Yet, despite these clear warning signs, we as a culture do not seem to be willing or even capable of changing our rampant, often needless consumer-based way of life. Even myself, someone who constantly asks my peers to examine the amount of waste they produce from purchasing packaged foods, well I still burn gas, buy packaged foods (occasionally), and waste water in the shower (when I have access to one). So does quote “sustainability” stand a chance? Probably not. Am I wasting my time and energy promoting sustainable living? Probably. I’m just being real here - I still think people should live sustainably because it makes us happier, but we’re probably not going to get everyone in the world on board and thus save the world by doing it.
Which brings me now to why I wanted to talk about environmentalism in the context of resilience. There is a parable amongst progressives in the environmental fields which describes two types of thinking with respect to environmental disaster. Here’s the parable.
A whole bunch of people are traveling on a train running along an ocean cliff (let’s say the North Pacific coast). The train was only designed to hold a couple hundred people, but because the company wants to make as much money as possible, there are now multiple thousands of people roaming the boxcars. Even if the train stopped allowing passengers to board, other people want their friends on the train and sneak them on without the engineer’s knowledge. The rails below the wheels are beginning to screech.
“Stop the train!” some of us start to say. “Don’t let anyone else on! Tell the engineer!” Some boxcars listen and put a moratorium on gaining passengers, but the train rolls on collecting more people and fares in other crowded boxcars nonetheless. More people rather than less are inviting friends on the train and trying to get monetary kickbacks as well.
As the situation becomes more dire, the rails are irrevocably damaged and minutes from collapsing. A select group of people who until now have remained fairly quiet about the number of passengers are clearly up to something now. They know changing the course of the train is a lost cause, and they have been rummaging through emergency storage containers, first aid kits, and luggage. They have created makeshift parachutes, insulating devices, and lights. As the rails split and the train careens toward the dark oceans below, they jump. They wasted no time trying to stop the inevitable, they simply adapted to the changing situation and innovated to survive.
The environmental movement, just like a lot of our mom’s telling us to be careful and avoid risks out there - or better yet don’t go out there - has adopted a risk-management system. Eliminate risks, and we have nothing to worry about. But what about when the risks are inevitable or unexpected?
The theory of resilience says that risk mitigation is important - very important - BUT that the ability to adapt and thrive when faced with unforeseen, changed circumstances is just as important. Whether we like it or not, risk is a constant in life. So is change. How we respond to them - now that’s what is variable and fortunately, malleable.
So what is resilience? Andrew Zolli gives a definition in his book on the subject which I quite like because it combines components of both natural and human-created systems: resilience is the capacity of a system, enterprise, or person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.
Zolli notes that resilience is not just incredible-hulkifying our systems. We could create a one-inch thick bike tire that no thorn could puncture, but that wouldn’t speak to how fast you could be back on the road after one of the spokes on the wheel broke.
Nor is resilience all about redundancy. It’s cool to carry extra tubes because it allows your ride to persist even in the face of a changed circumstance like a flat tire, but they are also heavy and limited. And, they only account for one problem: how many people also carry a spare chain on rides?
Finally, resilience might not even refer to the return of a system to its initial state. When I broke my rear derailleur in 100 mile trail race, I repositioned my cleverly adjustable dropouts and created a singlespeed rig. After that, I never looked back - I ride a singlespeed mountain bike to this day. “In their purest expression,” Zolli writes, “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.”
In a world that is changing as rapidly as the one we live in - not to mention the possibility for it to undergo permanent changes as more and more people join us - perhaps we should start to think seriously about the amount of resilience our society has - or how much resilience we as individuals have. You know what I am going to say: adventure, getting yourself out of your comfort zone, is a perfect way to cultivate individual resilience. The latest research in psychology shows that personal resilience is both teachable and improvable rather than fixed within us upon birth. It is intrinsically connected to not only our genes and personalities, but also our habits of mind. So make sure the habits you are cultivating are adventurous.
With this, I’d like to start a series of episodes that explores some of the latest thoughts and research into these habits of mind. In the next several episodes, we’ll try to cover scientific topics like how risk-taking affects the hormones in your body (or, conversely and more appropriately, how the hormones in your body affect your desire to engage with risks) and what are the habits that can cultivate resilience? It will be cool. So listen in over the next couple of months.
Vicki Arroyo gives a TED Talk on preparing for our new climate.
Resilience by Andrew Zolli
David Phillips on Mevio's Music Alley!