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Introduction to The Community Resilience Reader

October 12, 2017

We’re pleased to announce the publication of our latest book, The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval, edited by Daniel Lerch and published with Island Press. Here is the Introduction chapter, which explains why we’ve produced this important new collection of essays.

For over thirty years, the world community has tried to resolve the combined challenges of environmental degradation, fossil fuel dependence, economic inequality, and persistent social injustice—largely under the banner of internationally brokered “sustainable development.” Despite some partial successes, it is clear today that the pace of these global trends has not been slowed, let alone stopped or reversed. Their scale has grown and their impacts have become so widespread that they now threaten the stability—in some cases even the existence—of communities around the world. The global sustainability challenges of the past have become the local resilience crises of today.

Resilience is the ability of a system—like a family, or a country, or Earth’s biosphere—to cope with short-term disruptions and adapt to long-term changes without losing its essential character. We depend on the resilience of all the systems that support us for life and well-being; if these systems falter, we suffer. A crisis is an unstable state of affairs in which decisive change is both necessary and inevitable. Today we face four major crises—environmental, energy, economic, and equity—that threaten to overwhelm the resilience of the systems we care about, particularly at the local level.

The failure of international sustainability efforts to thwart these crises means resilience-building efforts at the community level—working on all issues and systems, not just climate change and infrastructure—are needed more than ever. But the charge to build community resilience raises important questions: Resilience of what, exactly? Resilient to what, exactly? Building resilience how, and benefiting whom?

Our latest book, The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval, aims to answer these questions.

In 2010, Post Carbon Institute produced a book titled The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises. The shocks of the 2008 stock market crash were still reverberating, energy prices were at historic highs, and climate change—though broadly accepted—was still largely seen by mainstream government and business leaders as a manageable future threat.[1] We and many other observers of modern industrial society’s long-term trajectory were deeply concerned that the end of 20th-century-style economic growth—coupled with the end of cheap oil and the beginnings of irreversible climate change—could ultimately prove too much for the system to bear. It seemed humanity’s interconnected sustainability challenges were coming to a head, and only deeper understanding of their systemic nature could point to effective responses.

Awareness of these challenges grew quickly in the decade that followed, but the responses of the international community ranged from ineffective to counterproductive. The world’s major economies, having (barely) stopped a global collapse in 2008, doubled down on efforts to produce short-term growth, but with no serious concurrent effort at fundamental reform. The world’s fossil fuel producers, flush with profits from sky-high prices, reinforced society’s fossil fuel dependence with investments in more-expensive, more-destructive energy resources like shale gas, tight oil, and tar sands. And the world’s most powerful nations, though well aware of the threat of climate change, decided at one high-profile international conference after another to delay effective, coordinated reductions of carbon emissions. Instead of making decisive changes in the face of these challenges, the international community in each case opted for business as usual—both postponing the days when change would no longer be a choice, and ensuring that needed actions (whenever they finally got around to them) would be that much more difficult.

Now, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, decisive changes are indeed inevitable—and we have clarity on what this transition from challenges to crises looks like:

  • Ecosystems around the world are being pushed near or past their limits, with impacts like severe topsoil loss, freshwater depletion, biodiversity loss, and climate change being felt worldwide.
  • Modern industrial society remains overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, spurring the energy industry to pursue ever-more destructive—and expensive—resource extraction practices like fracking for gas and oil, and mountaintop removal for coal.
  • Our economies are structured to require constant growth, but the end of cheap fossil fuels and the sheer biophysical limits of the planet are complicating this imperative more and more.
  • The broken promises of globalization have helped create the worst economic inequality of the modern era, and institutionalized racism and other forms of bigotry have been allowed to persist. Together, they’re now helping fuel a frightening rise in racist, nationalist, authoritarian politics.

Moreover, the impacts of these global-scale crises—once isolated to a few unlucky cities and regions—are now threatening the stability (economic, social, or otherwise) of communities everywhere, including in the United States. Economic globalization and corporation-friendly government policies have left cities and towns across the country bereft of decent working-class jobs and civic vitality. Decades of growth-oriented planning and underinvestment have left virtually every American city and town with an insurmountable backlog of infrastructure maintenance and replacement (sometimes with truly dangerous effects, like the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan and elsewhere). And of course, cities from coast to coast are grappling with the worsening impacts of climate change like stronger storms and greater temperature and precipitation extremes.

