Home > Building Resilience > Living and Breathing in a ‘Black Swan’ World

Living and Breathing in a ‘Black Swan’ World

October 23, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
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“Black Swan” events such as the Fukushima disaster contribute to changes and turbulance across various levels of society, driving the need for more resilient systems. Mike Weightman, IAEA Imagebank.

A Marine Corps friend of mine defines resilience as the ability to take a gut punch and come back swinging. More formally, it is said to be the capacity to maintain core functions and values in the face of outside disturbance. Either way, the concept is elusive, a matter of more or less, not either/or. The combination of slow, cumulative changes like soil erosion, loss of species, and acidification of oceans with fast, Black Swan events, such as the Fukushima disaster, like intersecting ocean currents, will create overlapping levels of unpredictable turbulence at various depths1. Against that prospect, the idea that we can improve resilience at scales ranging from cities to global civilization is becoming an important part of policy discussions, but mostly in reaction to crises like the global economic crisis of 2008 and the prospect of rapid climate change. If we are serious about it we will have to improve not only our capacity to act with foresight but also develop the wherewithal to diagnose and remedy the deeper problems rooted in language, paradigms, social structure, and economy that undermine resilience in the first place.

The theoretical underpinnings of the concept go back to the writings of C. S. Holling on the resilience of ecological systems and to metaphors drawn from the disciplines of systems theory, mathematics, and engineering. More recently, scholars such as Joseph Tainter, Thomas Homer-Dixon, and Jared Diamond have documented the histories of societies that collapsed for lack of foresight, competence, ecological intelligence, and environmental restraint.2

The concept of resilience is related to that of sustainability, but differs in at least one crucial respect. Sustainability implies a stable end state that can be achieved once and for all. Resilience, on the other hand, is the capacity to make ongoing adjustments to changing political, economic, and ecological conditions. Its hallmarks are redundancy, adaptation, and flexibility, as well as the foresight and good judgment to avoid the brawl in the first place.

In the section below I will discuss some of the causes of brittleness, the opposite of resilience.3 The subject is large and perplexing, but we are inclined to whittle it down to simpler issues of technology. While better technology is certainly a large part of societal resilience, the definition of ‘better’ is seldom obvious. The reason is that we do not simply choose to make and deploy single artifacts, but rather, unknowingly, we select devices as parts of larger systems of technology, power, and wealth.4 The plow, for instance, represented the ingenuity of John Deere, but also an emerging, yet seldom acknowledged agro-industrial paradigm of total human domination of nature with commodity markets, banks, federal crop insurance, grain elevators, long-distance transport, fossil fuel dependence, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, crop subsidies, overproduction, mass obesity, soil erosion, polluted groundwater, loss of biological diversity, dead zones, and the concentrated political power of the farm lobby representing oil companies, equipment manufacturers, chemical and seed companies, the Farm Bureau, commodity brokers, giant food companies, advertisers, and so forth. The upshot is a high output, ecologically destructive, fossil-fuel dependent, unsustainable and brittle food system that wreaks havoc on the health of land, waters, and people alike. Farmers did not just buy John Deere plows, they bought into a system and the resilience of that system had nothing to do with their choices.

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Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Existing political systems provide little hope for protecting future generations while serving the interests of wealth and power.

There is little in the modern world that is either resilient or sustainable. The idea of resilience is largely alien to our cultural DNA. As a result, the drive toward globalization, more economic growth, faster communication, robotics, drones, ever more interconnectedness, and so forth, has created a global world without firebreaks or even fire departments.

While there are some obvious things we can do at the national5 and international level to improve resilience, such measures are no more than temporary stop-gaps that conceal deeper flaws rooted in our paradigms and worldviews. We are prone to tinker at the edges of the status quo and then are puzzled when things do not improve much and even larger disasters occur. My point is that if we are serious about designing and building resilience, we will face a long and difficult process of rebuilding not just our hardware and infrastructure, but rooting out the ideas hidden in our paradigms, language, political systems, economy, and education that undermined resilience in the first place. Perhaps when we come to a fuller understanding of the discipline and restraint that sustainability and resilience will require of us, we may, like Thelma and Louise, prefer to go off the cliff in a blaze of glory. If we decide otherwise, the conversation about resilience must advance from a focus on the coefficients of change to the structure of larger systems and ideas of human dominance, which is to say from symptoms to root causes. Among other things, this will require revisiting earlier conversations that go back to the likes of Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Herman Daly, John Ralston Saul, and further back in time to Frederick Soddy, Karl Marx, John Ruskin, and John Stuart Mill, as well as others who first noticed the cracks in the hard-shell presumptions of the modern project.


