Resilience and Its Roots

Recently, the Wilson Center organized an event aiming to explore the social dimensions of resilience with 4 panelists: Laurie Mazur, the author of “Cultivating Resilience in a Dangerous World” in State of the World 2013, Betty Hearn Morrow from the Florida International University, Elizabeth Malone from the Joint Global Change Research Institute and Roger-Mark De Souza from Population Action International.

Laurie Mazur started by giving a basic definition of resilience: “A system’s ability to mitigate and withstand disturbances and bounce back afterwards, while continuing to function.” We can measure it following various factors such as diversity, resource reserves, social capital, agency (the capacity to make choices and enact them in the world), and so on. Morrow offered the image of a bridge moving to absorb the wind and going back to its original position as an example of physical resilience. The question is: how do we integrate this concept in our complex societies and make them more resilient?

As Morrow explained, the first step is education. In a survey asking coastal populations what hurricane hazard causes most death, people answered flooding from rain when it is actually water from the ocean. Many communities know little about climate change and the risks they are running everyday—even as climate change and damage to environmental systems like wetlands and mangroves are undermining the resilience of their communities. Developing evidence, informing stakeholders, and showing the benefits of resilience are necessary steps towards integrating resilience planning into policy making.

Tight social networks are also important to societal resilience. Morrow gave the example of the Vietnamese community in the New Orleans neighborhood of Versailles after Hurricane Katrina. Thanks to strong leadership from the catholic priest Father Vien Nguyen, shared values, and a strong community network, the neighborhood started rebuilding one month after the disaster and by one year out, 90% of inhabitants were back. Other areas, with weaker networks made slower recoveries.

Wealth inequality in America

Screenshot from the video: “Wealth inequality in America”

All panelists agreed that resiliency can’t be a reality in an unequal society. Lower income populations are nearly always the first to lose and the last to recover. After Hurricane Sandy, we saw images of people struggling to get food and electricity in Far Rockaway, Queens, while 23 miles from there, others were following their Christmas routine in Manhattan. Societies have to deal with these differences, at local and global levels, to be able to build a lasting and strong resilience.

Hurricane Sandy aftermath, Breezy Points, Queens | Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Sandy aftermath, Breezy Points, Queens (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Also important for building resiliency is addressing gender equity. With 70% of poor people in the world being women, it is urgent to empower them in their communities, putting them at the center of resilience building efforts. Elizabeth Malone presented the results of a research analyzing “the effect of access to family planning on resilience to climate change”. Focused on 7 developing countries, the study projected that resilience to climate change would be higher in all 7 countries in 2050 if universal access to family planning is provided, even if environmental capacity worsened simultaneously. Population Action International, as de Souza explained, has promoted strengthening reproductive health laws in several countries, working with local structures to educate populations and then reach out to policymakers. Promoting governance and inclusiveness by involving people in decision-making is another key to resilience. Communities need to be able to take decisive action to adapt and thrive in the face of environmental, economic and social changes.

During the event, Laurie Mazur asked an important question: “Are we ready?”. It seems that we are not, but as Roger-Mark de Souza repeated several times, “there are concrete opportunities to build on this momentum.” Decision-makers have to consider the social conditions of resilience to build sustainable and thriving societies. As several guests noted at the end, we need a holistic approach, since the issue of an increasing population facing a more dangerous world can’t be tackled without also addressing consumption and financial regulation issues. In short, economic, natural, social and cultural conditions are equally important to successfully manage resilience building.

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