The sustainability challenges of yesterday have become today’s resilience crises. National and global efforts have failed to stop climate change, transition from fossil fuels, and reduce inequality. We must now confront these and other increasingly complex problems by building resilience at the community level. But what does that mean in practice, and how can it be done in a way that’s effective and equitable?
The Community Resilience Reader offers a new vision for creating resilience, through essays by leaders in such varied fields as science, policy, community building, and urban design. The Community Resilience Reader combines a fresh look at the challenges humanity faces in the 21st century, the essential tools of resilience science, and the wisdom of activists, scholars, and analysts working with community issues on the ground. It shows that resilience is a process, not a goal; how resilience requires learning to adapt but also preparing to transform; and that resilience starts and ends with the people living in a community. Despite the formidable challenges we face, The Community Resilience Reader shows that building strength and resilience at the community level is not only crucial, but possible.
From Post Carbon Institute, the producers of the award-winning The Post Carbon Reader, The Community Resilience Reader is a valuable resource for students, community leaders, and concerned citizens.
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About the Author
Daniel Lerch is Publications Director of Post Carbon Institute, serving as lead editor and manager of the Institute’s books and reports. He is the author of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty (2007)the first major local government guidebook on the end of cheap oiland was the founding chair of the Sustainable Communities Division of the American Planning Association and a founding co-director of The City Repair Project. Lerch has delivered over 100 presentations to audiences across the United States and abroad, and has been interviewed for numerous media outlets. He has worked with urban sustainability issues for over twenty years in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.
Read an Excerpt
Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience
How do you know community resilience when you see it? I think you look for the capacity for people to not have to go through extremes ... being knowledgeable and having capacity to do something, to change your circumstances.
— Doria Robinson, Urban Tilth
We all need a sense of community. And we all need to believe that we have agency — a sense that we can make choices that will affect our lives.
— Stuart Comstock-Gay, Vermont Community Foundation
Efforts to build community resilience often focus on growing the capacity to "bounce back" from disruptions, like those caused by climate change. But climate change is not the only crisis we face, nor is preparing for disruption the only way to build resilience. Truly robust community resilience should do more. It should engage and benefit all community members, and it should consider all the challenges the community faces, from rising sea levels to a lack of living wage jobs. In addition, it should be grounded in resilience science, which tells us how complex systems — like human communities — can adapt and persist through changing circumstances.
What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?
Virtually every American community is part of — and dependent on — a deeply interconnected and highly complex global civilization of nearly two hundred countries, tens of thousands of cities, and more than seven billion people. The prices we pay at the grocery store and the gas station, the investments our businesses make, the regulations our governments set, and even the weather we experience every day are potentially influenced by countless events and decisions made around the world, all to a degree that was barely conceivable just half a century ago.
Although many of the challenges our communities face would exist regardless, this global interconnection is the dominant factor of our modern world and brings us rewards and risks (neither of which are distributed equally) that we cannot ignore. If the aim of community resilience — at minimum — is to safeguard the health and well-being of people in the face of the twenty-first century's many complex challenges, those challenges need to be understood in a global context.
At Post Carbon Institute, we organize those challenges as a set of four distinct but intertwined crises called the "E" crises. They influence and multiply one another, and they manifest in myriad ways from the most local to the most global of scales. They are characterized as crises because they are pushing us toward decisive changes — tipping points that we may choose to fight, ignore, or take advantage of. The E crises do not encompass all the challenges facing humanity today, but they frame and highlight those that we feel most immediately threaten modern civilization.
1. The ecological crisis. Everything we need to survive — to have life, a society, an economy — ultimately depends on the natural world, but every ecosystem has two important limiting factors: its rate of replenishment and its capacity to deal with wastes and stress. The last two hundred years of exponential economic growth and population growth have pushed ecosystems around the world near or past these limits, with results like severe topsoil loss, freshwater depletion, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Humanity's "ecological footprint" is now larger than what the planet can sustainably handle, and we are crossing key boundaries beyond which human civilization literally may not be able to continue.
2. The energy crisis. The era of easy fossil fuels is over, leading the energy industry to resort to extreme measures like tar sands mining, mountain- top removal coal mining, hydrofracturing ("fracking") for shale gas and tight oil, and deepwater drilling. These practices come with significant costs and risks, however, and in most instances, they provide far less net energy than the conventional oil, coal, and natural gas that fueled the twentieth century. Renewable energy is a real but imperfect alternative, as it would take decades and many trillions of dollars to scale up deployment to all sectors of the economy and retrofit transportation and industrial infrastructure accordingly. Declines in the amount of affordable energy available to society threaten to create major environmental, economic, and social impacts as the twenty-first century progresses.