Aside from the permanent threat of nuclear war, rapid climate change resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels tops many lists of global fears. The scientific evidence supporting that fear has grown dramatically in recent years. There is little doubt that if business as usual continues, we are heading for a 2 degrees C warming sometime around mid-century. Recent evidence suggests temperature increases of 4 – 6 degrees C by the year 2100 or even sooner are possible.6 Somewhere along that trajectory, many things will come undone starting with water and food shortages, but eventually entire economies and political systems. Nearly everything on earth behaves or works differently at higher temperatures. Ecologies collapse, forests burn, metals expand, concrete runways buckle, rivers dry up, and people curse and kill more easily.

Climate deniers, of course, remain unmoved by science and the evidence before their eyes, but they are doomed to roughly the same status as, say, members of the Flat Earth Society. More serious problems arise from those who presumably know what lies ahead, but choose not to speak about the harsh realities ahead for fear of alarming the public. As a result of both denial and evasion, there is a large chasm separating the science and the public discourse about planetary destabilization now well underway. Whether we face it or not, we will have to contend with the remorseless working of the big numbers that govern the biosphere. The ‘long emergency’ ahead is caused by the fact that carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels will stay in the atmosphere for a very long time. As a result, temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise for hundreds or even thousands of years.7

The problem is not solvable in any way that we would normally use that word. What we can do, and must do, is to head off the worst of what lies ahead by making a rapid transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Humans have never faced a more vexing and dire problem. Why have we ignored increasingly urgent and detailed scientific warnings for so long?

Historian Ronald Wright describes our autism as the result of a progress trap. “Technology,” he writes, “is addictive. Material progress creates problems that are, or seem to be, soluble only by further progress.”8 It is an old story, “Many of the great ruins that grace the deserts and jungles of the earth are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilizations which fell victim to their own success.”9 The problem, Wright believes, is the inherent “human inability to foresee long-range consequences.”10

We are preoccupied with the here and now. What lies beyond is confusing and veiled and so we procrastinate. We exist amidst the interlocking systems of different temporal and spatial scales and navigate by often conflicting and competing value systems that direct our attention to one thing while making us blind to another. The headlines report the fast news from the latest scandal to the daily jiggles of stock market trends. The brown color of the local river, on the other hand, reports the slow movement of topsoil seaward. The former captures most of our attention, but soil erosion, literacy rates, and retreating Arctic ice say much more about our long-term prospects. As those inexorable slow variables work over decades or centuries, baseline expectations and memories of better things shift downward to a new normal and we forget what once had been. And, mesmerized by ever more powerful technology, we fail to notice vulnerabilities silently multiplying and ramifying all around us.

Looking ahead even a few decades, the progress trap will lead to more difficult and unprecedented problems for which we are ill-prepared. Ray Kurzweil, for example, happily forecasts the singularity, when carbon-based intelligence (you and I) will merge with silicon-based intelligence (computers) to create something beyond, or below, human. Yet, there is almost no inquiry into whether this is a desirable future or not and who has the right to make such decisions. We are sleepwalking toward seismic and irrevocable changes in virtually everything we have heretofore regarded as fundamental to our humanity. Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, once called for a moratorium on the deployment of technologies with the capability to self-replicate and hence displace human agency, specifically artificial intelligence, nano-technology, and genetic engineering11, but any such moratorium is unlikely. We are unpracticed in foresight, precaution, and the discipline necessary to restrain and redirect our technological drive12. The merest suggestion of caution has become the modern version of religious heresy. We now have new and more powerful gods.

A still more fundamental progress trap is inherent in the dynamism of a continually growing, energy- and resource-intensive, consumption-oriented market economy. The market economy has also attained a kind of divine status-worshipped, worried over, and appeased with sacrificial offerings (e.g., Detroit). There is good reason to believe that the economy has already exceeded the carrying capacity of Earth. But the ideas that there are any limits to growth or fundamental differences between quantitative and qualitative growth are still incomprehensible to most economists, corporate chiefs, bankers, financiers, managers of the economy, media talking heads, and all of the nabobs who gather to preen and be seen at the annual séance at Davos.

