On January 31, 2007, the long, narrow alleys and wide boulevards of Mexico City were filled with typical early morning sounds: children running through open doors; families preparing for the day; and street vendors cooking up tortillas, one of Mexico’s main food staples.
Yet this was to be no ordinary day. On this day, the price of corn—the main ingredient in tortillas—would hit an all-time high of 35 cents a pound, a price that would have been unfathomable just a year before. Corn was suddenly 400 percent more expensive than it had been just three months earlier. With half of all Mexicans living below the poverty line, a sudden increase of this magnitude was not just a nuisance, it was a potential humanitarian and political crisis.
As the sun lifted higher in the sky, the voices of tens of thousands of citizens, farmers, and union activists could be heard gathering in one of the city’s central squares. Above their heads, they raised not weapons, but ears of corn. The tortilla riots, as they came to be called, echoed throughout the day, taking over one of the main downtown streets and challenging the new government of President Felipe Calderón. Well into the evening, protestors chanted, “Tortillas sí, pan no!”—a pun on Calderón’s National Action Party, the PAN, which also means “bread” in Spanish—and barked out their suspicions about just who was behind the rise in prices: the government, big business, and the wealthy elite of the country. Union leaders and television celebrities railed against corporations for price fixing and chastised the beef and pig ranchers for hoarding their grains.
While the ranchers and political leaders were natural objects of class indignation, they were not, this time at least, the principal culprits. Indeed, the protestors could scarcely have guessed the truth: The slowly burning fuse that had ignited the explosion in corn prices had been lit several years before and a thousand miles away by a seemingly disconnected event—Hurricane Katrina.
Here’s how: In August 2005, the impending winds of the devastating hurricane had prompted the mass evacuation and shutdown of the 2,900 oil rigs that dot the Gulf Coast from Texas to Louisiana, disrupting almost 95 percent of oil production in the Gulf for several months. In the aftermath of the storm, the price of gasoline in America surged, in some places by as much as 40 cents per gallon in a single day. This spike in oil prices made corn—the primary ingredient in the alternative fuel ethanol—look relatively cheap by comparison and spurred investment in domestic ethanol production. U.S. farmers, among the most efficient and most heavily subsidized in the world, were encouraged to replace their edible corn crops with inedible varieties suitable for ethanol production. By 2007, even Congress had gotten in on the act, mandating a fivefold increase in biofuel production—with more than 40 percent of it to come from corn.
Amid the euphoria of this ethanol investment bubble, almost no one considered potential impacts on Mexico’s peasant farmers, who, in the decade between the passage of NAFTA and the arrival of Katrina, had found themselves thrust into international competition with powerhouse U.S. agribusinesses north of their border. American corn growers routinely sold (many would argue dumped) their product on Mexican markets at almost 20 percent less than it cost to produce it. Unable to keep up—even with the support of their own domestic subsidies—many rural Mexican farmers had switched the variety of corn they grew, switched crops altogether, or abandoned their farms, swelling the ranks of Mexico City’s underclass and further accelerating Mexico’s position as a primary market for cheap U.S. varieties.
As NAFTA took hold, this expanding corn import market had also become increasingly dominated by a tiny clique of powerful transnational corporations, mostly headquartered in the United States, including Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, along with their Mexican subsidiaries. These companies accelerated the transition already at work by doing what dominant incumbents instinctively do: concentrating power, tightening their control over the market, and squeezing out smaller suppliers. The result: Mexico, famous as the place that domesticated the growing of corn ten thousand years ago, soon became a net food importer—and the third largest of U.S. agricultural products—much of it channeled through a tiny constellation of companies.
It was against this backdrop that, in the year that followed Katrina, with increasing amounts of the United States’ domestic supply being diverted to ethanol, the price of corn became inextricably coupled to the price of oil—not only because ethanol and oil are comparable fuels, but also because it takes an enormous amount of petroleum-derived fertilizers to grow corn in the first place. As the price of a barrel of petroleum fluctuated, the price of a bushel of corn began increasingly to move in lockstep. When global speculation drove the cost of a barrel of oil to nearly $140, the now-linked price of corn also skyrocketed, provoking what may become an archetypal experience of the twenty-first century: a food riot.
