Save Us From Ourselves: Is Resilience the Key to Making Sustainability Mainstream?

Tonu Mauring/CC BY 2.0

Earlier today, Lloyd posted on why green building is no longer enough, we have to build resilient too.

It was an important post.

TreeHugger, and much of the modern Green/sustainable consumption movement, has popularized the notion that a modern aesthetic, better design, and an intelligent approach to technological progress and conscious consumerism—perhaps coupled with some modest but not insignificant behavior/cultural change—would be enough to take sustainability mainstream.

It was an enticing promise, but many people are beginning to think that it has failed. And not without reason.

Yes, We Are Up Shit Creek
With recent figures showing CO2 emissions going through the roof; credible signs that we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction; and anti-science climate skeptics continuing to have way more influence than they deserve, there's certainly plenty of fuel for defeatism.

Environmentalism Hasn't Failed. It Just Didn't Win Yet.
But blaming environmentalists for not turning things around is a little like bashing a foster parent for not eradicating child abuse. The fact is that we have seen very real, very significant progress. From record-breaking investments in solar energy to green buildings that are actually palatable for a mainstream audience, many of the building blocks for a greener economy have begun to appear. It just so happens that so far they've been outpaced by a continued rush toward ever dirtier fossil fuels and last-ditch attempts at growth-at-all-costs.

Now it's time to scale up that progress so it can take on, and beat, the dinosaur economy. And that is where resilience comes in.

olgite/CC BY 2.0

Moving Beyond Doing the Right Thing
The green design/consumerism movement of the first decade of this millennium spoke to a niche audience. An audience that was motivated by "doing the right thing", and that was willing to pay a premium to reduce their impact. (Or to look like a better person, depending on your perspective.) It helped make clean energy mainstream. It helped green a significant number of buildings. It helped revive farmers markets and local food systems. And it probably sold a whole bunch of organic bamboo yoga mats too. But despite the overwhelming evidence that we are headed for dangerous climate disruption, few of us (including most environmentalists) were willing to make really major sacrifices.

Resilience is a little different as a motivating factor. Rather than appealing to our environmental consciences, it appeals to our self-interest, and to our social consciences as parents, spouses, neighbors and community members. It makes the case for why sustainability is not just about "doing the right thing" by the planet, but about covering our own asses too.

We Are All Feeling a Little Vulnerable
Given the recent economic climate and the slew of environmental disasters we have faced, even those of us who have gotten used to a pretty comfortable Western consumer lifestyle are beginning to understand that we can't take social order, economic prosperity or climatic stability for granted. We need to plan for adaptability when the shit hits the fan.

From design using low-carbon materials, local inputs and minimal energy needs, to creating buildings that are adaptable and durable, Lloyd has already covered a number of the principles involved in resilient architecture. But how do we build resilience on the community and social level?

Invest in Social Capital: From community nut tree plantings to neighborhood energy action groups, the Transition movement has pioneered community-focused resilience initiatives. But it's not just activists or community groups getting in on the action. Pure self-interest can build resilience too. As evidenced in this article about a man who rents out his dog, the rise of the sharing economy does not just mean less stuff going to landfill. It also means neighbors who actually speak to each other and an increased social acceptability of the fact that sharing your stuff is OK. All of these things can stand us in good stead if things do go south.

Tania Liu/CC BY-ND 2.0

Think Beyond Money: The monetary economy is not all bad, but it has created a blinkered notion of how we add value to society. We now know that whatever it is that's trickling down from the "job creators" above us may indeed be a golden hued liquid, but it's certainly not gold. Luckily, a renewed focus on new economics and the plenitude economy has revived the understanding that we can create value whether we have money or not. As I argued on my piece on why masturbation is an economic act, every time we do a favor for a friend or barter with a neighbor, we are stimulating the real economy just as much (perhaps more) than if we head to the nearest big box store.

Invest Locally & Ethically: Even when we do deal in money, we can do it differently. And given the dismal rates of return on traditional investments right now, more and more people are finding ways to invest their money in real businesses in real communities. From people-funded urban farms to local investment in an "everybody eats" restaurant, there are opportunities everywhere to put your money into your own community—and reap much more than just interest in the process.

But it's not just about location.

From eco-bond investments in clean energy infrastructure through crowd-funded alternatives to mainstream banks to a bank that invests only in clean tech, organic farms and social entrepreneurship, as we put our money into places that match with our ethics, we advance resilience too. The more our monetary actions can act like ecosystems, keeping "nutrients" cycling between mutually beneficial "organisms", the better chance we have of riding out the economic shocks that are inevitably to come.

Don't Go Off the Deep End: I have a great deal of respect for the more hardcore end of green living. In many ways, it's the folks living low-impact lives in communal woodlands who are the very embodiment of resilience. But I have a hard time seeing mainstream adoption of such lifestyles unless we truly do hit a Mad Max scenario. That's why I found Lloyd's article so inspiring—he is suggesting that mood is right for resilience to catch on with a truly mainstream audience. But we need to meet that audience where it is at.

As more folks experience economic hardships; as suburbanites become trapped by high oil prices; and as extreme weather becomes commonplace, we become open to solutions that can help keep us safe, secure, and perhaps even happier than we were at the height of the fossil fuel bubble. From squarefoot gardening through investments in bike infrastructure to community-owned power generation, there is an increased openness to the same ideas that the green movement has been pushing for decades. But that doesn't mean there's an openness to the hippy aesthetic or culture. As the experience of Zip Car has shown, we can repackage old ideas about sharing and tailor them to meet a decidedly mainstream audience. And we can do so for almost any of the building blocks of resilience. But key to making them mainstream is to sell the benefit first. Ideology may come into play later, but first tell people what they have to gain by getting on board.

In many ways, the shift in focus from sustainability to resilience is a subtle one. From clean energy to less consumption, we've been advocating for this stuff for decades. But by recalibrating our frame, we end up shifting our priorities. And by shifting our priorities, we also end up shifting the way we communicate them. Sure, saving our ecosystems is a mighty fine idea. Sure, piping electricity from the deserts would be neat. But we may want to first think about where we'd eat from if the trucks stopped running.

Ultimately it's not an either/or scenario. We can build resilience and low tech infrastructure at the same time we are investing in high-tech solutions too. But we might do well to favor the former for our core needs, and save the latter for things that we could live without if we had to.

So what does resilience look like to you?

Tags: Activism | Global Climate Change | passive house | Peak Oil | resilience | United States