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Japan and the Concept of Resiliency in Sustainability

Have I become a Chicken Little or are disasters actually getting bigger and nastier? Hurricane Katrina.  Indonesia’s Tsunami. Flooding Australia. Hungary’s river of red sludge. Haiti’s earthquake. TVA’s coal slurry spill. The Great Recession. Egyptian food riots. BP’s oil spill. All these things make the Exxon Valdez disaster look small.  And now the earthquake and nuclear meltdowns in Japan. Are these signs of imminent rapture or have we become more vulnerable to human mistakes and natural variations that have and will always occur?

Our economic, social, and environmental life support systems are increasingly interconnected, streamlined, and efficient.  The technologies sustaining our lifestyles have enormous power and complexity.  We have wealth, convenience, and information like never before.

But do we have more or less capacity to recover from inevitable natural disturbances and human failures?  Are we moving towards or away from the cliff of cascading failure and socio-ecological apocalypse?

A concept called “resilience” helps us think through this issue.  Local communities and global society must be designed to be resilient so that we thrive in our increasingly interconnected, resource scarce, politically volatile, and environmentally chaotic world.  Resilient systems have redundancies and capacities that take up slack when one piece fails.  Resilient systems absorb shocks and maintain their basic functions when conditions change (i.e., climate), disturbances strike (i.e., earthquakes), and parts fail (i.e., electricity to nuclear power plant coolant systems).  That is, resilient systems are designed with more than efficiency in mind.  What an efficiency-minded expert might call “waste,” a resiliency-minded expert might call “capacity.”

It is tempting to debate resiliency versus efficiency in more familiar terms: local versus global or renewable versus nonrenewable.  For example, is Japan more or less sustainable because it imports so much material and energy through long supply chains stretched around the globe or because its manufacturing and financial networks enmesh with the global economy?  Would it be more or less sustainable if its food and economy were based primarily on local, renewable sources?

The familiar local-global, renewable-nonrenewable distinctions that frame so many sustainability debates, however, may be distractions.   The bigger issue surrounding the resiliency versus efficiency question is the politically charged debate over markets versus governance.  Markets are efficient, they wring out waste.  Governments make investments in the future through roads, education, pollution control, research, water filtration, and thus build capacities. Yes, some government investments inevitably get wasted through ignorance or cronyism. But the same could be said for business investments.  The difference is that government investments are supposed to be for the pubic good.  Resilience theory suggests we must define the public good to include—in addition to freedom, justice, equity, and health—our capacity to thrive after we have been challenged by unpredictable but inevitable social and natural disturbances.

How does this polemic relate to sustainability studies?  What should we study?  What should we teach?  What should we practice?  What should we preach?

Resiliency suggests, nay demands, that we take a systems view.  In addition to breaking down problems into reducible parts and developing efficient, technical, market-based solutions to food shortage, waste disposal, carbon emissions, energy production, transportation, and the like, we need to step back and explicitly locate those problems and proposed solutions into a larger system that will change due to natural variation and human nature.  We want to make sure there are redundancies and feedback loops that make the system resilient to inevitable disturbances.  As importantly, resilience requires skilled and dedicated people to envision and staff civil society, public governance systems, and institutions devoted to balancing public investments with efficient markets.

Efficiency is a good thing, but not at the expense of resiliency.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: March 25, 2011, 9:00 am Category: Opinions Tagged with: , , , ,

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