Living on the brink of resilience

Our inaction to create a resilient world has led to a small group of oligarchs holding society hostage. Will they cause its downfall?

This is an excerpt from the book "Dangerous Years" by David W. Orr, published by Yale University Press.

What would a sustainable, fair and resilient economy look like? What energy sources can dependably and benignly power it? How large an economy can be sustained within the Earth’s limitations? How large an economy can fallible humans safely manage? What would it mean to give up our obsession to dominate nature? How will we distribute wealth? What would it mean to develop an economy for "Gross National Happiness"? How will we subtract from corporate balance sheets the $20 trillion of fossil fuels that cannot be burned safely? Who will decide such things? Questions like these have been shunted aside in the manic phase of industrialism, but if not for the wellbeing of all of the people and all of those to come, what is an economy for?

Such questions are first and foremost political, not economic. They have to do with how we provide food, energy, shelter, materials, transport, healthcare, livelihood and how the risks and benefits resulting from those choices are distributed. But these issues are often excluded from public deliberation and democratic control. From the beginning, the economic deck was stacked to protect wealth; individual rather than collective rights; and perversely, the rights of corporations as much or more than those of flesh and blood people.

Further, it gives little or no protection to future generations even when their "life, liberty and property" are put at risk because of the actions of the present generation. In short, the system is rigged to protect power and wealth and not to foresee or to forestall obvious risks such as a looming climate disaster. Our manner of governance seems incapable of reforming itself, let alone dealing proactively and constructively with the scale, scope and duration of the perils ahead. Even at their best, it is debatable whether democratic societies are capable of exercising the foresight and precaution necessary to make resilience a priority in difficult circumstances.

And so we get to the nub of the issue: the founding ideals of America had to do with equality, liberty and justice, but these have always competed with other values embedded in the "American dream," which are mostly about the freedom of individuals to get rich. Early on, we were, in historian Walter McDougall’s view, a nation of hustlers and dealmakers,  celebrated now as "job creators." Pursuit of the American dream led to the indiscriminate exploitation of wildlife, water, soils, forests, minerals and people.

Our laws, regulations, taxes and subsidies were designed to accelerate economic expansion and to make it easy for the lucky ones to make lots of money. At the same time we made it much harder than it had to be for minorities, Native Americans, the underprivileged, women, workers, unions, immigrants, the poor and now, increasingly, the middle class. We’ve made it harder to exercise economic and technological restraint, foresight and precaution even as the scale and scope of risks have become global and the damages irrevocable.

Do we have the right stuff for resilience? No smart gambler would bet on us. It’s late in the game; there are more than 7 billion of us on our way to maybe 11 billion and we’ve loaded the dice against ourselves by filling the atmosphere with carbon, sharply reducing the planet’s biological diversity, acidifying the oceans and spreading toxins and trash everywhere. Canadian biologist John Livingston, like Lynn Margulis, once described humans as "a rogue primate" and any sentient intergalactic review panel for Homo sapiens would certainly agree. But that is by no means all that we are. We also have the capacity for compassion, foresight, care, tolerance, ingenuity, creativity, decency and, I believe, resilience. Given the lateness of the hour and the gravity of our situation, what’s to be done?

"Resilience," according to Donella Meadows, "arises from a rich structure of many feedback loops that can work in different ways to restore a system even after a large perturbation." Some of the first steps to improve the resilience of the United States are obvious. The engineering principles and technology needed for a more resilient electrical grid, for example, are well understood. A resilient power system would be distributed among many renewable energy sources. It would be highly efficient, carbon neutral and organized around interlinked "smart" microgrids that feature two-way communication between the grid and end users. Energy prices would be based on the full lifecycle costs of energy, including its externalities. Consequently, it would use a fraction of the energy we presently use while providing higher quality service.

The principles of resilient urban design are also well known. In Eric Klinenberg’s words, resilient urban areas consist of communities with "sidewalks, stores, restaurants and organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors." Healthy neighborhoods have many people watching the streets, as Jane Jacobs once noted, as well as many overlapping connections among churches, businesses, civic organizations, schools and colleges.

More resilient communities are pedestrian- and biker-friendly and their housing, schools, jobs, theaters, clubs, coffee shops, health facilities and other attractions exist in close proximity. They have multiple and interconnected layers of "social capital," a rather clunky phrase describing competent, caring and engaged citizens who work and play together and understand the importance of commonwealth.

Urban communities that are working to improve their resilience recycle wastes, minimize their carbon footprints, grow by infill and are stitched together by pedestrian walkways, bike trails and dependable, clean, safe and affordable light rail systems. Resilient cities will also have a growing percentage of locally owned businesses and community generated wealth that stay put to create still more prosperity.

At the national level, resilient economies are diverse, with redundant supply chains and few monopolies. They prioritize public good over private accumulation. Barry Lynn argues, however, that the Western economic model is moving in the opposite direction, so that we are "depend[ing] intimately on a system that we are making ever more interactively complex and tightly coupled. At the same time, we are abandoning redundancy, abandoning close management attention, abandoning closed monocultural safety systems."

