#192: Resilient Communities: A Guide to Disaster Management

MuseLetter #192 / April 2008
by Richard Heinberg

Resilient Communities: A Guide to Disaster Management

Resilience: The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy; the ability to absorb shocks.

The following is a proposal to help make communities better able to respond to the coming economic shocks from resource depletion, beginning with Peak Oil, and perhaps also to shocks from other causes (such as the ongoing subprime mortgage and credit collapse). In searching for a name for the strategy, I have settled on the phrase “Resilient Communities,” which comes with considerable baggage—useful baggage in this instance. Once I have described and discussed the proposal, I will offer some background materials regarding the terms resilience and resilient communities, mentioning some other projects that have used the same title or that pursue similar goals.

Making existing petroleum-reliant communities truly sustainable is a huge task. Virtually every system must be redesigned—from transport to food, sanitation, health care, and manufacturing. Some fine efforts are under way in towns such as Kinsale, Ireland; Totnes, England; Portland, Oregon; and several cities in northern California to catalog the needed changes and initiate the transformative process. The Powerdown Project, Energy Descent Action Plans, and local Climate Protection initiatives are all important efforts in this direction. However, even in places that began such work two or three years ago, actual oil dependence remains largely unaffected. The transition that is required will take many years, huge shifts in both private and public investment, and fundamental changes in public policy at higher levels of government in order to succeed. Do we have enough time? Will the investment capital be available?

Meanwhile, global oil production appears already to have entered its plateau phase, with a gradually steepening decline in total production—and a much more rapid drop in export capacity among nations with any oil to spare—likely to commence within the next two or three years. It appears that the time available for adaptation is probably far too short to enable needed work to be accomplished. Meanwhile, the financial solvency crisis initiated by the US subprime mortgage fiasco threatens to obliterate trillions of dollars of investment capital, impeding whatever efforts might be undertaken toward energy conversion. Thus few if any communities—including those that have initiated worthwhile projects—will be prepared for the shocks of high fuel prices and fuel shortages that will inevitably follow in the coming years. What to do?

A few months ago, on the day following the most recent “Peak Oil and Community Solutions” conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio, some of the speakers and organizers gathered to compare notes and strategize. At some point during the lively conversation, Faith Morgan, the Director of the film The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, reminded us how, early in Cuba’s crisis period, organic farming advocates had provided crucial advice that helped quickly transform the nation’s food system; without the input of these previously marginalized alternatives advocates, the nation probably would not have survived. I was certainly familiar with the story: I have recounted it in print and in lectures on many occasions. Nevertheless, as Faith spoke, a (compact-fluorescent) light bulb flickered somewhere in my murky skull. Perhaps something similar could happen in other nations or communities—and not just with regard to food, but all the other aspects of modern existence. There are plenty of marginalized “alternatives” advocates who for decades have been researching and promoting low-energy ways of doing things that will make perfect sense in a post-petroleum environment. What if these folks could be mobilized and coordinated, their knowledge made readily available to local officials and the public at large, in preparation for the imminent period when existing systems start to fail in ever more obvious ways?

The notion solidified as I read Naomi Klein’s recent book, The Shock Doctrine, which details how savvy politicians and business leaders have used natural disasters, wars, and economic upheavals as propitious moments for the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies—privatization, free trade, slashed social spending—that are themselves disastrous (though immensely profitable for the few), and that would normally be rejected. In the current instance, as we contemplate a global mega-disaster-in-the-making, it is not difficult to envision neo-liberal or neo-conservative power-holders licking their collective chops over the prospect of doing away with all labor and environmental regulations as citizens everywhere clamor for strong leaders who can implement bold policies to restore relative normalcy.

In other words, crisis equals opportunity—for those who are prepared to seize the day. Unless sensible plans to manage disaster are formulated and put forward now, the opportunity afforded by crisis will be hijacked by a familiar cast of characters.