Few of these, or their acolytes, seem to notice the accumulation of ironies piling up all about them. Since the 1950s, for example, economies in developed countries expanded 3 – 8 fold, but indicators of happiness did not budge.13 Beyond some fairly low income level, we are no happier with more stuff than we are with less, but rates of suicide, crime, and mental illness suggest that we are considerably more distraught and distracted. Accumulating wealth is increasingly offset by what John Ruskin once called “illth,” in the form of pollution, climate change, unpaid social costs, and ugliness in its many guises. We are wealthier than ever, but the gap between the super wealthy and all of the rest of us continues to widen and the collateral effects of inequality and demoralization infiltrate every sector of modern society.14 Once, we confidently presumed that our legacy was an unalloyed stream of benefits to our progeny, but the truth is that we cast a lengthening shadow of biotic impoverishment, deforestation, acidic oceans, toxic pollution, and declining climate stability on our descendants.

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Tim Rich and Lesley Katon / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To solve climate change, societal systems must be changed and cultural norms shifted to look beyond the present to the impending and drastic ecological changes lying ahead.

What would a sustainable, fair, and resilient economy be? What energy sources will dependably and benignly power it? How large an economy can be sustained within the limits of the earth? How large an economy can fallible humans safely manage? What would it mean to give up our fatal obsession with the domination of nature? How will we distribute wealth? What would it mean to develop an economy for ‘Gross National Happiness’? How will we subtract the $20 trillion of fossil fuels that cannot be safely burned from corporate balance sheets? Who will decide such things? Such questions have been shunted aside in the manic phase of economic expansion, 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, and livelihoods, and how we distribute the risks and benefits resulting from those choices, but these issues are often excluded from public deliberation and democratic control. From the beginning, the 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 climate disaster looming dead ahead. 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, however, it is debatable whether democratic societies are capable of exercising the foresight and precaution necessary to make resilience a priority in difficult circumstances.15

Here is 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 were mostly about individuals getting rich quick. We were, in historian Walter McDougall’s view, predominantly a nation of hustlers and deal-makers, now breathlessly puffed up as ‘job creators.’ Pursuit of the American dream led to the indiscriminate exploitation of land, wildlife, waters, 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 have made it still harder to exercise economic and technological restraint, foresight, and precaution, even as the scale and scope of risks they incurred became global and the damages irrevocable.

Do we have the right stuff for resilience? What is to be done?


“Resilience arises” in Donella Meadows’ words, “from a rich structure of many feedback loops that can work in different ways to restore a system even after a large perturbation.”16 Some of the first steps to improving resilience are obvious. The engineering principles and technology 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’ micro-grids with two-way communication between the grid and end-users. Energy prices would be based on the full life-cycle costs of energy including its externalities.17 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.”18 Healthy neighborhoods have many people watching the streets as Jane Jacobs once said, and many overlapping connections between churches, businesses, civic organizations, schools, and colleges. More resilient communities are pedestrian and biker friendly with close proximity between housing, schools, jobs, theaters, clubs, coffee shops, and health facilities. They have multiple and interconnected layers of ‘social capital,’ an ugly way to say competent, caring, and engaged citizens who work and play together and understand the meaning of common wealth. Urban communities intending to improve their resilience recycle wastes, minimize their carbon footprints, grow by in-fill, 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 stays put to create still more prosperity where it can be watched, tended, and nurtured.

At the national level, resilient economies have diversity, redundant supply chains, and the good sense to place controls on monopoly and the scale of enterprises for the public good.19 In the realm of national policy, resilience will require a larger definition of security than heretofore. We have spent trillions for defense against often exaggerated external military and terrorist threats while ignoring self-generated dangers that jeopardize access to food, energy, clean water, shelter, physical safety, health care, and economic livelihood.

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. In Andrew Zolli’s words, “None of these is a permanent solution, and none roots out the underlying problems they address.”20 Moreover, our increasingly complex technical solutions may often cause more problems than they solve. We are increasingly vulnerable to more and more severe Black Swan events as a result of increasing complexity, interdependence, and globalization.21


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 straight-line way. The upshot is that if we intend to improve resilience, we will have to remedy the systemic flaws that have rendered our future increasingly precarious.

