One of the important strands that winds through discussions of sustainability are ideas about resilience, the ability withstand, adapt to, and bounce back from disturbances. These disturbances can be over the short term or long term, natural or man-made. Floods, fires, heat waves, droughts, spikes in the prices of fuel, food or other goods, economic recessions, even climate change itself, all of these are events that we are aware could happen to us. And many of these are things that we can do something to prepare for at all levels of both the natural and man-made world, from individuals all the way up to global society.
Disruptions of all sorts can be very expensive and even cause irreparable harm. And to tie back to the idea of sustainability, these disruptions, especially those that could have been avoided, are very wasteful of resources of all types. As the old adage goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. This applies not only to our health, but to nearly everything that we do. For example, poor design and preparedness can be the difference between coming through major storm relatively unscathed or with one’s home flooded out and unsalvageable.
So why isn’t resilience seen as a top priority? Actually in many ways it is already baked into best practices, good design tends to be resilient design. Homes are built to codes that allow them to withstand most normal use while avoiding damage. Society provides a social safety net to take care of those whose livelihoods are disturbed by injury or job loss. So the question is really, ‘why don’t we make our lives and systems more resilient?’ And here it comes down to time and cost. Increasing resilience usually takes some combination of more time, more money or more expertise. Over the longer term, increasing resilience would be very worthwhile and more than pay for the costs, but if one looks primarily at the short term, then cutting corners early on can look appealing. As with so many things, there is a happy compromise in the middle, but it is one that should be significantly more resilient than the status quo of today.
Design. ‘If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right’. Here is another adage that holds up to the test of time. Resilient design simply means that we take the time and effort up front to set things up so that disturbances of all sorts will have the smallest possible impacts. Being resilient by design means that one figures out which unwanted disturbances may occur, and then making sure that steps are taken so that these things don’t cause much, or preferably any, damage to you. This kind of design requires some expertise in the domain that you are planning for, so educating oneself or working with a professional in a given field may be necessary. One needs to know about and take into consideration the best practices for solving a given problem.
Quality. Almost every product or service has higher and lower quality versions, and usually quality is linked to price. Resilience doesn’t require always going with the most expensive and highest quality items, but instead being strategic and making sure that one picks choices that is good enough. Good enough to survive disturbances and last for a long time (given the timescale of the problem being addressed). Too often mistakes are made by trying to go too cheap at the beginning, which leads to higher costs and more problems later on.
Simplicity. Simple is better than complicated. When there are too many components, too many steps, there are many points that could fail in the face of disturbances. For homes, the easiest to build and protect from the elements has a simple shape and is well insulated, water and air sealed. A very complex shape with lots of corners, roof lines, bay windows, etc., has many more details that all must be done right (for a discussion of a problem that we had with our off-grid home’s overly complex heating system and how we solved it, see this post). The exact same thing goes for other problems, like climate change. We can either stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or we can continue business as usual and then hope to come up with some complicated technological fixes to attempt to address the problem later on. In this case, the ‘simple’ solution isn’t easy, but it is the one that the world should adopt.
Redundancy. One should build the first system or process as well as possible, but what if something goes wrong? Backup systems are incredibly important to protect ourselves in case there comes to be a problem with the usual way. One needs to make sure that a single point of failure doesn’t cause total collapse, so that there is time to fix any failures that arise for the primary system. We often don’t know which problems will actually manifest or when, but we often know what kinds of problems are coming and which weak points are most likely to fail.
Maintenance and preparedness. Most of the other points mentioned above about resilience are about initial planning and implementation, but it is just as important to keep up with all of the maintenance that is needed to make sure that things run smoothly, and to be ready for any problems that may arise. Consider proper maintenance of your home, vehicles, or home appliances. All of these things can last incredibly longer if they are well taken care of, and each has its own needed actions. Cars need regular service and replacement of parts that wear out, while homes need seasonal checks of the integrity of the home to keeping out unwanted pests and control water flows, and one should make sure that the scheduled maintenance of heating and cooling systems is taken care of. Then there is preparation for how to deal with disturbances, what does one do first? How time sensitive is the problem? To use one more adage, one needs to ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst’.
A few examples can illustrate.