What follows, then, is a strategy to take advantage of the gathering storm to steer communities in a direction that will make them more sustainable over the long run. I must emphasize at the outset that, while I am making the case for this new strategy as strongly as I can (that’s a writer’s job), I do not wish people already hard at work on proactive energy transition strategies through Relocalization and Transition projects to get the impression that I am saying, “Stop everything you’re doing now, rush to the other side of the boat, and start doing this other thing.” In fact, all I hope to accomplish with this essay is to introduce a new strategic perspective that can be useful to activists as they continue and expand the work in which they are currently engaged.

Anyone can adopt this strategy; however, existing Peak Oil response groups and networks are probably in the best position to do so. Groups wanting to explore this strategy can join the Relocalization Network (www.relocalize.net), if they are not already affiliated, and use that network for sharing information and other resources. Groups could also link Resilient Communities work with the Transition Network (www.transitiontowns.org), Step It Up, Mayors for Climate Protection Campaign, Climate Action Network, and Sierra Club’s Cool Cities program.

What is needed is not just another trademark for yet another activist campaign, but an additional strategy that can be used by any existing organization.

Try This

The strategy I am envisioning might be composed of the following series of steps:

  1. Establish a working group for the purpose of formulating a Community Resilience Plan. The size of the group will depend on who is available and motivated, and on the size of the community. It will be helpful if the individuals involved have experience with organizing efforts and are already trusted, active members of the community. If there is a sufficiently large pool of potential members, group membership could rotate. This could be an entirely new group, or it could be a new project for an existing group. At the very earliest stage, establish a connection with the Relocalization Network.
  2. Identify organizations, businesses, and individuals in your community that have some skill or capacity that will be needed in the post-Peak Oil environment. Look for people who are already working in food production and distribution, health, transport, water delivery, waste disposal, home heating, communication, and crisis management who are able to supply goods or services in their respective field using less energy and fewer imported materials, or who have concrete proposals in this regard. Examples include organic farming and Permaculture groups; herbalists and others able to provide health care in the absence of high-tech equipment; car-share organizations; and bicycle advocacy groups.
  3. Approach these people, inform them that you are formulating a Community Resilience Plan, and ask for their help and participation. Tell them about Peak Oil—if they don’t already know—and help them understand the implications. Point out that their “alternative” skills and knowledge, which they may have grown weary of promoting in the face of general systemic preference for “mainstream” approaches, will soon be crucial to community survival and well-being. In effect, you must appeal to their self-interest as a way to motivate them to expend some extra effort on behalf of a Community Resilience Plan.
  4. Work with these groups and individuals to develop a contingency plan in their respective areas of action and expertise. The plan should answer the question: If your community were suffering from a crisis (unaffordable energy prices, fuel shortages, and knock-on effects such as empty store shelves and rampant unemployment), how could your expertise be rapidly deployed on a large scale to help reduce the impact? What assistance and resources would you need? What steps would have to be taken, and in what order? For example, Permaculturists might have a fine way of producing food locally, but in order to expand their efforts significantly they might need to train teams of gardeners to roam the city planting garden beds on vacant lots or in the front and back yards of willing homeowners. How would these teams be financed and coordinated? How might a surge in demand for garden tools and seeds be satisfied? In each essential field, look for ways to build redundancy with regard to provision of goods and services.
  5. As you are doing all of these things, also contact city disaster management officials, letting them know what you are doing and why. Ask for their input and inquire how what you are doing can be most useful to the community at large. Make sure they have copies of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty, by Daniel Lerch (www.postcarboncities.net).
  6. It might also be useful to contact leaders in some of the mainstream organizations (government agencies as well as private companies) currently responsible for food, water, transport, and energy provisioning and inquire if they have any plans for the time when fuel becomes scarce. If they perceive your project as a threat, they are likely to try to block or undermine it in various ways. However, if they see the project for what it is—an effort to enable the survival of the community in circumstances where current support systems cease functioning—they may be moved to contribute. If they simply deny that any problems are on the horizon, you may have no choice but to continue what you are doing without their input. Again, make sure these leaders have copies of Post Carbon Cities.
  7. Assemble the various suggestions into a coherent Community Resilience Plan. Some sort of document is always useful as a touchstone for collective action. The plan should be comprehensive, modular, and staged. It should offer suggestions for slow-onset as well as rapid-onset disasters. It should also be consistent with proactive plans for the long-term post-carbon transition of society (such as the report of the Portland Peak Oil task force). It should be in a form that can be upgraded and revised continually. And it should be widely available to the public (i.e., published on an easily accessible web site).
  8. Once a document has been formulated, go back to civic leaders and disaster management officials and present the document. At the same time, stage a public roll-out of the plan, arranging newspaper articles and radio interviews as well as a public event at which all of the contributors, and local officials, can offer brief presentations.
  9. When shortages develop and the economy comes unhinged, work with contributing groups and local officials to implement the plan. Without implementation, the effort will have been wasted. This stage will no doubt entail the hardest and most demanding work. It is difficult to foresee the exact circumstances in which that work will be taking place; nevertheless, the more thorough the preparatory efforts, the more successful the implementation is likely to be.
  10. Work with groups in other communities to coordinate programs across regions and nations. Again, the organizations most likely to be helpful in this are the Relocalization Network and the Post Carbon Cities program of Post Carbon Institute, and the Transition Network. Communities should be encouraged to share their experiences, and to share other resources wherever possible. At the earliest opportunity, meta-plans for resilience should be initiated at the state, national, and international levels.
  11. Granted, formulating a plan along the lines I have suggested is a huge task, and the process I have described may not be robust enough and sufficiently engaged with all facets of the community in order to succeed. I welcome input on how to deal with these shortcomings. However, the general thrust of the strategy is logical and strategically sound. Obtaining local government support and public or private funding will be extremely advantageous, as attempting such a task on a purely volunteer basis will create obvious pitfalls of overwork and underperformance.

