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Two Steps Forward

Resilience, in this moment

Can we survive and thrive amid the multiple stressors coming our way?

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately.

Scratch that. I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience for the past few years, but never as much as in the past few weeks. The times, they are testing our understanding of, and resolve in, being resilient.

(Before I continue, a word to you wordies: I prefer "resilience" over "resiliency," although the two words are pretty much grammatically interchangeable. We at GreenBiz are standardizing around "resilience." As writers and editors, we’re nothing if not, um, resilient.)

Resilience — a term used widely in health, well-being and sustainability — refers to the ability to withstand misfortune or a shock to the system. It applies at the personal as well as the societal level. A resilient person is one who can grow and thrive in the face of adversity — a financial setback, job loss, health crisis, relationship ending, death of a loved one or any of a number of other physical or psychological misfortunes. Similarly, a resilient community, city or nation is one that can bounce back from any of a wide range of setbacks.

My friend and co-author Puck Mykleby, a retired Marine colonel, describes resilience more colloquially: "The ability to take a gut punch and come back swinging."

In my public speaking, I’ve been talking about resilience for several years. And not just in the context of the climate crisis, although the ability to adapt to extreme weather, wildfires, droughts and such quickly has become a critical societal and business need, part of the new normal. Rather, I speak about five kinds of societal shocks — often, unexpected black-swan events — facing companies, their customers and their supply chains:

  • Economic
  • Public health
  • Political
  • Terrorism
  • Climate

Here’s the thing: At this moment in time, we’re facing all five of those shocks. All five at once. That may be unprecedented.

The recent stock market crash in response to the spread of coronavirus covers the first two categories, not to mention the looming possibility of a global recession.

Political: I think you know what’s going on, in terms of the stress test we’re undergoing with democracy, the rule of law, a free press and other fundamentals of western civilizations. And not just in the United States.

Terrorism: It’s no longer just jihadists. In the United States, the much bigger threats are rogue individuals and domestic terrorist organizations, and that includes cyberterrorism. As Jill Sanborn, the FBI’s lead on counterterrorism, told a House committee last week: "The threat posed to the United States has expanded from sophisticated, externally directed plots to attacks conducted by radicalized lone actors who mobilize to violence based on international and domestic violent ideologies." Last year was the "deadliest" year for domestic terrorism, the FBI director told Congress last month.

And climate, of course: Wildfires in Australia, the Amazon and California; melting glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic; droughts in Thailand, Morocco, California (again) and many other places. Heat waves in Europe and India. And more to come.

As I said, we’ve never before run the table on all these stresses simultaneously. As Al Gore is fond of saying, every day feels like "a nature hike through the Book of Revelation."

At this moment in time, we’re facing all five of those shocks. All five at once. That may be unprecedented.
Can we survive and thrive amidst all of this? It’s unclear how this movie ends, but the storyline so far hasn’t been encouraging. Political polarization, the marginalization of scientists, threats to independent media and the nasty rebukes to economists, researchers, investigators and others whose conclusions don’t jibe with our own instincts or agendas — all of these stand squarely in the path of resilience.

After all, if we can’t even agree on the problems, how can we possibly come together on solutions?

Up to the task?

Now, thanks to the coronavirus, we’re about to find out what it will take for humankind to rally around a common enemy. And whether world leaders are up to the task of doing what leaders must do at such pivotal moments: provide credible fact-based information; deploy the full arsenal of government tools, know-how and assets (scientific research, money, executive orders, regulations, legislation, the bully pulpit); partner with and encourage the private sector to deploy its own tools, know-how and assets; and soothe the public so as to avoid panic without engendering complacency.

What about companies? There’s a role to play here, too, using relationships and communications channels with employees, customers, suppliers and communities; logistical expertise, such as distributing vaccines, medication, food, water and other vital needs; and similarly helping to avoid both panic and complacency.

We’ve already seen the potential of the private sector to rise to the occasion, such as following Hurricane Katrina in 2004, when Home Depot, Walmart and other retailers stepped in with money and logistical help. Or after the tsunami in 2007 in Indonesia, when the Business Roundtable formed the Partnership for Disaster Response to provide private-sector money and expertise. In the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, that partnership provided a wealth of resources.

Fast-forward to this moment. The convergence of systemic shocks may not be quite as TV- or Facebook-friendly as a tsunami, earthquake or hurricane. Indeed, the relative lack of visible human drama during a contagion may be part of the challenge of fighting complacency at every level.

These are the times that produce and test leaders. The ultimate leadership question is whether we can unite around a path forward, a way to capitalize on the fact that, as Stanford economist Paul Romer put it back in 2004, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

Whatever the fate of the coronavirus — whether it’s a flash in the pan or yet another part of the new normal — this isn’t the only infectious disease or other societal perturbation we’ll likely experience in a global, interconnected and climate-changing world.

The need for comfort — physical, financial, psychological — is nearly as critical as the need for vaccines and face masks. Particularly given the unknowns: the coronavirus shocks are ongoing — we don’t know whether this is a short-lived one-off or a preview of what’s to come over the long term. We don’t yet have visibility into how much worse things will get or how long the virus will last. That demands that business, political and community leaders help us be ready, willing and able to respond as effectively, intentionally and gracefully as possible.

In other words, that we be resilient.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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