The Transition Towns movement and many others in environmental circles prefer to talk about resilience rather than sustainability. Sustainability implies that you can create something that can last forever, while resilience aims more to handle shock and adapt to changing circumstances.
In his book The Power of Just Doing Stuff, Rob Hopkins shares seven principles of resilience, drawn from Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty’s book The Resilience Imperative. They’re a useful summary of what resilience is all about. Here they are, with some examples of my own.
- Diversity – too much of one thing creates vulnerability, if that one thing comes under threat. That’s the risk with monoculture, and the same is true in the economy and society. Resilience requires diversity.
Example: almost all the world’s bananas are the same variety, creating the real possibility of one day wiping it out (it’s happened once already). By contrast, Britain has hundreds of varieties of apple, and the more of them we grow commercially, the better.
- Modularity – Too much connectivity can lead to contagion or a domino effect when something goes wrong. Applying the principle of modularity allows one part of a system to fail without compromising the system as a whole.
Example: Do you remember those old Christmas lights where if one bulb failed, the others would promptly short? There’s a reason why they don’t make those any more.
- Social capital – The networks of people that we know and can call on are a key part of resilience, together with trust and a sense of community.
Example: When vulnerable communities do disaster planning, much depends on identifying key local leaders and assigning roles to make sure that everybody gets to safety.
- Innovation – learning and trying new things is vital to adaptation when change comes. Resilience calls for ongoing learning and the freedom to experiment.
Example: We will be better prepared for the next banking crisis if we encourage innovation around new ways to finance housing and lend to business. The credit union movement, local currencies, peer to peer lending and so on are all good examples of trying new things to create a more resilient economy.
- Overlap – Many modern systems are streamlined for maximum efficiency. Overlapping functions are considered wasteful, but they’re much harder to disrupt.
Example: When I used to live in London, I knew that if the tube was down, I could get the bus to work. And if one route was gridlocked, I could get another bus from the next street over. Unlike many parts of the country, London’s public transport network is really quite resilient.
- Tight feedback loops – the quicker you can read change and respond to it, the better, so immediate feedback on what effect our actions are having leads to greater resilience.
Example: If the millions of people buying roses on Valentines day caused Loch Lomond to dry up, we’d probably notice and be concerned. But if the damage was caused to Lake Naivasha in Kenya, chances are most of us would never hear about it.
- Ecosystem services – resilient systems recognises and values the services of the environment, reducing the risk of ‘externalities’ and maintaining environmental accountability.
Example: Climate change, some economists like to say, is a giant market failure. We haven’t priced in the damage that carbon emissions do to the climate, so nobody is responsible for them or has any incentive to curb them. Price emissions into our business accounting, and people would quickly find it’s in their interests to reduce them.