I continue to have problems with resilience.

Stop right there! I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Of course you do! You’re 68 years old, not 28. The joints aren’t what they used to be. Hello! The mind isn’t what it once was either. You’re the one always going on about living on the real world. Get real!”

That’s not my problem. My problem is the way we – both scientists and society – use resilience to characterize communities.  Since I’m 68, I do what many of my fellow sexagenarians do…I repeat myself. I’ve touched on this subject before, for example, in a March 18 post and probably elsewhere. (There’s that 68-thing again. I also forget.)

But this bears repeating, especially as more and more scientists convene meetings on the topic, and as political leaders use the term. This week’s excellent workshop at Virginia Tech was just one of many recent examples. [Ok, ok. I do recognize that the horse is fully out of the barn. Nevertheless, please hear me out.]

Let’s start with how physicists use the word resilience. Actually, they don’t. They use the term elasticity. And when they use the word, they use it in a very narrow sense. They are referring to the ability of a body to return to its former state after being deformed by a stress. Take a spring. Hang some weight on it, and it’ll extend, stretch out. Remove that weight, and it’ll spring back to its former shape. Put on twice as much weight, and the spring will extend twice as far. You get the idea. It’s elastic.

But only up to a certain point. Put enough weight on the spring, and it permanently deforms. You can remove the weight, and the spring won’t recover. We call that weight, or that stress, the spring’s elastic limit. Physicists have a name for this description of elasticity: Hooke’s law.

But when speaking of community resilience, people use definitions such as the following:

“We define resilient communities as one that maintains services and livelihoods after environmental hazard events; if services and livelihoods are disrupted, recovery occurs rapidly, with minimal social disruption, and results in a new and better condition.” [1]

“Community resilience is a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations.”[2]

“Resilience refers to the ability of a human system to respond and recover. It includes those inherent conditions that allow the system to absorb impacts and cope with the event, as well as postevent adaptive processes that facilitate the ability of the system to reorganize, change, and learn in response to the event (Cutter et al. 2008). Resilience is also dynamic, but for measurement purposes, it is viewed as a static property.”[3]

“the ability of groups, such as communities and cities, to withstand hazards or to recover from such disruptions as natural disasters.”[4]

All these definitions (and there are many others) seem straightforward enough on the surface. But dig a bit deeper, and you discover that recovery often doesn’t mean recovery of the original people, or the original homes, or the original businesses. Suppose a town experiences a flood, and some people lose their lives and other people are injured. Some homes are swept away, and some businesses permanently shutter their doors because they’ve lost their customer base.

Now…watch what happens over time. After a little while, some new homes are built on the sites of the old ones. Some of the original folks who survived maybe move back, but also a few new people move in, from somewhere else. Soon those shops on Main Street are open again, but many house different businesses. Wait a little longer, and still more new homes appear, and more people, and more business. Eventually do a census, and discover the town is back to its “original condition.” Do this for a number of communities, and you’ll find they take different amounts of time to return to a similar state. So you might be tempted to say that some are more resilient than others.

But let’s go back to our physicist or engineer. Say she destroyed a spring, but then you turned your back, and when you turned back around there was a brand new spring in its place. She’s say, “the spring recovered,” but you’d harrumph, “you just switched it when my back was turned.”

Or think of the last time you fell and suffered cuts or lacerations. Today you’re healed. But those cells that were destroyed by the original cut weren’t healed. They’re dead and gone. Or maybe you look almost the same but there’s really scar tissue where that skin had once been.

So often, it seems that the community resilience we speak of is really the resilience of some larger community or region that wasn’t so affected by the flood (or other disaster). But that’s not how we speak of it.

“Splitting hairs,” you say.  

But this distinction matters. Here are two reasons out of a number we might cite. First, the “new normal” is likely to have a far different future. Call to mind the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. In the weeks and months immediately following the eruption, the terrain was a sterile landscape buried under feet of ash. Today it’s green again…but not with old growth forest. It’s a different blend of plants and critters, and it’ll evolve differently from this point on out. Think back to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. Much of the black community left and has yet to return. The influx of Latinos has been significant. The destiny of the city has been forever changed.