Why?-and Other Questions

Why do we need another strategy?

I have been directly or peripherally involved in many Peak Oil response efforts over the past five years. Some I would characterize as top-down (starting by trying to convince and enroll policy makers such as city officials), some bottom-up (starting from a grass-roots base of concerned citizens and activists). All begin or end with a long-range plan for reducing the community’s reliance on oil and other fossil fuels—a plan that entails a redirection in investment of public funds, the shifting of priorities, changes to zoning regulations, and so on.

The Resilient Communities strategy is based on observations of what worked in those previous efforts and what didn’t. It is also based on the fact that, even in situations of apparent success (where much publicity was garnered and city councils adopted Peak Oil action plans), nagging doubts remain. What if these efforts are too little, too late? What if society is broadsided by an economic collapse from other sources before the effects of Peak Oil become obvious, undermining proactive plans? When I think of my own community, I wince: despite some good activist efforts over the past couple of years, Sonoma County is really not much better prepared than it was before we started.

During these past few years, I have had opportunity to observe a few policy makers at fairly close quarters and to observe how they think, what they say, and what they do. I’ve concluded that (with a very few notable exceptions), regardless of lip service to sustainability, Peak Oil preparedness, or climate protection, these people’s first priority is economic growth. If their attention to this overarching priority wavers, they soon find themselves out of a job. Thus as long as business-as-usual (or at least business-as-usual lite) is an option, it will be favored. However, looming environmental limits require economic contraction. Peak Oil preparedness is, in essence, the effort to controllably scale back the pace and scope of society’s consumption of energy and natural resources so as to reduce the impact when inevitable shortages arise—and also, ultimately, so as to reduce society’s material throughput to a level that is actually sustainable over the long haul.

Policy makers demand growth, while prudent policy (in light of resource depletion) requires voluntary contraction. This basic contradiction suggests that real change won’t come about until hardship is upon us. And that judgment is in turn confirmed by the one example we have of successful adaptation to energy famine—Cuba’s Special Period—which was not a proactive effort, but primarily a reactive one.

