Tuesday, March 20, 2012


What’s the Big Deal About “Resilience”? (Slate)
Future Tense: So what is resilience, exactly?

Sander van der Leeuw: Any system, whether it’s the financial system, the environmental system, or something else, is always subject to all kinds of pressures. If it can withstand those pressures without really changing its behavior, then it’s robust. When a system can’t withstand them anymore but can deal with them by integrating some changes so the pressures fall off and it can keep going, then it’s resilient. If it comes to the point where the only choices are to make fundamental structural changes or to cease existence, then it becomes vulnerable.

Future Tense: Can you give an example from history of how the concept of resilience—or lack thereof—is illustrated by a society?

Van der Leeuw: I’ve worked a lot on the end of the Roman Empire. Let’s go back to sometime before the end. The Roman Empire expands all around the Mediterranean and becomes very, very big. It can do that because wherever it goes, it finds and then takes away existing treasure that has been accumulated over the centuries before. That treasure pays for the army, it pays for the administration, it pays for everything. But there’s a certain moment, beginning in the third century, when there is no more treasure to be had. The empire has already taken in all of the civilized world. At that point, to maintain its administration and military and feed its poor, it must depend basically on the annual yield of agriculture, or the actual product of solar energy. At the same time, the empire becomes less attractive because it has less to offer, because it has less extra energy. So now it has to deal with all kinds of unrest, and ultimately, the energy that it has available for its administration is no longer sufficient to maintain the empire. So between the third century and the fifth century, the empire has to make changes. That is the period when it adapts its behavior to all kinds of pressures. That is the resilience period. At the end of that period, when it is no longer able to maintain that, it quickly becomes vulnerable and falls apart.

Future Tense: What’s one field that has been really transformed through resilience thinking?

Van der Leeuw: Resilience learning and thinking has completely changed the field of ecology. Because people have begun to look at the long-term dynamics of ecological systems and describing those in terms of the resilience dynamics of ecological communities rather than focus on individual species. Increasingly, the work that is happening in this field through the Resilience Alliance is also impacting on managing ecosystems, managing lakes, managing herds, managing fish stocks, things like that.

In anthropology, the concept has been used to recast how people react to different conditions, such as a situation in which resources are plentiful (“the American dream”) and where they are scarcer (Europe, where rules have been established to regulate their use, leading to “more government”).

One of the really important things about resilience thinking is that it links together so many domains that we typically only looked at singly. Our thinking over the last 200 years has become very siloed, in part due to university structures, university careers, but also due to reasons beyond that. I think one of the really interesting things is that resilience crosses a lot of those boundaries between disciplines, because the general concept has applications in business and in the environment, but also in social communities. A really interesting part of resilience thinking is that you bring communities closer together so they have more options and can be more creative in responding to stress.

Future Tense: In one of your lectures, you describe how in prehistoric Australia, the people who lived in richer environments, where there would seem to be easy access to food and water, actually had endured more famines than those who lived in resource-poor environments. Can you talk about that a little? How does it relate to resilience? What can we learn from it?

Van der Leeuw: Australia’s inlands are very dry and have a relatively low yield in edible things. Its forests are very rich and have a very high yield in edible things. What is interesting is that in the prehistoric human bones we find, the remains of people in the inlands never show any sign of having had a famine. The only people who show signs of having had a famine are the people in the rich areas of the Murray and Darling river valleys. What we conclude is that the people in the desert inlands were at all times aware of the precarious situation in which they were living, so they never used their environment to the point of no return.

In the rich areas, on the other hand, people saw a plethora all around, so in all probability, they had more children, they exploited the environment more, and, ultimately, they found out that the environment had degraded to the point where they couldn’t feed themselves any longer. There is clearly a cycle there in the interaction between people and the environment—there is, in wealth situations, a temptation to use too much, and that then creates problems. Societies like those of the Australian Aborigines in the inlands, which actually had to permanently deal with the vagaries of seasonality, the ups and downs of the rain and so on, were in many ways more resilient than a society in a rich environment, which is thus much less likely to adapt to the circumstances.

Future Tense: What can we do to make our thinking more resilient in everyday life?

Van der Leeuw: I think one of the real difficulties of our current society is that we are so heavily invested in particular ways of doing things, because we’ve been doing them for a very long time and because we have invested huge amounts of capital in creating a particular infrastructure, and that decreases our possibility to conceive or create other options for ourselves. It basically reduces our resilience in an important way.
And speaking of the Roman Empire: When Elites Depart (Global Guerrillas):
One of interesting working theories we have is that while complex societies can be in decay for a long period of time, they only collapse when its favored elites abandon it/betray it.

Here's an example from Roman history written by Joseph Tainter:

The Collapse of The [Western] Roman Empire:

