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Tim Haab notes that it's becoming increasingly popular to talk about "resilience" as a goal in environmental policy. Resilience refers to the ability of a system to withstand crises. He finds resilience to be a somewhat preposterous proposition, because a resilient system is meant to be able to withstand even unforseeable crises. How, he asks, can we be expected to plan for things we by definition don't know about?

The trick to resilience, and what makes it an important concept, is that we don't need to know the specifics of a crisis in order to know some general things about what will help us deal with it. By looking at what things have been helpful for withstanding past crises (including ones that were major surprises at the time), we can deduce generalized crisis-handling capacities.

For example, one such generalized crisis-handling capacity is resource buffers. A crisis is likely to demand additional resource expenditures to handle, or even to directly attack and reduce the resource base itself -- whereas the reverse is highly unlikely. So if a system limits its resource use to something less than what would be optimal in a crisis-free world, it will, ceteris paribus, be able to weather the crisis better than if it had been straining its resource base to the max.

Democratic information processing is another generalized crisis-handling capacity. It would be easier to handle any crisis -- whatever its nature -- if the system gets an early warning and full information, which we know from past experience is more likely to happen when hierarchies don't restrict the flow and sharing of information.

Diversity -- genetic, cultural, psychological, etc. -- is another useful generalized crisis-handling capacity. An un-diversified system may be optimized for the pre-crisis conditions, but a crisis necessarily changes those conditions. If the system is diverse, there is a greater likelihood that the answer to the crisis is somewhere to be found within the system already

Resilience is always a matter of degree -- no system is perfectly resilient to every possible crisis (though Haab seems to think such a thing is being demanded), and increases in resilience often come with costs (e.g. in the form of foregone profits from leaving a resource buffer). That leaves us with an eminently political question of how much of various types of resilience we want to build into our social system.


Blogger Alon Levy said...

I'd add that diversity adds another layer of resilience: crises are often local to one niche. If the system is oriented entirely toward one niche, as Detroit's economy was to cars, then a crisis of that niche will destroy the system. If the system is diverse, then a crisis will likely to have a smaller effect, which the system will be able to weather by bolstering its other niches.

3:31 PM  

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