The science of resilience

As I am writing this, wildfires rage in the wine country of California. A month ago and several states away, two storms battered the southeastern part of the United States in quick succession. Not long after, a third ravaged islands in the Caribbean. Here in the Philippines, we are getting used to comparable weather extremes. Here’s the punch line—scientists say we should get used to it. This, they say, is “the new normal.”

The fight to reduce our carbon emissions is still a battle worth fighting. There are, after all, countless reasons to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. For one, our species’ survival depends on it. But while we are trying to prevent the worst from happening, we should simultaneously begin adapting to the new normal. This is where resilience comes in.

Resilience is the capacity of a system to resist and recover from damage.

In the case of a human person, resilience can be thought of as toughness, the ability to recuperate from physical or psychological harm. When she gets fired from her job, a resilient person soon finds another one that is just as good or even better than her pervious job. When he loses a loved one, a resilient person grieves for a while, but then picks himself up and proceeds with life, carrying the pain of loss without being consumed by it.

All religious and philosophical traditions, from Stoicism to Buddhism, tackle the concept of individual resilience. The advent of modern medicine and psychology added a scientific lens to this challenge. Backed by science, generations of practitioners have been able to effectively help people restore themselves after adversity.

Social resilience also has a long tradition in the history of thought, traceable all the way back to Confucius, Plato, and others. It is only in recent years, however, that a scientific approach to social resilience has begun to emerge. Why is this? There are several reasons.

First, a science of social resilience has to build on the scholarship on individual resilience. Societies, after all, are composed of individual people. Understanding what makes communities resilient requires us to understand what makes individuals resilient.

For another, social structures are a level of complexity higher. To see this, let us look at one example of a problem that the scholars of social resilience are puzzling over.

A super typhoon ravages a small, remote village. Their farms are damaged, they have lost contact with neighboring villages, and their already tenuous access to basic needs such as electricity and clean water was cut off.

In what way can this community and its neighbors be organized so that the impact of the next storm is minimized, and so that they can more quickly recover from that impact? What government policies should be in place so that the survivors of the calamity receive the needed support in a timely manner? What practices in governance must be in place so that those policies are enacted effectively? 

The example above is not hypothetical. It is, of course, the challenge that scholars of resilient development have been trying to solve in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda.

In the case of natural systems, we have seen that some are more resilient than others. For example, certain coral reefs are better at resisting coral bleaching. Some reefs are also better at rebuilding themselves after damage from, say, bad fishing practices. Marine biologists have identified diversity, the amount of variety of different organisms, as one important factor in determining which reefs are more resilient.

It is high time for scientists to have something similar for social systems, be they communities, cities, markets, or governments. 

To achieve this, it is essential to bring together the process of science, policymaking, and community development into one process. In other words, policymaking must be backed by the latest science. It should also be in the service of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

Furthermore, the scientific process must include inputs from the whole of society. Scientists have now realized that when science does not include the voice of the vulnerable, policies backed by the products of that science will fail to build resilience.

Like in natural systems, scientists are now realizing that social systems are only as resilient as their most vulnerable members. This has been seen in the failures of previous government policies and development plans to address the needs of the poorest members of society.

In the end, it seems the new normal, horrible as it will be, has one fringe benefit. It will force all of us to approach the future with this frame of mind: we’re all in this together.

Pecier Decierdo is the resident physicist and astronomer of The Mind Museum.

Topics: Wildfires rage , California , United States , Storms , Philippines , Caribbean , Scientists , The science of resilience

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