One outcome of diminishing returns to complexity is illustrated by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. As a solar-energy based society which taxed heavily, the empire had little fiscal reserve. When confronted with military crises, Roman Emperors often had to respond by debasing the silver currency (Figure 4.2) and trying to raise new funds. In the third century A.D. constant crises forced the emperors to double the size of the army and increase both the size and complexity of the government. To pay for this, masses of worthless coins were produced, supplies were commandeered from peasants, and the level of taxation was made even more oppressive (up to two-thirds of the net yield after payment of rent). Inflation devastated the economy. Lands and population were surveyed across the empire and assessed for taxes. Communities were held corporately liable for any unpaid amounts. While peasants went hungry or sold their children into slavery, massive fortifications were built, the size of the bureaucracy doubled, provincial administration was made more complex, large subsidies in gold were paid to Germanic tribes, and new imperial cities and courts were established. With rising taxes, marginal lands were abandoned and population declined. Peasants could no longer support large families. To avoid oppressive civic obligations, the wealthy fled from cities to establish self-sufficient rural estates. Ultimately, to escape taxation, peasants voluntarily entered into feudal relationships with these land holders. A few wealthy families came to own much of the land in the western empire, and were able to defy the imperial government. The empire came to sustain itself by consuming its capital resources; producing lands and peasant population (Jones 1964, 1974; Wickham 1984; Tainter 1988, 1994b). The Roman Empire provides history's best-documented example of how increasing complexity to resolve problems leads to higher costs, diminishing returns, alienation of a support population, economic weakness, and collapse. In the end it could no longer afford to solve the problems of its own existence.

A more recent example of this is how the bureaucratic elites of the former Soviet Union, turned on the system and quickly gutted it through privatization, when their privileges were reduced. An accelerant of the process was the availability of an external financial system to deposit the newly looted wealth.
A good point - we've seen the wealthy essentially abandon society, using the economic and legal systems (really both sides of the same coin) to siphon off all of the wealth produced by society, while at the same time buying the mechanisms of governance so that they do not have to give anything back. Public wealth ends up in private hands, even as people become ever poorer. Robert Reich called it "the secession of the successful." I call it Balkanizing along income lines. Either way, it doesn't bode well for society or for resilience.

Slate is apparently doing a whole series on resiliency. I wonder if they will point out that promoting resiliency is anathema to profit maximization. Not being resilient works fine until you have a problem, but by then it's too late to do anything about it. Promoting resiliency also requires long-term thinking, and economics can't look beyond stripmining society for next quarter's profits. Of course lack of resiliency is a major argument against the large-scale commercial monocultures that now dominate world agriculture. Biodiversity increases resiliency.

Some good comments at the GG link. I've noted previously that white, particularly rural, Americans seemed to turn against their government when the Civil Rights Era was launched. The plutocracy mined this resentment to turn the citizenry against their government, which benefited corporate elites since government was the only possible check on their power. As part of this, they promoted "self reliance" to a society that had completely forgotten what their ancestors had experienced prior to the Second World War and now thought that mass affluence was some sort of birthright. Anything government did "encouraged dependency'" and hence had to be abolished in the name of "freedom."
A significant chunk of the elite turned against the American system post-1965 Voting Rights Act. You go through the South and you can see it very clearly-- the decline of spending or interest in common infrastructure such as schools, public pools etc. Basically, when the white settler elite (the former slaveholders) realized they would have to share the commons with African Americans they decided to withdraw from the commons. But this is true throughout the United States, not just the South. It is only most obvious in the South, and since Southern politicians have succeeded in dominating the federal system, they have also been able to cripple the central government as well. Look at the huge fight over federal funding for high speed rail in California, which is embarrassing. Even Japan's right-wing one party government could see the benefits of high speed rail-- during the 1950s.
Indeed from people I've spoken to, it was busing that caused white flight from the cities, leading to the automobile dependent suburban patterns we see today. These white refugees set up their enclaves in the former corn fields around the rings of major American cities and became vigorously anti-government ever since. Now almost all their information comes from right-wing sources that feed them propaganda day-and-night. The lunatic, John-Bircher Evanglical wing is now taking control of the levers of power of the what used to be the Republican party, and using the propaganda apparatus established by corporate billionaires to drive the country into absolute lunacy, as witnessed by current debates over birth control and campaigns against compact fluorescent light bulbs and public transit in a country with real, critical overwhelming problems. Thus, it's not likely anything will be done about this:
Boomers and millennials, the two largest demographic groups in the country, are converging in a time-of-life moment where what they want is smaller homes on smaller lots in walkable, service-rich, transit-oriented communities. Boomers, who have just started turning 65, are empty-nesting and downsizing. But they are going to have to work much later into what they thought would be their retirement, and they fear the fate of their parents, who had their car keys taken away and ended up in the nursing home. Millennials are in the process of getting married and having kids, and according to market surveys, 77 percent simply don’t ever want to go back to the ‘burbs. At the end of the day, traditional subdivisions are isolating and expensive, while millennials are increasingly connected, are more into tech than cars, and are seeing their economic future more like their grandparents’—full of hard work and living on a budget.

Add it all up, and the National Association of Realtors estimates that—today—56 percent of Americans want the attributes of this new American dream in their next housing purchase. Yet only 2 percent of new units being built today fit these attributes. That’s a massive pool of pent-up demand, locked away by federal policy still supporting suburban growth at the expense of all other types of communities. Change the policy—without having to spend a dime—and we’re off to the races with new jobs in construction and infrastructure, plus homes and communities that reflect the way we want to live today. And they happen to be good for the planet, reducing energy, water, and waste by at least one-third.

It's time for Washington to do what Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower did twice in the last century: reorient the American economy to do our nation's, and the world's, strategic heavy lifting. Refocus America’s purpose on addressing global unsustainability instead of defending the outmoded lifestyle of Ozzie and Harriet, and designing resilience into our new infrastructure and systems amounts to a rounding error on a balanced federal budget.
Death To The McMansion: Resilient Communities with smaller Homes Can Rescue The Economy (Slate)

Good luck with that: Sustainable Development, Smart Growth and Agenda 21 Now Illegal in Tennessee (Treehugger).

And see John Robb's Resilient Community concept.

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