In the latest SmartEarth blog post, Stephen Flood discusses the concept of resilience, and unpacks its potential value in in the spheres of disaster preparedness and climate adaptation. This first post in the series concentrates on the psychological resilience of communities.
One of the overarching characteristics of the age of the Anthropocene (the age of man) is the threat of environmental degradation as the human footprint increases its size and impact beyond the carrying capacity of our planet. Global biodiversity is experiencing unprecedented losses and climate change is an ever-present and increasing threat to the lifestyles of those in the developed world and the livelihoods of those in the developing world.
Resilience is the watchword of the hour! Everywhere we turn policy-makers, businesses, communities and academics are calling for an increase in the resilience of our societies. What does this actually mean? And, is it empty rhetoric or something more substantial that we need to engage with?
Resilience is the ability of a system, community or society to recover, in a timely manner, from a hazard or shock. Its history traces back to law and politics before it moved into the sciences and humanities. It was passed from mechanics to ecology and psychology, and from there it was picked up and adopted by social science and sustainability science. The attraction of the term is in its agility.
The disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation communities have embraced resilience as a goal to strive towards, and with good reason. In its most complete sense resilience can integrate individual, community, institutional and environmental perspectives neatly in one concept. It also has the power to function as a bridging concept that can easily link climate with disaster preparedness, or development with human rights.
Resilience is an attractive concept because it embraces the three qualities of persuasive argument (as outlined by Greek philosopher Aristotle over 2,000 years ago); Ethos (credibility or trust), Logos (consistency or logic), and Pathos (emotions or imagination). The ideas behind resilience are credible; it is grounded in concepts of ecology, psychology and engineering. Resilience is also consistent and logical; it accepts that systems will need the flexibility to undergo stresses and suffer the impacts of hazards or shocks but that recovery is always possible in a resilient system. The flexibility and plasticity of resilient systems is what gives them their strength. They can bend but will not break. The term also taps into our creative instincts in a powerful way. It captures our imaginations and connects with our emotions by asking us to consider a future world that embraces change and harnesses transition and transformation.
But can this theoretical discussion of resilience be applied to real world examples? Can we see resilience in action? I argue that we clearly can and will outline a number of case studies of resilience in action over a series of short posts focusing on different resilience lenses, starting with the psychosocial resilience of communities.
A striking case study of psychosocial resilience in action is the 2015 recovery effort of the people of Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam. The storm has destroyed 15,000 homes, blown away around 90 per cent of the country’s crops, and left many without food or clean drinking water. However, despite these incredible losses Vanuatu is endowed with incredible community spirit and psychological resilience. The people of Vanuatu are proud of their island communities and highly adaptable to the challenges of island life. Tom Perry of Care Australia reports that on a recent visit to Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila in mid-March he found wreckage and devastation but also an incredible energy and positivity as people focused their efforts on the rebuild.
Their determination, resourcefulness and resilience can also be demonstrated in their push to persuade phone companies to expand their businesses on these island communities where a tsunami warning SMS can be the difference between disaster preparedness and potential loss of life.
Port Vila was recently classified as the most vulnerable city to natural hazards in the world, and life was already challenging across the communities of Vanuatu where a significant proportion of the population was already living in a state of poverty before Cyclone Pam struck. Recent research by Australian Aid (before it was absorbed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) underlines the importance of traditional social support systems in generating local resilience. Support for extended family and strong social ties ensures that when people experience challenging times, they are looked after by others who are faring better.
A critical component of this psychosocial resilience is linked in with the importance of food gardens. Those with food to spare from their family food gardens can support others in their community with less available food at their disposal. Cyclone Pam has destroyed the majority of these community food growing resources and highlights the challenges of communities in maintaining ecological resilience.
The next post in this series will focus on the area of ecological resilience with the case study region of South-east Asia providing an exemplar of ecological resilience practices in action.