; Jeremy Norman, “Transitional Phases in the Form and Function of the Book before Gutenberg,” April 2013, at

[2]. Paul Baran, “On Distributed Communications Networks,” IEEE Transactions on Communications 12, no. 1 (1964): 1-9. Murray J. Height, “Distributed Electricity Generation” (term paper, MIT, 2000) at; see also Geoff O’Brien and Alex Hope, “Localism and Energy: Negotiating Approaches to Embedding Resilience in Energy Systems,” Energy Policy 38, no. 12 (2010): 7550-58.

[3]. Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).

[4]. M. Jahangir Alam Chowdhury, “Social Cohesion and Natural Disaster Loss Recovery of Households: Experience from Bangladesh” (paper presented at the International Conference on Social Cohesion and Development, Paris, France, January 20-21, 2011), at

[5]. Ibn Khaldun, Franz Rosenthal, and N.J. Dawood, The Muqaddimah (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978).

[6]. Hyman P. Minsky, “The Financial-Instability Hypothesis: Capitalist Processes and the Behavior of the Economy,” in Financial Crises: Theory, History, and Policy, ed. C.P. Kindleberger and J.P. Laffargue (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 13-39.

[7]. Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

[8]. Austin Bourke, The Visitation of God?: The Potato and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin, Ireland: Lilliput Press Ltd, 1993).

[9]. Chris Christoff, “Detroit Shutting Off Street Lights to Save Money,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 25, 2012, at

[10]. Ponting, A Green History of the World.

[11]. Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover 8, no. 5 (1987): 64-66.

[12]. Correlli Barnett, Hitler’s Generals (New York: Grove Press, 1989).

[13]. Associated Press, “Official: Military’s Katrina Response Hampered by Poor Communication,” Fox News, October 12, 2005, at,2933,172072,00.html.

[14]. Robert Block and Christopher Cooper, Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security (New York: Times Books, 2007).

[15]. Robert Miller, “Hurricane Katrina: Communications and Infrastructure Impacts,” in Threats at Our Threshold: Homeland Defense and Homeland Security in the New Century, ed. Bert B. Tussing (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, 2006), at

[16]. Matt Hickman, “Gary Harrington, Oregon Resident, Sentenced to Jail for Stockpiling Rainwater,” Huffington Post, August 16, 2012, at

[17]. Haewoon Kwak, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, and Sue Moon, “What is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media?” Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on World Wide Web (New York: ACM, 2010).

[18]. Jenny C. Aker, “Information from Markets Near and Far: Mobile Phones and Agricultural Markets in Niger,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2 (2010): 46-59; see also Niraj Chokshi, “How Mobile Phones Are Transforming Indian Agriculture,” Atlantic, August 12, 2010, at

[19]. Wangari Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir (New York: Anchor, 2008).

  • Jake Bornstein

    Jake Bornstein is a Senior Associate with Slow Money, the non-profit organization that seeks to use a new, community-driven approach to finance to support local, sustainable food enterprises. You can follow him on Twitter @JLBornstein.

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