A second point is that the challenge of improving resilience must begin by re-forming 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 in ways somewhat reminiscent of the revolution we led in the years 1776 – 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.”22

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 and virtually every Black Swan event and virtually every source of ecological, social, and economic fragility is rooted in failures of regulation, politics, foresight, and leadership 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 well-funded interest groups hold our common future hostage.

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Kindra Clineff, MOTT / CC BY-ND 2.0. Resilient urban communities create spaces in which community members shop, dine, and participate in civic organizations alongside one another.

There are deeper structural issues as well. The path toward resilience will require a substantial upgrading of our collective capacities of foresight, coordination, and enforcement while also improving fairness within and between countries and entire generations. 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.”23 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.”24 This requires no heroic leaps, only the development of rational procedures of planning and policy development. Both would require a smarter citizenry and governing elites alike that understand systems, ecology, the importance of the long-term, and are motivated to act for the common good.

Thirdly, 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 scales and evolve formal institutions, non-governmental 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, to transition towns, to the growing role of elders in tempering our adolescent enthusiasms.

Finally, we tend to equate solutions with technology without expecting or requiring any particular improvement in our behavior or institutions. As important as better technology is to a more resilient future, real solutions will also require the rediscovery of old 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 disenthrall ourselves from our own unleavened cleverness and wean ourselves from the faith that even more of the same will somehow work differently this time.


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 begin with a reading . . . something like Shelley’s sonnet, “Ozymandias.” Alas, they are almost always convened in fairy-land places like Aspen or Davos, or expensive hotels in Washington, DC amidst the trappings of power, wealth, and aggrandizement. The well dressed and expensively coiffured speak assuredly of endless opportunities in the comforting faith that tinkering at the margin of the status quo will suffice—a slight policy adjustment here and a better technology there, responses that are neither robust nor resilient.


  1. Taleb, N. The Black Swan 2nd edn (Random House, New York, 2010); and Taleb, N. Antifragile (New York: Random House, 2012). In the latter, Taleb writes that: “the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable. Now, for reasons that have to do with the increase of the artificial, the move away from ancestral and natural models, and the loss in robustness owing to complications in the design of everything, the role of Black Swans is increasing.”
  2. Holling, CS, Walker, B & Salt, D. Resilience Thinking (Island Press, Washington, DC, 2006).
  3. Lovins, A & H. Brittle Power (Brick House, Andover, MA, 1984).
  4. Ellul, J. The Technological Society (Vintage, New York, 1964); Ellul, J. The Technology System (Continuum, New York, 1980).
  5. The National Academies, Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative. Washington: The National Academies Press, 2012.
  6. National Climate Assessment (draft). Washington, D.C., National Academies Press, 2013.
  7. Archer, D. The Long Thaw (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009); McNutt, M. Climate Change Impacts. Science 341. (August 2, 2013).
  8. Wright, R. A Short History of Progress (Carrroll & Graf, New York, 2005); Costanza, R. Social Traps. Bioscience 37 (1987); and Taleb (2012).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Joy, B. Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. Wired Magazine (April, 2000).
  12. Sunstein, C. Worst-Case Scenarios (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2007).
  13. Pretty, J. The Consumption of a Finite Planet. (unpublished manuscript, 2013).
  14. Wilkinson, R & Pickett, K. The Spirit Level (Penguin Books, London, 2010).
  15. Burnell, P. Climate Change and Democratization (Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin, 2009); Kurlantzick, J. Democracy in Retreat (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2013).
  16. Meadows, D. Thinking in Systems (Chelsea Green Publishing,White River Junction, 2004).
  17. Fox-Penner, P. Smart Power (Island Press, Washington, DC, 2010).
  18. Klinenberg, E. Adaptation. The New Yorker (January 7, 2013).
  19. Lynn, B. Built to Break. Challenge (March-April, 2012).
  20. Zolli, A. Learning to Bounce Back. New York Times (November 2, 2012).
  21. Ibid.
  22. Gore, A. The Future (Random House, New York, 2013).
  23. Ibid.
  24. Fuerth, L. Anticipatory Governance: Practical Upgrades. (October, 2012).

Originally published at Solutions Journal.