• • •
We are, of course, used to these kinds of stories. Each week, it seems, brings some unforeseen disruption, blooming amid the thicket of overlapping social, political, economic, technological, and environmental systems that govern our lives. They arrive at a quickening yet erratic pace, usually from unexpected quarters, stubbornly resistant to prediction. The most severe become cultural touchstones, referred to in staccato shorthand: Katrina. Haiti. BP. Fukushima. The Crash. The Great Recession. The London mob. The Arab Spring. Other nameless disruptions swell their ranks, amplified by slowly creeping vulnerabilities: a midwestern town is undone by economic dislocation; a company is obliterated by globalization; a way of life is rendered impossible by an ecological shift; a debt crisis emerges from political intractability. If it feels like the pace of these disruptions is increasing, it’s not just you: It took just six months for 2011 to become the costliest year on record for natural disasters, a fact that insurance companies tie unambiguously to climate change. Volatility of all sorts has become the new normal, and it’s here to stay.
While the details are always different, certain features of these disruptions are remarkably consistent, whether we’re discussing the recent global financial crisis, the geopolitical outcomes of the war in Iraq, or the surprising consequences of a natural disaster. One hallmark of such events is that they reveal the dependencies between spheres that are more often studied and discussed in isolation from one another. The story of the tortilla riots, for example, makes visible the linkages between the energy system (the oil rigs) the ecological system (Katrina), the agricultural system (the corn harvest), the global trade system (NAFTA), social factors (urbanization and poverty), and the political systems of both Mexico and the United States.
We tell such stories to encourage humility in the face of the incomprehensible complexity, interconnectivity, and volatility of the modern world—one in which upheavals can appear to be triggered by seemingly harmless events, arrive with little warning, and reveal hidden, almost absurd correlations in their wake. Like pulling on an errant string in a garment, which unravels the whole even as it reveals how the elements were previously woven together, we make sense of these stories only in retrospect. Even with a deep understanding of the individual systems involved, we usually find it difficult to untangle the chain of causation at work. And for all of the contributions of the much-ballyhooed Information Age, just having more data doesn’t automatically help. After all, if we could actually see each of the individual packets of data pulsing through the Internet, or the complex chemical interactions affecting our climate, could we make sense of them? Could we predict in detail over the long term where those systems are headed or what strange consequences might be unleashed along the way? Even with perfect knowledge, one can’t escape the nagging suspicion we’re ballroom dancing in the middle of a minefield.
So what to do?
If we cannot control the volatile tides of change, we can learn to build better boats. We can design—and redesign—organizations, institutions, and systems to better absorb disruption, operate under a wider variety of conditions, and shift more fluidly from one circumstance to the next. To do that, we need to understand the emerging field of resilience.
Around the world, in disciplines as seemingly disconnected as economics, ecology, political science, cognitive science, and digital networking, scientists, policymakers, technologists, corporate leaders, and activists alike are asking the same basic questions: What causes one system to break and another to rebound? How much change can a system absorb and still retain its integrity and purpose? What characteristics make a system adaptive to change? In an age of constant disruption, how do we build in better shock absorbers for ourselves, our communities, companies, economies, societies, and the planet?
Like a developing Polaroid, the insights, lessons, and rules of thumb they are discovering are revealing an entirely new field—a set of generalizable insights for building social, economic, technical, and business systems that anticipate disruption, heal themselves when breached, and have the ability to reorganize themselves to maintain their core purpose, even under radically changed circumstances.
With this in mind, consider how the Mexicans might have been spared their difficulties. Larger stockpiled reserves of corn, more diversified food crops, better real-time data, and better modeling of the impacts of U.S. corn crop diversion might obviously have helped; so too might a mechanism to rapidly secure alternative suppliers in a crisis, or restructuring the market to dampen the monopolies’ power, or investments in social programs for the poor to mitigate the effects of the price spike. Or one might just as readily have intervened in another point in the causal chain—say, by diversifying U.S. energy production—so that even a major hurricane wouldn’t spur the diversion of corn to ethanol production in the first place.
The strategies implied in each of these interventions—ensuring that there are sufficient reserves available to any given system; or diversifying its inputs; or collecting better, real-time data about its operations and performance; or enabling greater autonomy for its constituent parts; or designing firebreaks so that a disturbance in one part does not disrupt the whole—are, at their core, strategies of resilience. As we’ll see, they can be applied at any scale, from whole civilizations to communities and organizations, to the lives of individual people.
Defining resilience more precisely is complicated by the fact that different fields use the term to mean slightly different things. In engineering, resilience generally refers to the degree to which a structure like a bridge or a building can return to a baseline state after being disturbed. In emergency response, it suggests the speed with which critical systems can be restored after an earthquake or a flood. In ecology, it connotes an ecosystem’s ability to keep from being irrevocably degraded. In psychology, it signifies the capacity of an individual to deal effectively with trauma. In business it’s often used to mean putting in place backups (of data and resources) to ensure continuous operation in the face of natural or man-made disaster. Though different in emphasis, each of these definitions rests on one of two essential aspects of resilience: continuity and recovery in the face of change.