In the realm of national policy, resilience will require a larger definition of security than heretofore. We spend trillions for defense against often exaggerated external military and terrorist threats, while ignoring self-generated dangers that have jeopardized our economic livelihoods as well as access to food, energy, clean water, shelter, physical safety and health care. Policy analyst Patrick Doherty proposes a "grand strategy" that connects policy and market demand for smarter growth with strategic investments that build resilient energy infrastructure and agricultural systems. Mark Mykleby and Wayne Porter, former staff members at the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggest a "national strategic narrative, making sustainability the new standard for national and foreign policy and reconnect[ing] our political conversations with our highest values."

In short, we do not lack for ways to improve the resilience of our infrastructure and our capacity to adapt and foresee coming challenges. But these are only the first steps toward resilience. Andrew Zolli warns, "None of these is a permanent solution, and none roots out the underlying problems they address." Moreover, our increasingly complex technical "solutions" may cause more problems than they solve. Financial risk analyst Nicholas Taleb puts it this way:

Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable. ... We are victims to a new disease ... neomania, that makes us [call] Black Swan–vulnerable systems — "progress."

In Taleb’s view, we are increasingly vulnerable to more and more severe black swan events as a result of increasing complexity, interdependence and globalization.

I conclude this chapter with four observations. The first is that it is impossible to make an unsustainable system resilient. Sooner or later the careless exploitation of land, water, forests, biota and people will lead to disaffection, overshoot and collapse. There are many variations on the theme, but the point stands. No system can be made resilient or durable on the ruins of natural systems or on the backs of exploited people. Design dictates destiny, but not in a direct and predictable way. Consequently, in order to improve resilience, we will have to remedy the systemic flaws that have rendered our future increasingly precarious.

Second, the challenge of improving resilience must begin by reforming those structures of governance and political processes by which we decide issues of war and peace, taxation, education, research and development, healthcare, economy, environmental quality and the basic issues of fairness. The political reformation, I think, must begin in the United States and it may be in ways somewhat reminiscent of the revolution we led in the years 1776 to 1790.

In Al Gore’s words, “The decline of U.S. democracy has degraded its capacity for clear collective thinking, led to a series of remarkably poor policy decisions on crucially significant issues and left the global community rudderless." Corporations and markets do many good things, but seldom without rules, structures, oversight, enforcement and the countervailing power of government. Our inaction in the face of climate destabilization is rooted in failures of regulation, politics, foresight and leadership — failures that are attributable to the corrupting power of money that infects governments and the political process at every level. As a result, a small group of oligarchs hold our common future hostage.

There are deeper structural issues as well. As Nicolas Berggruen observes, "The faster, wealthier, more connected, and more complex our scientific and technological civilization, the less intelligent our governance of it has become." His solution is to involve "citizens in matters of their competence while fostering legitimacy and consent for delegated authority at higher levels of complexity." The path toward resilience, in other words, will require a substantial upgrading of our collective capacities of foresight, coordination and enforcement as well as greater fairness within and between countries and generations.

In Berggruen’s view, the key to good governance requires constraints on consumerism and "institutionalized feedback arrangements that favor the long-term and counter the ethos of immediate gratification." In the same vein, policy expert Leon Fuerth proposes reforming the Executive Office of the President to build "anticipatory governance ... a systems-based approach for enabling governance to cope with accelerating, complex forms of change."

These new strategies would require no heroic leaps, only the development of rational procedures of planning and policy development. But both would require a smarter citizenry and governing elites, untethered to big money, who understand systems, ecology and the importance of the long-term, and moreover are motivated to act for the common good.

Third, there are no purely national solutions to systemic problems of fragility. In an interdependent world, we will have to evolve institutions, laws, procedures and "habits of heart" that make resilience the default at both the local and regional levels, even as we develop formal institutions, nongovernmental organizations and networks at the global scale. In fact, an efflorescence of civic capacity is emerging in diverse ways: from "slow" movements (food, money, cities), to organizations tracking carbon emissions of corporations, to women planting trees in Kenya and grandmothers installing solar panels in the Himalayas, to transition towns transitioning. And not the least to the growing role of elders in tempering our adolescent enthusiasms.

Fourth, as important as better technology is to a more resilient future, real solutions will also require improvements in our behavior and institutions: the rediscovery of big ideas, traditions, techniques, design strategies and even those quaint and mostly forgotten qualities of wisdom and humility in an age much enamored of self-promotion, surface appearances and busy with trivialities. We are caught in a trap of our own making. If we are to escape the worst of it, we will have to extricate ourselves from dangerous aspects of our own unleavened cleverness and wean ourselves from the faith that more of the same will somehow work differently this time.

One final note. Conferences on the subject of resilience might best be held in places like Detroit or Easter Island where there are ruins that remind us of our fallibility. Perhaps they might also begin with a reading of a prescient work like Shelley’s sonnet "Ozymandias." But such confabs are almost always convened in fairyland places like Aspen, Davos, or Paris, or in expensive hotels in Washington, D.C. amid the trappings of power, wealth and aggrandizement where the well-dressed and expensively coiffured speak assuredly of endless opportunities in the comforting faith that a policy adjustment here or better technology there will suffice. For all of their elegance, power and influence, such gatherings are not likely to advance the cause of resilience very much.