On the bright side, there’s also now more clarity than there was a decade ago about how to understand these crises and most effectively deal with them. When we were developing The Post Carbon Reader in 2009, we asked Bill Rees (Chapter 6) to write a chapter on the emerging ecosystems management concept of resilience thinking; at the time, resilience was otherwise a specialist term mostly found (with varying definitions) in emergency preparedness, engineering, and psychology.[2] Even sustainability was often a marginalized[3] and even contested[4] idea not so long ago, at least outside of progressive-leaning communities and environmentalist circles. Today the concepts of sustainability and resilience are widely recognized and are being used and explored by countless grassroots activists, local government projects, academic programs, business initiatives, and publications.

And yet, the application of resilience thinking to communities in modern industrial society is still underdeveloped. Urban resilience (as it is commonly called) largely draws on social-ecological systems resilience science, an approach that was developed primarily for working with natural resources and the rural communities that directly depend on them. After the unexpected (and very urban) devastation of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, however, the popular notion took hold that cities needed to build their resilience—specifically, to be able to “bounce back” from the future impacts of worsening climate change.

Over the next few years, a concept of urban resilience developed that came to include more proactive adaptation to future threats (e.g., “bounce forward”), as well as non-climate issues like economic development and social equity—not least due to the efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities” program.[5] This movement is in the right direction, but it’s only a start—and the depth of our crises and the insights of resilience science suggest it can go much further.

To help develop this application of resilience to urban settings, we produced a report titled Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience in 2015. The report characterized the challenges currently facing humanity, and now broadly impacting communities, as crises— specifically, environmental, energy, economic, and equity crises (the “E4 crises”). It then developed the case for responding to these crises by (a) using a deep understanding of social-ecological systems resilience thinking, (b) focusing efforts on the community scale, and (c) prioritizing six “foundation” themes essential to all community resilience work. (The full report, together with responses from various resilience leaders and practitioners, is online at sixfoundations.org).

With The Community Resilience Reader we dig deeper into the E4 crises, further explore resilience thinking and related tools like systems literacy, and show how the notion of community resilience building can be applied to specific areas of community concern like energy, food, and consumption. Here are some of the underlying assumptions we build upon throughout the book:

  • Our approaches to the E4 crises must be grounded in critical thinking, sober expectations, and acceptance of geophysical realities.
  • Systems literacy is essential for understanding our systemic, multi-scalar, complex challenges and for developing the most effective responses. (Indeed, there are only responses, not solutions).
  • Sustainability and resilience are distinct but complementary concepts. As Charles Redman of Arizona State University has put it, “sustainability prioritizes outcomes; resilience prioritizes process.”[6]
  • Building resilience means intentionally guiding a system’s process of adaptation so as to preserve some qualities and allow others to fade away, all while retaining the essence—or identity—of the system. In a human community, identity is essentially determined by what people value about where they live; therefore, the people who inhabit a community must be at the heart of the resilience-building process.
  • Communities are the ideal level of focus for building resilience because the particular powers held at the state and local government levels in the United States make this kind of work possible, and because it is at this level that regular people can most effectively be involved.

Following this Introduction, we start the book off with Chapter 1, Six Foundations for Building Resilience, an adaptation of our report of the same name mentioned earlier. It’s a useful summary of the book’s approach and it presents the “six foundations” that we consider essential for effective community resilience building: People, Systems Thinking, Adaptability, Transformability, Sustainability, and Courage. Those foundational themes appear throughout in each chapter.