Throughout this book, we will explore resilience in both systems and people. Accordingly, we frame resilience in terms borrowed from both ecology and sociology as the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.
To see what we mean, let’s explore a metaphor used widely in resilience research. Imagine for a moment you are overlooking a vast landscape of imaginary hills and valleys, stretching out in every direction. Like something from a Borges fantasy, each valley in this panorama presents a significant variation on your present circumstance, an alternative reality with its own unique characteristics, opportunities, resources, and dangers. Each hill in this landscape can be thought of as the critical threshold or boundary separating these worlds—once you pass its peak, you will, for good or ill, inexorably roll into the adjacent existential valley below. In some of these new circumstances, you may find life quite easy; in others, you may find things challenging; and in a few you may find your new reality so difficult that adaptation is all but impossible.
As in real life, any number of sudden and serious disruptions might cause you to be “flipped” over the threshold separating your present context and a new one: Perhaps you experience a flood, or a drought, an invasion, or an earthquake, or perhaps your valley becomes too sparsely populated or too crowded to occupy. Perhaps your business encounters an economic or energy shock, a technological or competitive shift, a sudden shortage of raw materials, or the pricing in of environmental factors that were previously unaccounted for. Unfortunately, many of these thresholds may be crossed only in one direction: Once forces have compelled you into a new circumstance, it may be impossible for you to return to your prior environment. You’ll have entered a new normal.
To improve your resilience is to enhance your ability to resist being pushed from your preferred valley, while expanding the range of alternatives that you can embrace if you need to. This is what resilience researchers call preserving adaptive capacity—the ability to adapt to changed circumstances while fulfilling one’s core purpose—and it’s an essential skill in an age of unforeseeable disruption and volatility.
There are, of course, many ways to expand your range of habitable niches. You could reduce your material needs in order to subsist in more resource-poor settings; you could learn to use a wider array of resources, so you could survive, MacGyver-like, on whatever might be locally available; you could invent a new technology, liberating yourself from a traditional constraint; you could modify tools designed for one niche to suit another; or you could learn to collaborate with the local denizens so that you don’t have to go it alone.
As it is for people, so it is for systems, businesses, nations, and even the planet as a whole—all can occupy a number of different, stable states, some vastly preferable to others. Planetary boundaries (so named by the resilience researcher Johan Rockström and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre) are thresholds that keep the entire biosphere from flipping, suddenly and potentially catastrophically, into a new state: They include factors like the acidification of the oceans, the loss of biodiversity, human transformation of the land, and the availability of clean water. Of the nine thresholds Rockström’s team has identified, three are currently exceeded; another four are approaching their limit. Like Russian nesting dolls, these planetary boundaries set the limits and context for all human activities, from settlement and migration to conflict and commerce, and spur the development of new forms of technology and exchange.
Enhancing the resilience of an ecosystem, an economy, or a community can be achieved in two ways: by improving its ability to resist being pushed past these kinds of critical, sometimes permanently damaging thresholds, and by preserving and expanding the range of niches to which a system can healthily adapt if it is pushed past such thresholds.
In principle, there are as many ways for a complex system to adapt as there are circumstances for it to adapt to. However, the dynamics of our present era—including the relentless quest for organizational efficiencies, the deep stressing of ecological systems, and the interconnections that bind us all—move certain approaches to the forefront. These patterns, themes, and strategies appear again and again, in large ways and small, wherever resilience is found.
PATTERNS OF RESILIENCE
From economies to ecosystems, virtually all resilient systems employ tight feedback mechanisms to determine when an abrupt change or critical threshold is nearing. As we’ll see in the next chapter, in an ecosystem like a coral reef, certain species’ behavior can change to prevent a system from flipping into a degraded state. In a human context it’s much the same, though when people do it, we’re often supported by an array of tools and technologies that provide us with a greater sense of situational awareness.
For example, the venerable check engine light on your car’s dashboard, if attended to, can be thought of as maintaining the resilience of the engine (and hopefully, the driver) by helping you understand that something is wrong under the hood and encouraging you to quickly get to a mechanic. In a much more sophisticated but analogous way, we’re now in the midst of a massive real-time instrumentalization of many human systems, from health care to business operations and international development. We’re soaking the world in sensors, and the feedback data that these sensors produce is a powerful tool for managing systems’ performance and amplifying their resilience—particularly when those data are correlated with data from other such systems.
