Building resilience is back in the news

HAVE  you noticed how a word has crept back into use in the wake of the catastrophic storms and winds? The word is “resilience,” which, in the sense in which it is being used, was first adopted by people concerned about our (humanity’s and the planet’s) ability to survive and adapt to the pressures and changes ahead.

It was probably most associated with concerns about Peak Oil, but Climate Change was another area where “resilience” was a buzz word.

Then the pundits and the media grabbed on to “sustainability” which seemed to be an easier concept. You can get awards for being sustainable – for everything from house building to serving seafood in your restaurant. It is, as those 1066 And All That guys used to say, a Good Thing.

Sustainability is not a difficult idea to grasp. Take seafood – if we take more fish out of the sea (including the obscenely wasteful practice of catching fish that are found to be too small or a protected species, and throwing the by-now dead fish back into the sea) than are replaced by natural cycles of birth and death, the numbers will fall. If they fall to a level at which the future of the species is threatened, that is unsustainable. Beam-fishing, trawling with nets the size of France, dredging for scallops … these are all grossly unsustainable, ecologically destructive practices. If you want to eat, say, sea-bass or scallops, and you care about where they come from, and whether your grandchildren will still be able to eat them, you already know to look on the menu or the fishmonger’s blackboard or the fish and chip shop list to see if the sea-bass were line-caught and the scallops hand-dived.

It gets more complicated, but you understand the basics.

Resilience is harder – and it isn’t particularly appealing. Sustainability is quite fun – you can buy colourful, sustainably produced clothes, eat delicious, sustainably produced food, live in comfortable, sustainably designed homes.

Being resilient sounds like hard work. It conjures up images of keeping the home fires burning, putting up with a miniscule weekly ration of meat, no bananas in the shops, blackouts and having your house bombed – or, to bring it up to date, finding a way to endure the effects of heavy rain for weeks that leave you with your home and your land flooded and your business in ruins.

It implies a grin and bear it, suffering in silence sort of existence. Pretty much what the people on the Somerset Levels have been doing these past weeks.

A railway company spokesman was on the Today programme in the wake of the storm damage at Dawlish and the resulting closure of railway lines and train services for who knows how many weeks. Another spokesman talked about concerns for businesses in Cornwall which will be cut off by rail for weeks. A few days later, a landslip near Crewkerne cut off rail links to Exeter – each day brings more misery, more problems, more rain, more floods.

And we can no longer assume that these are one-off events. These storms and resulting floods and destruction wrought by wind and waves may happen next year and the year after that …. The 100 year storms are becoming every-year events. There has even been talk, by a senior meteorologist, of this being part of Climate Change.

So, said the railway spokesman and the representative of the business community, we need more “resilient” plans.

Resilience has various related meanings – the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens; the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc; the ability to recover quickly or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

As it is being used now, it is both a psychological term and one that relates to long-term planning to meet known, predicted and anticipated problems and challenges.

Among the organisations and university groups studying aspects of resilience is the Stockholm Resilience Centre at the University of Stockholm which defines resilience as “the long-term capacity of a system to deal with change and continue to develop. For an ecosystem such as a forest, this can involve dealing with storms, fires and pollution, while for a society it involves an ability to deal with political uncertainty or natural disasters in a way that is sustainable in the long-term.”

Improving knowledge of how we can strengthen resilience in society and nature is becoming increasingly important in coping with the stresses caused by climate change and other environmental impacts.

The resilience approach, says the Stockholm group, focuses on the dynamic interplay between periods of gradual and sudden change and how to adapt to and shape change.

What that means is that we have to find a way to live both with and through change.

It may mean a lot of uncomfortable decisions – for public authorities, environmental organisations and for politicians, for whom the dreadful word “short-termism” is the preferred position. It is much easier to blame those who came before, politically speaking, than to address the unpopular realities of trying to make things better for those who come after.

Individually, we can only try to live as sustainably as we can, to not misuse and waste the resources of the planet, whether they are fish or fossil fuels.

And we will have to develop a resilience to change in the way we have been used to living, whether it is enduring floods and power cuts or eating less meat, using water more carefully (yes, it is a valuable resource – look at California today!), and thinking before you switch on the light or use the car to go shopping.

Fanny Charles