Recovery Can Be Just Another Word for Failure

Coming back stronger means transforming our families and communities.

Posted Feb 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Key Points:

  • A crisis can provide the chance for a community to transform for the better.
  • Reliance on a particular way of doing things may make it harder for a community to adapt to changing conditions over time.
  • The burdens of COVID-19 may point the way to needed changes in policy and behavior.

Drayton Valley, an hour’s drive west of Edmonton, Canada, sits on historic oil fields that turned a 1950s sod-busting community of farmers and loggers into streets lined with new trucks and homes with double-car garages stocked with RVs and four-wheelers.

A 5-year study of more than 500 young people and adults in Drayton Valley that I lead is showing that during past economic booms, people worked very long hours but families remained stressed no matter how well they did financially. One or both parents were busy outside the home, which meant both marriages and time with children didn’t always receive the attention they deserved. Still, the oil and gas industry was perceived as a Godsend, even if the industry brought with it thousands of transient workers and liquor stores that some say outnumbered places of worship. Economic busts, meanwhile, weren’t necessarily bad either. Participants in our study told us they experienced more time with family, and women felt they were treated more fairly when their work outside the home became more valued as their husbands' jobs in the oil fields dried up.

Though the resilience of this small town of 7,000 is always teetering on the verge of collapse, Drayton Valley has something to teach us about resilience. Recovery is failure if it returns us to the old normal instead of being a catalyst for transformation. For the first time in years, Drayton Valley is considering the whole-sale diversification of its economy, with new ideas emerging about an education centre, hemp farming, geo-thermal energy production (the town has many people who are very, very good at drilling holes deep into the ground!) and retirement villages that encourage people young and old to embrace a way of life that is reminiscent of barn-raisers and socials at a local church hall. Residents are coming to understand that to come back stronger means to come back changed.

As a resilience scientist, I shudder when I hear the word recovery. It is the least desirable form of resilience. Paradoxically, it tells us that a previous regime of behavior, whether good for us or not, is so entrenched that individuals and institutions can’t change. I prefer to think of resilience as a roller coaster. Over time, we habituate into patterns of living that become comfortable, even if they aren’t the best ways to live long term. Eventually, old patterns aren’t enough to cope with new realities and our communities experience failure, which forces us to change, just enough to start a new pattern of behavior that we accept as normal (the pandemic has been a powerful catalyst for lots of new ways to live, from working from home to understanding the role government plays in maintaining our economy during a crisis). And so the cycle continues. When our families and communities work well, things get better. For a community like Drayton Valley, that has to include both diversification and honoring its past, maintaining whatever it can of the oil and gas industry it has relied on for decades.

Michael Ungar
Ungar Model
Source: Michael Ungar

Change Needs a Crisis

Countless advances in human development have come from a major natural, social or economic disruption. While painful, a crisis we didn’t intend, like a pandemic, is also an opportunity. A study of Slave Lake in Alberta, for example, showed that after forest fires destroyed more than a third of its homes in 2011, many residents challenged their values and habits, seeking out family time and committing themselves to new goals in life.

In a very different way, the shuttering of the military airbase in Summerside, Prince Edward Island announced in the April 27, 1989 federal budget was called a disaster that would result in the loss of 1,200 jobs, depreciate the Island economy by 4 percent, and affect more than a third of families in the community, many of whom would have to leave. That disaster, though, became an excuse to take advantage of the infrastructure that the federal government transferred to the community and its private entrepreneurs to create an aeronautics park. That park has been less dependent on a single employer but still employs a thousand people. Recovery to a previous state of functioning, it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

If we return to the same patterns of behavior that characterized us before the pandemic, driving long commutes to work five days a week, always eating out instead of baking (there has been a shortage of bakers’ yeast and flour for weeks), or spending more time with our phones than with our children, we may recover, but we will have made ourselves vulnerable once again.

There is an odd little phrase used to describe the economic calcification that takes place in communities that depend too much on a single resource like oil and gas. They are said to be “resource cursed,” which may strike those living in Drayton Valley as an overly pessimistic way of seeing the progress they’ve made over the past century. Paradoxically, though, systems that are too strong can be bad for us in the long term. Whether that is a certain way of thinking or a community’s unflappable political leanings, our past success may be inversely related to our ability to transform as the conditions around us change. Cheap oil, it seems, slowed our investment in green technologies until the crisis of a changing climate forced us to reconsider our priorities.

All the grief caused by any crisis is an opportunity wasted unless we change the systems that put us at risk in the first place. The value of paid sick leave is one lesson we might take from a public health emergency. So is the value of income support for the most vulnerable, quality long-term care for the elderly delivered by well-paid staff with the right training, stronger public health investments, national self-reliance when it comes to critical medical supplies, a secure food production and distribution system that can adapt to changing demand, support by business for employees who can work from home, virtual universities and a greener economy. New regimes of behavior need to become the new normal if we are to come back stronger than we were before.


Botey, A. P. & Kulig, J. C. (2013). Family functioning following wildfires: Recovering from the 2011 Slave Lake fires. Journal of Child and Family Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10826-013-9802-6

Holling, C. S. (1986). The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems: Local surprise and global change, In W. C. Clark, & R. E. Munn (Eds.), Sustainable development of the biosphere (pp. 292-317). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.