The U.S. Geological Society, for example, is building a tool called the Twitter Earthquake Detector (TED) that links its seismometers to the social media service. When a quake is detected, the TED instantly scans for tweets about the location and severity of damage and maps them geographically, enabling faster and more targeted disaster response. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, health researchers are building powerful predictive models of disease outbreaks by studying migration patterns derived from people’s cell-phone usage; by studying where they are calling, they deduce where they are moving, and can assign medical resources to where they will be needed in the future, not just where they are needed in the present. These same researchers found that they can determine the economic well-being of citizens by passively studying the denominations in which they buy airtime for their cell phones. Buying airtime in $1 increments is a sign of greater well-being than buying airtime in 10-cent increments; a sudden, downward shift in buying habits may be an early warning sign of an impending economic disruption. All of these approaches rest on sorting, sifting, and combining open, real-time data from vast sensor networks and using them to create meaningful feedback loops.
When such sensors suggest a critical threshold is nearing or breached, a truly resilient system is able to ensure continuity by dynamically reorganizing both the way in which it serves its purpose and the scale at which it operates. Many resilient systems achieve this with embedded countermechanisms, which lie dormant until a crisis occurs. When that happens, they are dispatched, like antibodies in the bloodstream, to restore the system to health.
Another way to bolster a system’s resilience is to de-intensify or decouple the system from its underlying material requirements or to diversify the resources that can be used to accomplish a given task. Under duress, some resilient systems may even detach themselves entirely from their larger context, localizing their operations and reducing their normal dependencies.
For example, many global companies have awakened to the fact that we are approaching a critical threshold concerning reliable access to water, driven by the competing needs of agriculture, human consumption, and industry. Sustainability experts at Nike recently calculated that it takes a whopping 700 gallons of water to produce a single organic cotton T-shirt. (Think about that the next time you stand in front of a wall of three-dollar tees at Walmart.) It’s little wonder that they, and others in their industry, are now aggressively pursuing efforts to develop less water-intensive approaches to production and manufacture—for example, by using less water to grow cotton and dye textiles. They’re trying to decouple water from apparel, to the greatest degree possible.
This kind of reorganization is made feasible by certain structural features of resilient systems. While these systems may appear outwardly complex, they often have a simpler internal modular structure with components that plug into one another, much like Lego blocks, and—just as important—can unplug from one another when necessary. This modularity allows a system to be reconfigured on the fly when disruption strikes, prevents failures in one part of the system from cascading through the larger whole, and ensures that the system can scale up or scale down when the time is right.
Herb Simon, the polymathic psychologist, political scientist, economist, and computer scientist, demonstrated the importance of this kind of modularity with a famous parable about two watchmakers, Hora and Tempus. Both craftsmen built watches of equal complexity and beauty, comprising hundreds of parts. Yet Hora’s business flourished, while Tempus’s business failed.
The reason? Hora built his watches modularly, fitting individual components into hierarchical assemblies that could be snapped together to complete the whole. Tempus, on the other hand, simply built his watches piece by piece until each was completed.
In Simon’s parable, the watchmakers are occasionally interrupted by a phone call with more orders for watches. When that happens, they must restart the task they were doing prior to the interruption. As such, Tempus must begin each watch over and over again, while much of Hora’s prior work is preserved. And boy, does it make a difference: If both watchmakers are interrupted just 1 percent of the time, Hora will complete 9 watches for every 10 he tries to build. Tempus, on the other hand, will finish just 44 watches for every 1 million.
To encourage this beneficial modularity, many resilient systems are diverse at their edges but simple at their core. Think of the DNA in a cell, or the communications protocols governing the Internet: These specialized languages encode a vast menagerie of inputs and outputs, yet as protocols, they remain utterly basic, evolving slowly, if at all. The electrical grid, for example, in effect translates power generated from a number of sources—from nuclear power plants to windmills—into countless useful forms of work. At the center of this vast machine is an unchanging language of currents, voltages, and electrons. The resilience of the overall power system is improved as we expand the diversity of sources that feed it and improve the efficiency of the tasks that we use the resulting electricity for, yet the underlying core protocol of the system remains unchanging. (The converse is also true: Like the Mexican food system, the resilience of the power system is reduced as we narrow the diversity of sources that feed it.)