Controlling water around a home. Water is one of the worst enemies of our homes as almost all components of your home and belongings will be damaged if water goes to the wrong places. Other than in sinks and other plumbing, water should be kept outside a building. So planning for water resilience is done at different levels and time scales. Step one is location, to make sure never to buy or build a home that is in a flood plain. If one can expect that waters could rise into a home every 5, or even every 20 years, a home simply should not be there. An enormous amount of damage is done to communities along rivers and coasts when completely predictable flooding pours into neighborhoods. Step two is design. For example, simple roofs with few valleys are easier to build properly and waterproof to keep out the rain, ice and snow. Proper building details such as using good quality roofing and siding, proper water control and caulking around windows, sufficient insulation, ability for the insulation to dry if moisture does move in, sloping the yard away from the building to prevent water pooling, etc., these are all things that will keep water in its proper place. Finally there is regular maintenance, such as cleaning out gutter downspouts or repairing any damage to parts of the home, there are plenty of lists (like this one) that help people to keep track of all of the maintenance that they ought to be doing around their homes. This is some of what what should do for water, but fire planning is no different; don’t build in a wildfire prone zone, make sure to follow all appropriate codes when building and upgrading your home, keep a fire extinguisher handy, and more.
Resilience in mobility. What would it mean to design resilience into your mobility? This would be someone who can still get around to where they need to, even if disturbances happen. It may be easier to demonstrate by starting with the opposite, a non-resilient and brittle situation. Imagine someone that lives many miles from their job, schools, and stores, in a place with little transit, biking, or walking infrastructure, has an old and poorly maintained gas guzzling car, and has few friends and family to ask for rides or to borrow a vehicle. For a person in this situation, they could be left stranded if any number of things were to happen to their ability to drive long distances, like: terrible weather conditions such as icy roads, their car breaking down, gas prices going up, having an illness or injury that prevents them from driving, or more. The more resilient approach would then include figuring out how to have multiple means of getting around that are relatively low cost/use little energy/use little time, figuring out how to live closer to the places that one needs to go, building a support network that could help in times of emergency, and the like. This may make is seem like one should live in a walkable neighborhood in an urban center, but that isn’t necessarily true. Rural mobility can also be very resilient – for instance farmers may have almost all their needs taken care of at home and can often be flexible about when they need to travel.
Financial resilience. If you’ve ever learned about budgeting, saving for retirement, establishing an emergency fund, or other types of financial literacy, these things are all about establishing financial resilience. There are a great many steps that one can take to protect against unforeseen financial problems, and it is much easier to make good decisions when not stressed about money. Again, it starts with planning, to figure out long term expenses like buying a home, putting kids through school, retirement, and then figuring out how to get there – what sort of career to pursue, where to live, etc. Resilient finances are those that would allow you to weather unforeseen money problems. One can build up emergency funds, put away a chunk of each paycheck for the future, invest in retirement accounts, hold off on big purchases, avoid taking on excessive debt, the list goes on. Financial plans need maintenance too, updating one’s savings rates, making sound investments, updating to account for changed circumstances, and more.
Living within our means…a final important recommendation
If one goes right to the very edge of what they are able to do, to stretch our resources to the max, to have overly optimistic expectations for the future, this is very dangerous. When one is at the very limits of what is possible, the slightest disturbance could make everything fall to pieces. This is very easy to see with finances, but it isn’t only applicable there. With one’s money, if you live paycheck to paycheck and carry a large debt load, it doesn’t take much of a financial disturbance to cause catastrophe. An unexpected expense, an illness, loss of a job, any number of things could start a cascade that could end with bankruptcy, foreclosure on a home, repossession of vehicles. The advice that is often given is to make a budget where you can spend less than you are bringing in so that you can at least build up an emergency fund. Even better is to make sure to also be putting something aside for your future, for your retirement, your kids’ educations, any other future needs.
Scaling up to regions, nations, and the world, we are currently living beyond the ecological means of the earth. We are using up our ‘natural capital’, eating into those savings that we and our children are dependent on today and are going to need tomorrow. So what do we need to do? Either we cut back our consumption, or we ‘earn’ more capital. We can learn to use our resources more efficiently, technology can grow what we are able to accomplish with the same basic resources, and we can even grow our stock of natural capital, by replanting forests, restoring wetlands, or practicing regenerative agriculture. But that will only be enough if we at the same time stop with the more destructive current practices, in burning fossil fuels, degrading landscapes, and consuming too much of everything. To come full circle, if we continue to push natural systems to the edge and to use up that natural capital, we are going to see more and more disasters as we tip over the edge of the ordered world we need and into chaos. However, if you do begin to take personal and collective action, encouraging cities, countries, or corporations to adopt more resilient approaches, we can yield big dividends, and turn the world toward a more prosperous future.