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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Sandy and Resilience
distributed 11/2/12 - ©2012

You've certainly heard it already, but I am required to publish this notice by the code of ethics of the Internet Bloggers Association (section 134.7a):

There is an election in the United States next Tuesday, November 6. Vote!

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Perched far above sea level and 1,500 miles away, I watched the incredible power of hurricane Sandy from a safe distance. As one not caught up in storm surges, gales and snowstorms, I have had the luxury of abstract awe and philosophical reflection.

On several levels, my thoughts during this week have circled around the theme of resilience. Resilience is about the ability to be flexible, to bounce back. In the face of monster storms, and in the face of an ever-more uncertain climate, resilience is an essential quality, both personally and as a society.

Ethically and spiritually, we need to think first of those without resilience: the poor and the powerless. Whether in Haiti, New York City, or the hills of Appalachia, those who suffer the most in the face of such disasters are those with the least resources, those with the least flexibility.

David Rohde wrote in The Atlantic about the inequalities revealed by the storm. "There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not."

Days after Sandy subsided, news reports speak of a world totally unlike mine -- the intensely urban setting of Manhattan -- telling of people in high-rise buildings without electricity, without running water, and without food supplies. For the poor, the elderly, the disabled, these are difficult and dangerous days. As always, our compassion and our relief efforts must give priority to "the least of these" who are in need.

I've also been thinking, though, about a much larger realm of resilience. As we look to a future that is unknown and unpredictable, a world distorted by climate chaos, flexibility and adaptability will be needed.

I'm grateful to journalist David Roberts -- to my mind one of the most responsible and insightful writers on the Grist website -- for exploring resilience in detail. He describes a new theme in research about climate adaptation that makes excellent sense. (At the heart of the discussion is a 2001 paper from the World Bank, "Investment decision making under deep uncertainty -- application to climate change". No, I haven't read it!)

In the previously dominant thinking about climate adaptation, the challenge was to figure out what could go wrong, and to engineer solutions that would reduce the danger. We see some of that mindset in post-Sandy discussions. Much of the coastal damage was caused by tsunami-like waves from combined tides and storm surges, so there is renewed talk about investing billions of dollars to build surge barriers along the coast. In the long run, especially with rising sea levels and more powerful storms, this could be an efficient investment. But it only deals with one part of the growing climate crisis along the coast, and there's no clarity about how extensive a set of barriers would need to be.

As Roberts describes the emerging option, there is a shift in thinking from the optimal response for a particular problem to the most robust response for an uncertain future.

The optimal decision aims for efficiency; the robust decision aims for resilience. A resilient solution may not be -- probably won't be -- the one best suited for whatever circumstances do end up coming to pass. But it is, from the present-day perspective, the one most broadly suited to the widest array of possible futures.

If we don't know, or can't agree about, what might happen in the future -- if we're heading into a time of deep uncertainty -- then we'll never be able to do a good job of engineering our way out of specific dangers. We need to plan for the uncertainty. We need to make our cities and our society more resilient, more flexible, more adaptable.

This is an idea that is receiving serious and global attention. For example, the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network discusses a number of factors that have to be addressed to more toward resilience.

Out of this week's news, focusing on New York City, I see some positive and negative markers of resilience.

  • Sandy shows clearly the problem that is manifest in far too many "natural disasters" -- that we've built in what Colorado columnist Ed Quillen called "stupid zones". "A Stupid Zone is an area that is stupid to build in, on account of predictable dangers -- avalanches, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, floods, etc." Building communities on barrier islands, putting essential infrastructure and services at or below sea level is the opposite of resilience. Backing off from fragile and dangerous coastal lands reduces damage, lessens rescue needs, and makes for a more robust community.
  • Cell phones in New York have brought out creativity and flexibility. Communication travels along with the people who evacuated. Coffee shops with WiFi have provided internet connections to multitudes. Places with electricity have set up phone-charging systems. When cell systems were overloaded, the word went out to send less-demanding text messages. As one who is often irked by cell-phone-culture, it pains me to say it, but this technology has been wonderfully versatile.
  • In densely-populated New York, the flooding of subways has been a huge problem. A variety of transportation options has been available, though, at least to some. Busses have been jammed, people have biked into the city (many for the first time), and the core of the city is walkable enough that folk can get around. Transportation in NYC seems to be more diverse and resilient that that in, say, Los Angeles.
  • Food shortages have emerged, with stores sold out and restaurants closed. The mobile eateries known as food trucks have been able to bring hot meals into areas of need. An upscale service for urban "foodies" has been responsive in a time of emergency.
  • The most important form of resilience, of course, is the one of human community. When neighbors check on each other, when friends take in the displaced, when first responders and social service teams go far beyond their job requirements, when strangers pitch in to help, and when folk far away make donations to Church World Service or the Red Cross, then we see communities that are infinitely more flexible and secure than we could ever see through whiz-bang technology alone.

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I'm glad to see that the devastation caused by Sandy has brought the reality of climate change into our nation's public conversation. It is tragic that it took a monster storm to get us talking about warming oceans, more extreme weather, and human distortions of the planet's natural systems. Finally, some of our leaders and some of the media have broken through the silence.

The solution to our more dangerous world is not to try and exert control. A renewed lesson from this week is that we can't ever control nature, and especially when we can't know precisely what the future holds.

As we acknowledge the reality of global heating, as we face an unpredictable future, may we plan for ways to make our lives and our communities resilient, flexible, adaptable -- as well as just and compassionate.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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