This modularity, simplicity, and interoperability enable the components of many resilient systems to flock or swarm like starlings when the time is right and to break into islands when under duress. These are the very features that make things like cloud computing possible—in which groups of linked, redundant servers swarm together, scaling up and down to complete a given task, then disband. Similarly coordinated approaches to resilience are found in realms as seemingly disparate as bacteria and the battlefield.
Yet this kind of modular distributed structure is only part of the story. Paradoxically, resilience is often also enhanced by the right kind of clustering—bringing resources into close proximity with one another. But it’s a special kind of clustering, one whose hallmark is density and diversity—of talent, resources, tools, models, and ideas. It’s this kind of clustered diversity that ensures the resilience of innovation hubs like Silicon Valley and the old-growth forest alike.
These principles—tight feedback loops, dynamic reorganization, built-in countermechanisms, decoupling, diversity, modularity, simplicity, swarming, and clustering—form a significant part of the tool kit for systemic resilience. Taken together, they form a powerful vocabulary for evaluating the resilience or fragility of the big systems like cities, economies, and critical infrastructure that underwrite our contemporary lives. Using this toolkit, we can ask: How can we create more effective feedback loops between our actions and their consequences? How might we decouple ourselves from a scarce underlying resource, or make our infrastructure more modular?
Understanding these principles also suggests resilience’s distinction from, and relationship to, some important related ideas. For example, though the words are often used interchangeably, resilience is not robustness, which is typically achieved by hardening the assets of a system. The Pyramids of Egypt, for example, are remarkably robust structures; they will persist for many thousands of years to come, but knock them over and they won’t put themselves back together.
The same holds true for redundancy, which is also a time-tested way to improve the ability of a system to persist even when compromised, but is also not quite the same thing as resilience. Keeping backups of critical components and subsystems is certainly wise on its face, as anyone who’s been stuck on a lonely road with a flat tire and no spare can attest. Highly resilient systems are frequently also highly redundant systems. But backups are costly, and in good times there can be a great deal of pressure placed on a system to eliminate them to improve efficiency. Worse still, these backups may become of little or no use when circumstances change dramatically.
Finally, and perhaps most counterintuitively, resilience also does not always equate with the recovery of a system to its initial state. While some resilient systems may indeed return to a baseline state after a breach or a radical shift in their environment, they need not necessarily ever do so. In their purest expression, resilient systems may have no baseline to return to—they may reconfigure themselves continuously and fluidly to adapt to ever-changing circumstances, while continuing to fulfill their purpose.
None of this is to say that resilient systems never fail. Regular, modest failures are actually essential to many forms of resilience—they allow a system to release and then reorganize some of its resources. Moderate forest fires, for example, redistribute nutrients and create opportunities for new growth without destroying the system as a whole. (Paradoxically, they do so by ensuring that fire-resistant species are not crowded out by nonresistant ones as a healthy forest reaches its peak.) When human beings intervene in this cyclical process and prevent these necessary smaller fires from happening, a forest can build up so much kindling that a small accidental fire can become catastrophic. Just ask a Californian.
More broadly, resilient systems fail gracefully—they employ strategies for avoiding dangerous circumstances, detecting intrusions, minimizing and isolating component damage, diversifying the resources they consume, operating in a reduced state if necessary, and self-organizing to heal in the wake of a breach. No such system is ever perfect, indeed just the opposite: A seemingly perfect system is often the most fragile, while a dynamic system, subject to occasional failure, can be the most robust. Resilience is, like life itself, messy, imperfect, and inefficient. But it survives.
FROM SYSTEMS TO PEOPLE
In the latter chapters of this book, we’ll turn our attention from the resilience of systems to that of the people and communities who live with them. As we do, some of the same themes reappear, along with some new ones.
We’ll start by exploring new insights into the resilience of individual people. And here there is good news: New scientific research suggests that personal, psychic resilience is more widespread, improvable, and teachable than previously thought. That’s because our resilience is rooted not only in our beliefs and values, in our character, experiences, values, and genes, but critically in our habits of mind—habits we can cultivate and change.
As we expand our frame to consider the resilience of groups, new themes emerge. The most important of these is the critical role of trust and cooperation—people’s ability to collaborate when it counts. We’ll look at two cases of cooperation in the midst of a crisis, one from Haiti and one from Wall Street—the former spectacularly successful, the latter spectacularly unsuccessful—and explore concrete things we can do to build, and harness, collaborative systems.
Also, as we’ll see again and again, establishing a “warm zone” of diversity plays an enormous role in resilience and is one of its most important correlates. Whether it’s the biodiversity of a coral reef or, in the social context, the cognitive diversity of a group, increasing the diversity of a system’s constituent parts ensures the widest palette of latent, ready responses to disruption. The trick is to balance such diversity with mechanisms that ensure that these diverse actors can still cooperate with one another when circumstances dictate.