Thus as compared to other plans and strategies, Resilient Communities strategy has a more explicit focus on disaster management.

At the point when maintaining business as usual is no longer an option, there may be a chance for new strategies to be considered. Officials must face crises (whether effectively or ineptly); they cannot simply ignore obvious breakdowns in the societal support system. If a plan can be put forward that helps officials solve pressing, undeniable problems, that plan has at least a chance of being considered.

Granted, the strategies most likely to gain favor in the early stages of crisis are those that promise a return to business-as-usual (even if that promise is hollow). But as those strategies fail and crisis deepens, nets will be cast wider. At some point the Resilience Plan will become the strategy of last resort.

A useful historical example: as the Great Depression gathered gloom, the New Deal was not the US government’s first response (Herbert Hoover dithered for two years); it wasn’t even Franklin Roosevelt’s initial strategy: only after everything else had failed during three to four long years of economic crisis and misery were more radical ideas tried.

How, exactly, is a Resilient Community different from a Transition Town or the Powerdown Project?

There certainly are similarities. Transition Towns do tend to bring alternatives movements together to design solutions, and Chapter 3 of Rob Hopkins’s Transition Handbook offers an excellent discussion of “why rebuilding resilience is as important as cutting carbon emissions.” The Powerdown Project (www.powerdownproject.org) did focus at least partly on disaster management. Indeed, nearly all of the individual elements of the ten-step program laid out above exist in these and other plans. The virtue of the Resilient Communities strategy as outlined here is that it puts those elements together in a new framework that explicitly takes account of the opportunities that crisis affords.

Transition and Relocalization projects tend to have a hopeful, upbeat, attractive tone, and that is one of their virtues. By contrast, disaster management is a sobering subject. Yet while hopeful visions are good and necessary for motivating communities, the real future that is now unfolding is one of crisis heaped upon crisis. Effective response strategies must respond to the facts, however unattractive they may be from a marketing standpoint. The Resilient Communities strategy faces harsh reality and makes the best of it by using it strategically.

The point must be stressed: I don’t mean to suggest that proactive plans to alter energy consumption absent a crisis are a waste of effort, even if they are unlikely to be fully implemented by “business-as-usual” policy makers. The efforts of cities like Portland, Oakland, Willits, Totnes, and others deserve to be celebrated and supported.

Moreover, while a Community Resilience Plan would seek to maximize the opportunity that crisis affords, crisis management can only get us so far toward our goal of reducing and redesigning the human economy so that it does not degrade nature’s carrying capacity. Broad-scale, proactive plans are still essential. Once the crisis has hit, once other remedies have been tried, once the Resilient Communities programs have been adopted, and once “alternatives” begin to become mainstream, then the long-range plans for redirecting economies toward true sustainability will become actionable. Indeed, at every stage along the way we will need some sense of what a sustainable society would actually look like and how we might bridge the chasm between the present and that distant goal.

What’s in it for people in the alternatives movements?

Why should they go to the extra trouble? They are already engaged in important efforts, and are probably overworked.

Folks in the alternatives movements have in many cases been toiling for decades to research and promote sustainable practices. Where they have tried to shape public policy, they may have found themselves ignored or marginalized. The Resilient Communities strategy offers them more than a soap box: it is a chance to use their knowledge and skills in service to community during an imminent time of crisis. While previously they may have found themselves adopting an oppositional or even confrontational stance in relation to industry leaders and policy makers, this is a chance to assume the role of representatives and protectors of the community. If the strategy works, they will cease to be “alternative” and become the “new normal.”

What’s in it for the officials?

Won’t they just ignore or undermine the effort?

Most public officials will gladly sacrifice interests of the alternatives crowd that conflict dramatically with those of the business community. But absent a direct conflict, it is in the nature of politicians to try to keep everyone happy. Resilient Community planning does not focus on conflicts between diverging interests within the community; indeed, its main goal is to improve survival prospects for everyone. If the effort is framed properly, officials should view it as a gift—an aid in solving potential problems that may actually be looming much closer than many politicians and business leaders currently realize is the case.

