Following close on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, as Hurricane Irma leaves devastation in her wake that now awaits Hurricane Jose, more than a few of us are talking about the relationship of climate change and extreme weather events.
Oops. My bad. I meant to write, “More than a few of us are talking about the relationship of resilience and extreme weather events.” There. All fixed.
Or is it? As Slate’s Henry Grabar noted in March, resilience has become the term of choice in a political atmosphere where climate change is the truth-that-shall-not-be-named. “Why resilience?” Grabar asks. “In part, because no one knows quite what it means.”
What it means — literally — has become “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties,” though that meaning evolved after several centuries of the more technical use of the term to indicate a kind of elasticity or rebounding quality. Even more interesting, given its current popularity, is the etymology suggesting that resilience originally denoted recoiling or avoidance. Does the supplanting of climate change by resilience serve the purely political purpose of enabling communities to adopt effective strategies to cope with climate change, without using the term itself? Or might our willingness to shift vocabulary indicate that we’re recoiling from, or avoiding, the crisis so clearly spelled out by this year’s hurricane season?
There are, it seems to me, several cautionary flags to observe when we think about resilience. First, writing not about the political adoption of the term but about the psychological capacity to overcome adversity, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Derek Lusk, in the Harvard Business Review, point out its “dark side.” Resilience, they write, develops by way of hardship; “too much resilience could make people overly tolerant of adversity,” and, by extension, could lead those who want to develop the trait to court that same adversity. Extreme resilience “could drive people to become overly persistent with unattainable goals” and to lose “the ability to maintain a realistic self-concept.” Resilience and leadership, they observe, can make strange bedfellows, since a particularly resilient leader can get in the way of team effectiveness, and “grit” can easily be mistaken for real leadership potential. It’s not too much of a stretch to apply these cautions to talk of resilience in terms of what some of us persist in calling climate change, e.g., the “snapshots of a resilient Houston” taken by The New York Times would not be possible had Houston not been put to the test by its own poorly designed infrastructure’s collision with Hurricane Harvey.
Resilience is also a moral quality. By calling the response to a changing environment resilience, we can easily adopt a pattern of blaming the victim. Islands too close to sea level to withstand its rise? They’ve failed at resilience. Drought brought on by climate change resulting in civil war in your country? Not too resilient, are you? Resilience, in other words, is the privilege of wealthy countries and communities that can afford to build sea walls, relocate industries, filter water, import their food from elsewhere, install air-conditioning that contributes to climate change. Global warming may be anthropogenic, but its consequences bear no taint of moral judgment. Resilience allows the wealthiest among us to give themselves a pat on the back.
Finally, though resilience may be a moral quality, the adversity that reveals our resilience is more or less taken for granted. A recent editorial by a former FEMA official made a number of strong points about building resilience to future “climate-related disasters” but uttered not a peep about mitigating climate change itself, thus skirting the entire “controversy” about the relationship between our continuing activity and the root cause of these disasters, and much more.
Indeed, there are groups, like the Post Carbon Institute, which are using resilience as their term of choice to motivate people to educate themselves about the long-term consequences of climate change and how we might still take action to avoid the worst. But in keeping with the mutability of resilience, the language on the institute’s website is so opaque as to leave the naïve reader clueless as to whether the group comprises climate-change alarmists or deniers, e.g.: “Post Carbon Institute provides individuals and communities with the resources needed to understand and respond to the interrelated ecological, economic, energy, and equity crises of the 21st century. We help build resilience to withstand these crises, and support social and cultural change to make society more ready to take decisive and appropriate action.”
I’m ready to confess my own lack of resilience. I understand that we’ve gone too far down this path to avoid the hurricanes, droughts, and other crises that are on their way in the coming years. But I’d like to test my resilience as little as possible. I’d much rather we do something to arrest human-caused climate destruction, so we can save our resilience for all the other challenges of life on this precious Earth.
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