3. The economic crisis. Our local, national, and global economies are currently structured to require constant growth, yet with the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, we reached the end of economic growth as we have known it. Despite unprecedented interventions on the part of central banks and governments, economic recovery in the United States and Europe has failed to benefit the majority of citizens. The end of the age of cheap and easy energy, the vast mountains of both private and public debt that we have incurred, and the snowballing costs of climate change impacts are all forcing us into an as- yet-undefined post growth economic system, whether we are ready for it or not.
3. The equity crisis. Inequity has been a problem throughout recorded human history, and not least in the United States, despite its professed values of liberty and justice for all. Although social progress since the Civil War has in theory brought political enfranchisement and legal protections to almost everyone, in practice the failure to fully extend both economic opportunity and a functional social safety net — together with the failure to fully address institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice — has led to ongoing inequality of economic, social, and political power. The ecological, energy, and economic crises are together exacerbating inequality, which has become increasingly visible in the rapid concentration of wealth among the ultra-rich and in the increasing violence against people of color.
These four crises shape the many and complex challenges that communities in the United States must wrestle with in the twenty-first century.
Building community resilience is an attempt to keep the community from irrevocably changing for the worse as the result of these crises and, one hopes, change the community for the better. How we go about doing this is critical to whether our efforts will succeed and last. To understand why, we need to take a close look at the concept of resilience itself.
What Is Resilience, Really?
Resilience is often thought of as the ability to withstand hard times or "bounce back" from a disaster. For example, a town devastated by a tornado is called resilient when its people and its infrastructure are able to quickly return to how things were before.
In recent years, people working on community sustainability issues have developed a more nuanced view of resilience. A commonly used approach — and the one used in this chapter — comes from the field of ecology, where resilience is understood as the ability to absorb disturbance and still retain basic function and structure, or "identity." In other words, a resilient system can adapt to changes without losing the essential qualities that define what it is and what it does. For example, a maple-beech forest ecosystem might experience wildfire, drought, or infestation. If it is sufficiently resilient, however, it will recuperate from individual incidents and adapt to longer-term changes, all while keeping essentially the same species, patterns, and other qualities that define its identity of "maple-beech forest ecosystem."
In resilience science, a community and the ecosystem it makes use of are together considered a unified social-ecological system. The system's adaptability is a function of general characteristics like diversity, innovation, and feedback as well as its ability to cope with vulnerabilities specific to its situation and make deeper transformations if needed. Importantly, the system is understood to be a "complex adaptive system" that is not static but is constantly adapting to change, change that is often unpredictable. (For a more in-depth discussion of resilience science, see chapter 9.)
When we intervene in a system with the aim of building its resilience, we are intentionally guiding the process of adaptation in an attempt to preserve some qualities and to allow others to fade away, all while retaining the essential nature, or "identity," of the system. Thus, resilience building necessarily starts with decisions about what we value. Of course, what a community can be said to "value" is open to interpretation and may not be agreed upon by everyone. It may even reflect ignorance and prejudice; few today would agree with racist and sexist values dominant in many US communities in the 1950s, for example. As we will see later, these core issues of equity and values make a people-centered approach to community resilience especially important.
Resilience science has mostly focused on rural communities and the natural resources they depend on, but new efforts are exploring how it can be applied to nonrural communities and their relationships not only with ecological systems but with economic and social systems as well. We might ask, for example, how a city can address complex challenges like a globalizing economy, more frequent extreme weather, rising health care costs, and uncertainty about the future mix of energy resources.
Applying resilience thinking to a modern city is not fundamentally different from applying it to a small rural community: we are simply considering a broader scope of systems because it is within that community's power to do so. A midsized US city has billions of dollars in infrastructure and social spending to work with over multiple years, not to mention hundreds of thousands of people who can act toward various goals through their economic, civic, and social activities. (Of course, the challenge of facilitating decision making among the larger community's competing interest groups will be more complex than in a smaller community.)
When applied to communities, resilience is sometimes spoken of as the next generation of sustainability; indeed, Post Carbon Institute's definition of community resilience (see below) deliberately incorporates sustainability's nested triad of environment, society, and economy. But the two concepts — resilience and sustainability — may also be understood as different frameworks for achieving the same goal: organizing how we interact with the world around us and with each other in ways that can continue indefinitely. Sustainability thinking has made important contributions to how we value and steward the resources our communities depend on, although its aspirations have proven difficult to put into meaningful practice at large scales. Resilience thinking offers a complement to sustainability thinking in that it is explicitly focused on the challenges of humans coexisting with ecological systems; after all, it was developed for practical use in the messy, unpredictable real world. As Charles Redman of Arizona State University has put it, "Sustainability prioritizes outcomes; resilience prioritizes process."