In our travels, wherever we found strong social resilience, we also found strong communities. And here we don’t mean wealthy. Resilience is not solely a function of the community’s resources (though of course those help) nor defined solely by the strength of their formal institutions (ditto). Instead, we found resilient communities frequently relied as much on informal networks, rooted in deep trust, to contend with and heal disruption. Efforts undertaken to impose resilience from above often fail, but when those same efforts are embedded authentically in the relationships that mediate people’s everyday lives, resilience can flourish.
Finally, when we found a resilient community or organization, we almost always also found a very particular species of leader at or near its core. Whether old or young, male or female, these translational leaders play a critical role, frequently behind the scenes, connecting constituencies, and weaving various networks, perspectives, knowledge systems, and agendas into a coherent whole. In the process, these leaders promote adaptive governance—the ability of a constellation of formal institutions and informal networks to collaborate in response to a crisis.
These elements—beliefs, values, and habits of mind; trust and cooperation; cognitive diversity; strong communities, translational leadership, and adaptive governance—make up the rich soil in which social resilience grows. Taken together, they suggest new ways to bolster the resilience of communities and organizations, and the people who live within them.
• • •
The concept of resilience is a powerful lens through which we can view major issues afresh: from business planning (how do we hedge our corporate strategy to deal with unforeseen circumstances?) to social development (how do we improve the resilience of a community at risk?) to urban planning (how do we ensure the continuity of urban services in the face of a disaster?) to national energy security (how do we achieve the right mix of energy sources and infrastructure to contend with inevitable shocks to the system?). These all affect the one circumstance that matters to each of us: our own (how do we ensure our personal resilience in the face of life’s inevitable hardships?).
In all of these contexts, resilience forces us to take the possibility—even necessity—of failure seriously, and to accept the limits of human knowledge and foresight. It assumes we don’t have all the answers, that we’ll be surprised, and that we’ll make mistakes. And while we advocate for it here as a desirable goal, resilience—a property of systems—is not always a virtue in and of itself: Terrorists and criminal organizations are also highly resilient, often for the same reasons listed above. As we’ll see, when exploring resilience, we often have as much to learn from the “bad guys” as we do from the “good.”
Yet resilience-thinking does not simply call us into a defensive crouch against uncertainty and risk. Instead, by encouraging adaptation, agility, cooperation, connectivity, and diversity, resilience-thinking can bring us to a different way of being in the world, and to a deeper engagement with it. Bolstering our chances of surviving the next shock is important, but it’s hardly the sole benefit.
• • •
In the discussion that follows, there are other recurring principles. The first of these is holism. In a complex system, bolstering the resilience of only one part or level of organization can sometimes (unintentionally) introduce a fragility in another, which in turn can doom the whole. Considering the connected whole, on the other hand, can work to our advantage: When we do so, efforts we undertake in one part of a system can unlock greater resilience in another.
The deeper lesson is that to improve resilience we often need to work in more than one mode, one domain, and one scale at a time—we have to think about the aspects of a system that move both more slowly and more quickly than the one we are interested in, or examine aspects that are, at once, more granular and more global. Consider the constellation of forces at work in the story of the tortilla riots, for example: Some, like Katrina, moved very quickly; others, like the strengthening correlation between corn and oil prices, moved more moderately; and still others, like the economic concentration of international import markets, moved more slowly. It was the shearing forces between these different systems, each with their own velocity, that amplified the disruption. No attempt to correct the system could succeed for long without accounting for their interplay.
You will also notice that strategies for resilience often distill principles that are given their purest expression in actual, living things, whether embodied in an individual cell, a species, or an entire ecosystem. This should hardly be surprising—resilience is a common characteristic of dynamic systems that persist over time, and life on Earth is the most dynamic and persistent system anyone has ever encountered.
Yet this is not an endorsement of some vague “Kumbayah” naturalism. Living systems are messy and complex, and they operate in ways that are less than perfectly efficient—they are in a state of constant, dynamic disequilibrium. Encoded within each one are a diverse array of latent tools and strategies that are only occasionally, if ever, called upon. Carrying around this menagerie of rarely used but useful mechanisms imposes a real cost on the cell, the organism, or the ecosystem by increasing its complexity, slowing its growth, decreasing its peak efficiency, and limiting the resources available to nourish individual components at the expense of the whole.