Resilience in Ecosystems and Economies

For those wishing to adopt the strategy outlined above, the use of the phrase resilient community is not mandatory. Nevertheless, resilience has so many useful implications that it may be useful to spend the remainder of this essay unpacking and exploring a few.

There is a sizeable and edifying literature on the subject of resilience in ecosystems; C. S. “Buzz” Holling is responsible for much of the pioneering work in this regard. An introductory summary of some core ideas related to ecological and economic resilience is contained in the entertaining essay, “Diesel-Driven Bee Slums and Impotent Turkeys: The Case for Resilience,” by Chip Ward.

Briefly, resilient systems are able to withstand higher magnitudes of disturbance before undergoing a dramatic shift to a new condition in which they are controlled by a different set of processes. Reducing resilience increases vulnerability to smaller disturbances. From the website of the Resilience Alliance (www.resalliance.org):

Even in the absence of disturbance, gradually changing conditions, e.g., nutrient loading, climate, habitat fragmentation, etc., can surpass threshold levels, triggering an abrupt system response. When resilience is lost or significantly decreased, a system is at high risk of shifting into a qualitatively different state. The new state of the system may be undesirable, as in the case of productive freshwater lakes that become eutrophic, turbid, and depleted of their biodiversity. Restoring a system to its previous state can be complex, expensive, and sometimes even impossible. Research suggests that to restore some systems to their previous state requires a return to environmental conditions well before the point of collapse.

The notion that human communities can benefit from fostering resilience is far from new; when I did a Google search for “resilient communities” in preparation for writing this article, over 80,000 hits came up, including www.resilientcommunities.org—an inactive website related to an initiative in the late 1990s by Northwest Regional Facilitators and the late economist Robert Theobald). One other example worth noting: the UN has a “Resilient Communities & Cities partnership” program, which aims to “increase the resilience of a city or community to a range of shocks, crises, and disasters including environmental emergencies, industrial accidents, outbreaks of epidemics, economic shocks, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and social conflict.” I’ll mention a few more examples at the end of this essay.

In their 1982 book Brittle Power, Amory and Hunter Lovins argued for the decentralization of energy production in order to foster resilience.

More recently, David Fleming—the originator of Tradeable Energy Quotas (www.teqs.net)—has written and spoken at some length about resilience in the context of preparations for Peak Oil and Climate Change. With Lawrence Woodward, Fleming has authored, “Transition, Resilience and Tradeable Energy Quotas“, in which he notes that a resilient community will need to be “relatively small-scale” and “localized” so that:

  • If one part is destroyed, the shock will not ripple through the whole system.
  • There is wide diversity of character and solutions developed creatively in response to local circumstances.
  • It can meet its needs despite the substantial absence of travel and transport.
  • The other big infrastructures and bureaucracies of the intermediate economy are replaced by fit-for-purpose local alternatives at drastically reduced cost.

Once these conditions are satisfied, new possibilities open up:

  • Local closed systems conserving fertility and materials will become feasible.
  • Local energy production, distribution and storage can be established, linked by local grids.
  • Local social capital and culture can be rebuilt as a necessary condition for the cooperation and reciprocities needed to achieve the transition.

One quality of resilience is redundancy—which is often at odds with economic efficiency. Standard economic theory tells us that if it is cheaper to manufacture a particular widget in Malaysia than to do so locally, then all such widgets should come from a factory in Kuala Lumpur. Efficiency implies both long supply chains and the reduction of inventories to a minimum. The “just-in-time” delivery of raw materials and parts for manufacturing reduces costs—but it increases the vulnerability of systems to fuel shortages.

As we pay more attention to resilience and less to economic efficiency, we begin to see redundancy and larger inventories as benefits rather than liabilities. Other resilience values include diversity (as opposed to uniformity), dispersion (rather than centralization) of control over systems, and, as already noted, the localization (versus globalization) of economies.

More notable “resilient communities” resources include:

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