Second, if resilience is not an intrinsic community property but instead exists only because there’s a larger community outside a finite disaster zone that was largely unperturbed, then as the scale of disasters continues to increase, and time moves on, increasingly we will encounter or experience disasters of such large scale that there are no unaffected populations or regions to be resilient. Recovery in such regimes will be problematic. Resilience will be hard to identify. Those who are left will be looking for different words.[5]

[2] From RAND

[3] From CARRI; this report also gives other definitions


[4] NAS/NRC report, Building Community Disaster Resilience through Private-Public Collaboration; chaired this one, so am including myself in the mix.

[5]This is not totally uncharted territory. The Black Death pandemic of 1347-1348 was one such catastrophe. And the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous aren’t here to brag about how their kind proved resilient to the K-T meteor strike and its aftermath 65 million years ago.


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5 Responses to Resilience

  1. James Henderson says:

    I am somewhat confused. Resilience in the case of Joplin one can applaud with all of the caveats you have written about. While resilient can be used to describe New orleans after Katrina, the fate of the city can be argued when you have the same problem over and over again and nothing changes. In your workshop, did you discuss whether or not a city or government entity should be rebuilt with public funds? I have been watching new stories of people along the Missouri River in northwest Missouri who are getting back to their homes now that the river is receding. They all spoke with a resilient attitude and they will rebuild. Should they rebuild in the same spot. The Missouri will flood again. Should the dikes along the Mississippi that were destroyed to benefit Cairo Illinois be rebuilt. Those farmers are very resilient. In fact, if you are a farmer you had better be resilient. Should the citizens along the NC coast that had roads destroyed and property damaged by Irene be allowed to rebuild and if they do because they are a resilient bunch should they be allowed insurance albeit at a high cost that is subsidized by the rest of us paying insurance. Confusion: where does resilence stop and “common sense” kick in?

    • Thanks, James.
      You make a good distinction between folks who experience tornadoes, a relatively rare event/hard to protect against economically, and folks in floodplains who may experience frequent repetitive loss — every few years, say. On the one hand it is resilient to bounce back like one of those kids’ “bop bags” and rebuild…on the other hand it also seems like a failure to learn from experience in those cases. And use of taxpayer dollars to support repetitive loss seems less than ideal.

  2. Pingback: More on resilience…and its relation to the “myth of Easter Island’s ecocide.” | Living on the Real World

  3. I, too, am approaching middle age (hey, 70 is the new 40!). One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve aged is that most things are various shades of grey, not black and white. This is especially true of resilience. Joplin in 2011 is more resilient than New Orleans was in 2005.

    All communities – like all people – have one inevitable outcome – as you pointed out in a previous post. It’s not a question of “if,” but “when.” More resilient communities maintain vitality longer. And for those of us who live in them, we have a better quality of life. A part of that is being able to take advantage of whatever is out there (resources outside the community). A bigger part, tho, is taking advantage of what is inside. If we look at those “communities” in New Orleans that have successfully recovered (see the work of Rick Weil at LSU, for example), it is clear that their internal connections were at least as important as their resource base. You imply in your post that it’s all about resources – it’s not. It’s about knowing what you want to do with your community, and then doing it, i.e., the evidence drives me to believe that having the belief that you can and the drive that you will recover is more important than the resource base.

    This is why community leadership are so important. If the leadership can foster confidence in progress, and energize the community to aim toward a desirable and attainable future, more often than not the community will recover. Some faster, some slower, sure – but recovery seems certain. New Orleans under Nagin did not have that leadership; it appears that under Mayor Landrieu they do.

    • william hooke says:

      Thanks John,

      great comment. Signature Plodinec thoughtfulness. Leadership is a big dimension…one of the most important tools we bring to bear in dealing effectively with the Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat.

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