Resilience can be a powerful concept for communities, but why bother building resilience at the community level at all when the E crises are ultimately national and global in scale? We will see why in the next section.
When people speak of a community, they mean something far more than just the physical infrastructure of a human settlement. A community is also the people inhabiting a particular place, defined by their interpersonal relationships, cultural patterns, economic and governance structures, and shared memories and aspirations.
We leave the word community loosely defined, envisioned as a place-based group of people who have some meaningful capacity to influence their basic common needs given their particular social and political context. In urban areas, it might be a city of a few million with all its competing interest groups or a close-knit neighborhood of just a few thousand. In rural areas, it might be a village of a few hundred or a 5,000-square-mile county of dispersed towns. Community resilience building can start with whatever scale and set of people the initiators deem appropriate in a given situation, although through discussing needs, aspirations, and capacity (with attention to the six foundations presented in this chapter), it should quickly become apparent if the scale should be expanded or contracted.
The argument for building community resilience — and specifically for doing the work at the community level — is twofold. First, in the United States, community-level resilience building makes practical sense because of how the political system is structured. By design, new ideas typically come to fruition at the federal level slowly, thanks in part to the roles and constraints set by the US Constitution and the procedural hurdles of the US Congress. In contrast, local and state governments often have great flexibility in organizing how public decisions are made as well as significant regulatory and investment power over the issues that most affect everyday life: social services like health care and police, public goods like utilities, civic institutions like schools and courts, land use and transportation planning, and so on.
Indeed, our cities and states are traditionally the country's laboratories for social and economic innovation. One community's experiment can inspire thousands of other experiments, providing valuable insights and best practices and ultimately building support for larger-scale changes. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, while national and international climate efforts languished, many cities across the United States followed early leaders like San Francisco and Seattle and started their own climate initiatives. Using the terminology of resilience science, one could say that cities and states are providers of diversity, openness, and modularity for the resilience of the higher-level national system.
This model of local innovation works as well as it does because it is at the community level where we (as individuals, businesses, organizations) most directly interact with the people and institutions that make up our society. It is where we are most affected by the decisions society makes: what jobs are available to us, what infrastructure is available for our use, and what policies exist that limit or empower us. Critically, it is where the majority of us who do not wield major political or economic power can most directly affect society: as voters, neighbors, entrepreneurs, consumers, activists, and elected officials.
From that observation arises the second part of the argument for building resilience at the community level: it is both ethical and practical for community members to be at the heart of community resilience-building work. (This principle may seem self-evident, but it is not necessarily so; imagine a central government attempting to direct the resilience-building efforts of thousands of communities remotely, relying on uniform indicators, outside managers, and centralized resources.) Using the terminology of sociology, we might say that everyone in a community is a stakeholder, and those stakeholders need the opportunity not only to participate in resilience building, but also to actually have some responsibility for it.
Excerpted from "The Community Resilience Reader"
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Table of Contents
Introduction Daniel Lerch
PART I: Understanding Our Predicament Chapter 1. Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience Daniel Lerch Chapter 2. The Environmental Crisis: The Needs of Humanity Versus the Limits of the Planet Leena Iyengar Chapter 3. The Energy Crisis: From Fossil Fuel Abundance to Renewable Energy Constraints Richard Heinberg Chapter 4. The Economic Crisis: The Limits of 20th Century Economics and Growth Joshua Farley Chapter 5. The Equity Crisis: The True Costs of Extractive Capitalism Sarah Byrnes and Chuck Collins Chapter 6. The Roots of Our Crises: Does Human Nature Drive Us Toward Collapse? William Rees
PART II: Gathering the Needed Tools Chapter 7. Systems Literacy: A Toolkit for Purposeful Change Howard Silverman Chapter 8. A Crash Course in the Science of Sustainability Margaret Robertson Chapter 9. A Crash Course in the Science of Resilience Brian Walker and David Salt Chapter 10. Pulling It All Together: Resilience, Wisdom, and Beloved Community Stephanie Mills
PART III: Community Resilience in Action Chapter 11. Energy Democracy Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub Chapter 12. Building Community Resilience at the Water’s Edge Rebecca Wodder Chapter 13. Food System Lessons from Vermont Scott Sawyer Chapter 14. Learning Our Way Toward Resilience William Throop Chapter 15. Beyond Waste: Sustainable Consumption for Community Resilience Rosemary Cooper Chapter 16. Resilient Streets, Resilient Cities Mike Lydon Chapter 17. Community Resilience and the Built Environment Daniel Lerch Chapter 18. Conclusion: Where to Start Asher Miller