Similarly, applying such strategies to the real world of human affairs isn’t easy, certainly not politically. Doing so involves trading away the certainty of short-term efficiency gains for the mere possibility of avoiding or surviving a hypothetical future emergency which may never materialize. Selling umbrellas in the sunshine is a tough job in the best of circumstances (ask any civic or corporate leader), but it’s even more difficult in the short-term-obsessed world of impatient stockholders, quarterly earnings reports, biannual elections, and constrained municipal budgets. If it were otherwise, we’d be living in a less bubble-prone world, and no one would groan as they lined up for a fire drill.
Living systems are also profoundly cyclical, rooted in what ecologist C. S. “Buzz” Holling, one of the founding figures of resilience research, termed the “adaptive cycle.” This is marked by four discrete, looping phases, starting with a rapid growth phase in which underlying resources come together, begin to interact, and build on top of one another, like an early-stage forest. This is followed by a conservation phase, in which, like a more mature forest, the system becomes increasingly efficient at locking up and utilizing resources, but also becomes increasingly less resilient as it does so. This is followed by a release phase, in which resources are dispersed, often in response to a disruption or collapse, and then finally a reorganization, when the cycle begins anew.
While not every system goes through precisely the same process, the adaptive cycle helps us understand the resilience of many entities beyond the realm of ecology. In industry, for instance, the adaptive cycle is omnipresent. Think how often this story is repeated (and experienced) in business: An entrepreneurial company creates a new and highly desirable product or service. By optimizing that innovation and rigorously eliminating alternatives, it grows very rapidly. It becomes a highly profitable incumbent, squeezing out smaller rivals. Then, when a competitor’s disruptive innovation takes hold, it suddenly finds that the very optimization that made it successful is now maladaptive, and the organization rapidly declines. As a result, human resources are released to start the entrepreneurial cycle anew. Growth, conservation, release, reorganization. Sound familiar? It’s the story of the rise and fall of Detroit in the face of the oil shocks of the 1970s; the story of Microsoft’s rise and fall in the face of the web in the 1990s; the story of Sony and the iPod in the 2000s.
A related theme in the resilience discussion is the importance of networks, which provide a universal, abstract reference system for describing how information, resources, and behaviors flow through many complex systems. Having a common means to describe biological, economic, and ecological systems, for example, allows researchers to make comparisons between the ways these very different kinds of entities approach similar problems, such as stopping a contagion—whether an actual virus, a financial panic, an unwanted behavior, or an environmental contaminant—when it begins to spread. Having a shared frame of reference allows us to consider how successful tactics in one domain might be applied in another—as we’ll see in newly emerging fields like ecological finance.
Of course, most of the pressing challenges that confront us exist at a different kind of boundary: the one where people and some other technical, ecological, financial, or social system interact. In the language of systems analysis, these human and nonhuman systems are coupled—the behavior of each system influences the other in complex feedback loops whose effects may be difficult to trace—just as the price of corn was coupled to the price of oil after Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, it’s the tendency of most coupled systems to become brittle over time—to lose rather than gain in their ability to adapt. When that happens, a systemic flip—frequently to a less desirable state of affairs—becomes more difficult to avoid.
Globalization is, in some sense, the mother of all coupled systems, and for all its benefits and wonders, it has often accelerated the loss of adaptive capacity by spinning incomprehensibly vast and interconnected webs across the planet, increasing the latent dependencies between farflung entities of all types. Globalization has often allowed us to optimize a single variable—for example, resource extraction or consumption—and temporarily delay or hide the environmental feedback associated with that optimization. Globalization also binds together systems with radically different time signatures—financial transactions that happen in milliseconds, social norms that evolve over years, and ecological processes that normally take millennia. As these interactions grow, the possible sources, speed, and consequences of disruption are all magnified, as is the pain we feel—in our individual lives, communities, institutions, and environment—when that disruption arrives.
MITIGATION, ADAPTATION, AND TRANSFORMATION
This ever-increasing complexity and fragility has spurred a whole spectrum of social and political responses. Some, in what we might call the “Icarus” camp, tell us that we need to prune humanity’s footprint, slow down, simplify, and think local. British and American activists in this camp, for example, are already planning so-called Transition Towns—communities that are designed to weather an abrupt anticipated end of global oil supplies and the equally abrupt arrival of climate change. Their strategies are designed to lessen a community’s dependence on the larger, hydrocarbon-dependent economy, using means ranging from backyard farming to local energy production. To many in the Icarus camp, an imminent collapse isn’t something to be feared, but rather something to be embraced, since it will bring about a more balanced, less consumptive, and more rewarding way of life.