The book then proceeds in three parts:

  • Part 1: Understanding our Predicament explores the E4 crises—environmental, energy, economic, and equity—with a view to both current impacts and underlying drivers. A concluding chapter digs yet deeper, looking to human nature itself to inquire as to why it seems so difficult for us to act on complex, long-term threats like climate change.
  • Part 2: Gathering the Needed Tools packs everything you need to know to get started with systems literacy, sustainability science, and resilience science into just a couple hours of reading. A transitional chapter then pulls us down from the cloudy heights of theory to the grounded roots of community.
  • Part 3: Community Resilience in Action shows how the information from Part 1 and the tools from Part 2 can be used to think about seven issues of particular importance to community resilience. The relevance of some of these issues (energy, food) will be obvious; for others (consumption, streets), perhaps not so obvious. Through these varied topics, we want to demonstrate that resilience is not just applicable to structures and services but also social and cultural patterns.

While The Community Resilience Reader is not a typical “reader” collecting pre-published material (all but three chapters were written specifically for this book), it’s still a book with multiple authors and thus multiple styles and approaches. We asked the authors to write about the things they felt were most important to convey from their fields of expertise as they relate to community resilience. For Leena Iyengar on The Environmental Crisis (Chapter 2) this meant including personal reflections on biodiversity loss, memory, and meaning. For Howard Silverman on Systems Literacy (Chapter 7) it meant an essay on enacting “purposeful change.” For Rebecca Wodder (Chapter 12), it meant a systematic exploration of community water issues. For Scott Sawyer (Chapter 13) it meant a walk through Vermont’s innovative food system resilience initiative.

Perhaps because the writing of these chapters spanned the final months of the raucous 2016 election and the first months of the Trump Administration, many of our authors told me they found themselves preoccupied with deep systems change—and came to the conclusion that collaboration is critical for meeting the challenges of our new political and social reality. That certainly fits well with the bookends of our six foundations: People and Courage. People is the first foundation, because where else should community resilience start from but with the people who live there? And Courage is the last foundation because, in the end, working with other people—friends, strangers, even adversaries—on topics that can be threatening, politicized, and deeply personal is not easy. But the work is necessary. And you’ll hear from nearly anyone who has collaborated with neighbors to strengthen their community—in the street, in a meeting room, at city hall—that the work is usually enjoyable, the results rewarding, and the new relationships invaluable.

Building community resilience starts with the courage to collaborate with the people around you to protect the things about your community that you value most. We hope The Community Resilience Reader helps support you and your community in shaping a future that is rewarding for everyone.


Learn more about The Community Resilience Reader



[1] Two years later in 2012, then-ExxonMobil CEO (and as of early 2017, Secretary of State under President Trump) Rex Tillerson said of the impacts of climate change “It’s an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.” http://www.reuters.com/article/us-exxon-climate-idUSBRE85Q1C820120627

[2] See William Rees, “Thinking ‘Resilience’,” in The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010), http://www.postcarbon.org/publications/thinking-resilience/. Probably the first significant book to introduce socioecological systems resilience to non-academic audiences was Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World by Brian Walker and David Salt (Chapter 9), published by Island Press in 2006.

[3] In 2007 while researching for my book Post Carbon Cities I attended the national conference of the American Planning Association (the country’s biggest professional organization for urban planners) in Philadelphia. Struck by the fact that I could count the number of sessions (out of hundreds) dealing with sustainability issues literally on one hand, I connected with other members to get APA to allow official special interest “Division” focused on sustainability issues. Over the course of our application process we were told there was resistance among some of the national leadership who felt “sustainability” was no different from well-established environmental planning issues already represented in APA. A few years later the Sustainable Communities Division was established, and today it is one of the biggest and most active of the APA’s twenty-one Divisions; see http://sustainableplanning.net.

[4] For years, sustainability-focused efforts associated (accurately or not) with the United Nations and its various programs and summits have been the target of conspiracy theorists and political disinformation campaigns, including harassment of sustainability advocates and disruption of local government meetings and public processes dealing with sustainability issues. See for example http://www.hcn.org/issues/44.2/fearful-of-Agenda-21-an-alleged-united-nations-plot-activists-derail-land-use-planning/.

[5] See https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/our-work/initiatives/100-resilient-cities/.

[6] Charles Redman, “Should sustainability and resilience be combined or remain distinct pursuits?,” Ecology and Society 19(2): 37.