Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back

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9780755360345: Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back

IN THIS TIME OF TURBULENCE, scientists, economists, social innovators, corporate and civic leaders, and citizens alike are asking the same basic questions: What causes one system to break down and another to rebound? Are we merely subject to the whim of forces beyond our control? Or, in the face of constant disruption, can we build better shock absorbers—for ourselves, our communities, our economies, and for the planet as a whole?

The answers to these vital questions are shaping a new field of inquiry, and a new agenda, focused on resilience: the ability of people, communities, and systems to maintain their core purpose and integrity amid unforeseen shocks and surprises. By encouraging adaptation, agility, and cooperation, this new approach can not only help us weather disruptions, but also bring us to a different way of being in and engaging with the world.

Reporting firsthand from the coral reefs of Palau to the back streets of Palestine, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy relate breakthrough scientific discoveries, pioneering social and ecological innovations, and important new approaches to constructing a more resilient world. Along the way, they share insights to bolster our own psychological resilience, foster greater stability within our communities, and establish leadership imperatives for more resilient organizations. Zolli and Healy show how this new concept of resilience is a powerful lens through which we can assess major issues afresh: from business planning to social development, from urban planning to national energy security—circumstances that affect us all.

Provocative, optimistic, and eye-opening, Resilience sheds light on why some systems, people, and communities fall apart in the face of disruption and, ultimately, how they can learn to bounce back.

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About the Author:

Andrew Zolli directs the global innovation network PopTech and has served as a fellow of the National Geographic Society. His work and ideas have appeared in a wide array of media outlets, including PBS, The New York Times, National Public Radio, Vanity Fair, Fast Company, and many others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Ann Marie Healy is a playwright, screenwriter, and journalist. Her work has been produced in the United States as well as internationally, and her plays, essays, and stories have been published through Smith & Kraus, Samuel French, and The Kenyon Review. She lives in the Hudson River Valley.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Resilience
INTRODUCTION

THE
RESILIENCE IMPERATIVE

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 sett...

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Andrew Zolli
Published by Business Plus (2012)
ISBN 10: 0755360346 ISBN 13: 9780755360345
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