While the followers of Icarus promote a return to smaller scales, members of a “Manifest Destiny” camp argue that it’s impossible to turn back, and that we will have to engineer our way out of inevitable problems. For good or ill, they argue, we humans run the planet; with billions of wealthy, wasteful people walking the earth, billions of poor people striving for the opportunity to join them, and billions more as yet unborn about to swell humanity’s ranks, the exploitation of resources is unpreventable.
While acknowledging this is troubling, members of the Manifest Destiny camp suggest that these challenges will also provide the spur for new, ever more efficient innovations, many of which are already becoming available, and which can lead us ultimately into something approaching equilibrium with our terrestrial home. In the meantime, what we must do is accept responsibility for and alleviate our inevitable impact on the planet by using technological tools already at hand. Since we can’t be smaller, we must be smarter.
Between these poles, much of the conversation in the last decade about adapting to global risks has been shaped by a now more commonplace framework, that of sustainability.
As originally envisioned, the goal of sustainability—to achieve a broad equilibrium between humanity and our planet—was both admirable and inarguable. But as a practical organizing principle, sustainability is now looking increasingly long in the tooth. In part, this is natural: Most ideas have a social life, and a half-life, and at four decades old, the sustainability movement has lasted much longer than other movements. In that time, however, what counts as “sustainable” has been continuously expanded to the point of meaninglessness. (Our favorite recent example: Del Monte Produce pitched its plastic-wrapped, unpeeled single-serve bananas as “sustainable” because they would keep fresher longer in vending machines, necessitating fewer deliveries. If covering an unpeeled fruit in petroleum-based packaging is sustainable, what isn’t?)
More seriously, sustainability suffers in two respects: First, the entire notion that the goal should be to find a single equilibrium point runs counter to the way many natural systems actually work—the goal ought to be healthy dynamism, not a dipped-in-amber stasis. Second, sustainability offers few practical prescriptions for contending with disruptions precisely at the moment we’re experiencing more and more of them. Resilience-thinking, on the other hand, can provide a broader, more dynamic, and more relevant set of ideas, tools, and approaches. As volatility continues to hold sway, resilience-thinking may soon come to augment or supplant the sustainability regime altogether.
To see why, consider this thought experiment:
Imagine we gather all of the people who are concerned about a major global disruption—irrevocable climate change, for example, though it could be any major future crisis—and place them, metaphorically, in a single car. (For the moment, let’s leave out the folks who don’t believe in climate change, or don’t believe it’s a big deal.) Now (in the experiment only!) let’s send that car accelerating toward a cliff—a climatological point of no return.
At the beginning of the car’s journey, one group in the car will hold moral authority: those who align themselves with risk mitigation. “Turn back!” they shout. “Hit the brakes! Or at the very least take your foot off the accelerator!” At this point in the car’s journey, this is precisely the moral and proper thing to do.
However, as their calls go unheeded, and the car approaches a point where, even if the brakes were hit, the car would still likely skid over the edge, another group will come to occupy the moral high ground: those who align themselves with risk adaptation. “We had better build some air bags and a parachute,” they say, “since we could go over whether we like it or not.” As above, at this point in the car’s journey, this is a moral and proper thing to advocate.
In between these two points, there is usually a transition—sometimes generational—between those who believe the best path is to avoid the danger and those who want to prepare for its aftermath. Early on, the mitigationists accuse the adaptationists of throwing in the towel and conceding defeat too early; later, the adaptationists accuse the mitigationists of wasting time and diverting resources trying to stop the inevitable.
Broadly speaking, the contemporary sustainability movement has been (rightfully) preoccupied with risk mitigation for some time. Yet as irrevocable global changes of all sorts edge closer, a shift toward adaption—and with it, an increasing focus on resilience—is under way. And not just in sustainability, but in many areas of significant future risk—from global economics to public health, poverty alleviation to corporate strategy.
This is not to say that we must abandon hope and accept every calamity as inevitable. Rather, the resilience frame suggests a different, complementary effort to mitigation: to redesign our institutions, embolden our communities, encourage innovation and experimentation, and support our people in ways that will help them be prepared and cope with surprises and disruptions, even as we work to fend them off. This in turn buys us time to embrace longer-term transformation—what we, following the preceding metaphor, might think of as the wholesale reinvention of both the car in which we are riding and the cliff it is approaching. Give the car wings, and you change the context so utterly that we would eliminate the need for brakes or parachutes altogether.
But in order to do any of that, we must first understand where fragilities come from. So that is where we will turn first.