The Difference Between Resilience & Sustainability? A Zombie Apocalypse

Nivaldo Arruda/CC BY 2.0

When Lloyd declared that building green was no longer enough, we have to build resilient too, he suggested that we need to move away from our obsession with high-tech green gizmos and make sure that at least our basic needs—food, water, shelter and warmth—can be met even when we experience disruptions to power, our economy or other shocks that we may not be able to predict.

Lloyd's thoughts led to my own musings about the importance of local economies, social capital and the value of sharing in relation to resilience. But when I started discussing this with a relative over Christmas, they looked at me a little blankly:

"I don't get it," they said. "Isn't this what the green movement has been pushing for years anyway."

Resilience & Sustainability Are Related
In many ways, of course, they were right. From localized food systems to distributed energy generation, many of the central tenets of sustainability also happen to be the core pillars of resilience. But resilience takes us a little deeper. And that was put into sharp focus for me last night thanks to a zombie apocalypse.

It may be from watching one too many episodes of the Vegan Zombie, but I recently got very into Season One of AMC's mini-series The Walking Dead. Not to give too much away to folks who haven't seen it, but at one point a group of survivors finds themselves in a bunker as fuel for the generators starts running low.

"The world runs on fossil fuels", exclaims a scientist. "How stupid is that?!"

Let's Not Reinvent Our Vulnerabilities
The point here is that our current energy system is fragile beyond belief, with any number of potential real-world disruptions ranging from political upheaval through earthquakes to explosions and oil spills. As we seek to transition to a low carbon economy, we'd be missing a trick if we didn't also seek to build a culture that's just a little smarter and more resilient than its predecessor.

And that means thinking beyond sustainability.

Sure, piping in solar energy from the deserts may help us reach our CO2 reduction goals, but such centralized, distant sources of power should not be our only way to keep the lights on and the hospitals running. From war to internal political turmoil to an unexpected zombie apocalypse, there are too many risks to be putting all of our eggs in one basket.

A Real-World Lesson on Resilience
At the time of writing my parents have been spending Christmas in Finland where thousands of residents have been without electricity due to power outages caused by storms and unseasonably warm weather (trees toppled over because the unfrozen ground could not support them). While their neighbors found themselves without heat or light (neither of which is much fun in December in Finland), my parents' 100-year-old-house still had a traditional masonry stove at its heart that can heat most of the house for 24-hours after one short burn. They were able to hunker down, keep themselves warm, and wait for the power to return so they could continue watching Agatha Christie reruns on the television.

Resilience doesn't mean abandoning all high-tech projects or retreating to the hills with our guns. It doesn't mean going without Agatha Christie reruns. But it does mean paying attention to where we are most vulnerable, and then taking steps to build redundancy and adaptability into our systems so we can keep going through such shocks.

Perverse Resilience is a False Friend
Of course there's also a danger that the "resilience" message can be misused. As one commenter mentioned in my last topic on this piece, oil and gas advocates continue to push what he termed as "Perverse Resilience" under the banner of "Drill, Baby, Drill". By increasing our domestic oil production, for example, they argue that we can create a stronger, more resilient nation. But given the convoluted supply chains of even domestic oil production, and given the link between climate change and extreme weather, it's clear to me that true resilience will never be delivered through fossil fuels.

It doesn't take a zombie apocalypse to teach us that much.

Tags: Activism | Economics | Energy | Energy Efficiency | Finland | resilience | United States