Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Whither Resilience?

Two recent news stories—one from China and one from Chile—has made me think about the nature of resilience. The word has become a common term in sustainability circles, where it has roughly the same meaning as it does in psychology: the positive ability of people (or communities or human-made or natural systems) to withstand stress and catastrophe.

An example of a resilient human community might be New Orleans, which is showing resilience in the face of two disasters in five years: Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It's still to be determined whether a related natural system—the Mississippi River Delta wetlands—having suffered for years from the slow catastrophe of human colonization, will have the resilience to bounce back from these recent disasters. However, the discovery of new species of oil-eating bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico may mean those waters have evolved resilience, thanks to the existence of large natural oil seeps.

So, resilience usually has positive connotations, and that's the kind of resilience I hope the 33 gold/copper ore miners in Chile exhibit. As of this writing, these men have been trapped in their collapsed mine for more than three weeks. Yet despite their almost hopeless plight—they'll have to survive for as many as three months before a bore large enough to rescue them can be drilled—they were incredibly upbeat (singing patriotic songs, no less) when a lowered camera enabled them to contact the outside world.

In fact, notes sent up by the miners—short and poetic, and in one case, asking for a sweetheart's hand in marriage—have captivated Chile and earned praise around the world for their expression of fortitude, hope, and brotherhood. To put it in colloquial terms, these miners are hard as nails.

On the other hand, we have the Chinese drivers who had to live through an ordeal that, although pale in comparison with the Chilean mine disaster, would bring most of us to our knees. The "Great Crawl of China" was a traffic jam that lasted for 11 days and was 60 miles long at its peak. There are photographs of the, um, "inmates" entertaining themselves playing cards, washing themselves down on the road, getting fed and watered by opportunistic vendors, and sleeping under trucks.

That's the problem with human resilience. As a species we have a remarkable ability to suffer slings and arrows. But when stress and catastrophe far exceed what other species or habitats can resist, that spells environmental trouble. After all, humans can survive low oxygen (Tibetans), extreme cold (Inuit), and extreme heat (Tuareg), environments that kill most species—we are extremophiles. The Chinese drivers were just applying that evolved resilience to a disastrous, disgusting, and dismal human-made environment.

This is worrying. It's often said that the majority of our population will only get the message on, say, the threat of global warning when disaster strikes home. But what if—like the clueless frog dropped in a pan of water being heated to a boil—we simply and slowly become resilient to the catastrophic world we are creating?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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