It never ceases to surprise me how ideas Velcro together once I begin to notice common themes. President Trump announces his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accord at the same time as I’m reading Omar El Akkad’s bestseller American War (which is speculative fiction about the Southern States resisting the end of fossil fuel consumption, much as they resisted the end of slavery). Meanwhile, at my day job as a university professor, I’m reading my way through a small library of academic papers on the need for new kinds of decentralized energy systems that will make us more resilient because they put energy generation closer to energy users.
What each of these very different things share in common is how much they remind me that progress is always disruptive. A community (and a country’s) resilience can never be built on nostalgia for what came before. New regimes for human interaction can make the world a better place but also evoke our collective insecurity. By every benchmark of progress, however, we are better off today because of these disruptions. Why go back to a time when there was more inequality, more violence, more pollution, less health care, and automation was only the stuff of science fiction?
Now I’m not saying we need to end fossil fuel consumption immediately or become radical socialists, any more than our ancestors managed to quickly do away with steam powered engines and Dickens-like poverty a century and half ago. Overnight solutions seldom occur. But to ignore the advantages of change is to overlook the fact that disruptions make us more resilient, stronger, and ultimately set us up for even more success in the future. Bicycles were, after all, considered seriously disruptive when they appeared on England’s streets (horses didn’t much like them). Cars caused much the same uproar half a century later. But the really innovative among our ancestors persisted. It was they who we can credit with moving the world forward.
So why have we, their great-great-grandchildren, become so resistant to change? Why have we allowed ourselves to believe the past was greater than the present? It’s not so everywhere in the world. China, India, and many other countries are investing heavily in next generation energy systems while North Americans keep investing heavily in technologies like coal which are as old as the horse and buggy.
To understand this pattern, we need to think about people’s motivations for security and how change unsettles us. How else could we explain our ancestor’s innovative, frontier tackling spirit being eulogized and misrepresented as conservative values? Those ancestors would have been ashamed of us and our sudden vulnerability. They would have guffawed at our naïve fear of losing what little we have when there is so much to gain from change.
Vulnerable Elderly and Resilient Energy Systems
Let me provide an example of what I mean and how more complex thinking about resilience, innovation, and change has the potential to address thorny problems. In a recent article in Energy Policy, Geoff O’Brien and Alex Hope from Northumbria University address the challenges facing vulnerable elderly who live mostly on their own or in substandard nursing homes. In most cases big, centralized energy systems deliver their electrical power. A wicked problem like elderly people dying from heat stroke when air conditioning fails, or dying from exposure or carbon monoxide poisoning when heating systems run out of energy during cold snaps, are much easier to solve if we think about localized energy solutions and stop building out-dated energy grids with little capacity to withstand catastrophic weather events. It is not such a stretch to argue that when we’re talking about improving the individual resilience of our elderly, we are not just talking about improving their social networks or subsidizing better housing. We need to also think about energy resilience. In other words, individual coping will need dramatic shifts in energy policy. No amount of grit is going to save people from dying if energy systems languish with antiquated solutions (like large coal-fired generators) to modern day problems. In a very real sense, our psychological and physical health is both an individual and a political resource.
In the past, energy resilience might have meant centralized solutions. These days, with the potential for technological innovation, it means consumers with solar panels uploading juice to the grid, wind farms, and battery storage facilities the size of football stadiums. There is, of course, still a place for fossil fuels in the foreseeable future, but three, four decades from now, that is likely to change.
Change is good. But it needs us to be more like our pioneering ancestors and less like their stalwart parents who remained in the old country fearing what came next. If we don’t embrace the foundation stones of community resilience (change and innovation), we condemn our elderly to the ever-increasing burden of a weak power grid that can no longer sustain us when very bad things happen.
I’ve been curious lately about change processes like these, especially those related to the impact of oil and gas production and consumption (e.g., climate change) on families and communities. Now, in defense of those working in these industries and the wealth they generate for us nationally, carbon intensive industries are not all bad news. In communities where my research is taking place, I am hearing stories of new opportunities for employment, education, and a responsible stewardship among industry leaders who are promoting cleaner forms of energy extraction and more efficient consumption. Even in communities affected by climate change, such as the high arctic, one cannot simply say melting ice is universally bad for everyone. Though this is a difficult thing to admit, with the opening of the Northwest Passage is coming more jobs, tourism and opportunities that may help solve some of the most serious social problems facing northern communities (while certainly creating many others). My point is that change always brings with it some good and some bad. But change means (eventually) movement forward. Our collective resilience requires that things change. While I’d prefer we didn’t destroy our planet in the process, and not melt the ice caps, I can’t deny that the steps we take towards changing to new energy sources will require intermittent phases (small steps) that could be temporarily harmful.
After all, without the industrial revolution, we would not have had the information revolution. Without that revolution we would not have the human capital to solve the most pressing problems of the anthropocene (the current period of evolution where humans are able to change their environment on a global scale). Our collective capacity to cope will be measured by how well we look forward and embrace new technologies and how well we stifle our fear of ‘what comes next’. If not, our lives will look a lot like those in El Akkad’s dystopian novel.
Let’s face it, though. Change is a pain in the posterior. But resilience isn’t insisting everything remain the same, or worse, that we go backwards to a time when things were supposed to be great. They weren’t. At least not for everyone. A future that is a re-creation of a faulty past is not going to create the security we need to get on with our lives.
Principles for Collective Resilience
Thinking about resilience and change in this way, there are at least a dozen recurring principles that can help us embrace transformation. Here are three of my favorite.
First, locally sourced resources are always going to be more sustainable than big conglomerates that devastate us when they fail. One industry towns, Walmarts that push aside local businesses, and centralized power grids no longer make us safer. They squash innovation and ignore new technologies. Rather than being anxious about small, we should be anxious about big.
Second, resilience means the ability to change when something better comes along. I love nostalgia during the holidays, but I also don't use candles to light my Christmas tree.
Third, resilience means accepting that science matters. We may be inspired by religion, but complex problems like disappearing jobs need science and research to inform solutions. An interesting example of this are studies of automation. We may dream of bringing back jobs from low and middle income countries, but the truth is that every well considered study of this problem tells us that if those jobs returned tomorrow, the high price of labor makes it a near certainty that most of those jobs would be automated. Rather than being stuck in the past, might we consider automation as our savior? Might the extra wealth it generates make it possible to have a shorter work week? Might it mean a financial and social dividend for us all (think free education to ensure we have a well educated workforce to run these machines)?
These are just three principles we need for resilience if we are going to manage our changing world. Let’s make us great. Not by looking backwards, but by looking to the future.
Folke, C., R. Biggs, A. V. Norström, B. Reyers, and J. Rockström. 2016. Social-ecological resilience and biosphere-based sustainability science. Ecology and Society 21(3):41. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-08748-210341
O'Brien, Geoff and Hope, Alex (2010) Localism and energy: Negotiating
approaches to embedding resilience in energy systems. Energy Policy, 38 (12). pp. 7550-
7558. ISSN 0301-4215