- The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the world into a collective moment of disruption that demands a long, hard look at the ways in which we live within our environment.
- With resilience thinking, an understanding of environmentalism becomes better suited to the immense challenges that we must tackle before another Earth Day passes.
- Elizabeth Grennan Browning and the Research Fellows of the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute offer three key features of resilience that deserve deeper understanding and greater public commitment in response to the unprecedented moment of environmental crisis.
- This post is a commentary and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mongabay.
With half a century of Earth Days behind us, we face a new level of urgency in our environmental crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we live in interconnected systems. Some of the factors driving climate change are also increasing our risk for infectious pandemics. Deforestation, often in service of agriculture, contributes to a warmer planet. Habitat loss also forces animal migrations that increase the chance of pathogens spreading to new hosts. Raising livestock in our industrial agricultural system is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a potential source of pathogen spillover from animal to human populations. And our reliance on fossil fuels—another key contributor to global warming—causes air pollution that makes us more vulnerable to respiratory infections We affect our environment, and our environment affects us. The more we understand about these connections, the more resilient we can become to protect our health, our communities, and our economy.
The past year’s disruptive wildfire seasons following extended droughts in Australia and California have given us a sobering glimpse of the future that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned we will face if we fail to limit global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels. In light of these impending, catastrophic risks, our understanding of environmentalism, and what it means to be an environmentalist, is due for a critical reappraisal.
Historically, environmentalism has signaled a commitment to conservation and preservation– the latter an effort to return to some past pristine environment. Yet natural scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars alike have underscored that the notion of an ahistorical, untouched nature is a faulty one. If we are to reorient the environmental movement’s goals and actions to avert crisis, we must reassess how we assign value to different ecosystems and human communities. To be sure, protecting open spaces and wild lands is still important as a part of the future management of our ecosystems, as they ensure crucial environmental protections for habitats that preserve our biodiversity, create carbon sinks that lower greenhouse gas levels, and provide natural areas we enjoy being in. Yet our current crisis requires that we also look to those less idealized environments—cities, suburbs, and industrial areas—and understand that we must also include them in our vision for overcoming the challenges of climate change.
We propose rethinking environmentalism through the lens of resilience. Resilience offers an approach to the environmental crisis that differs in worldview and practice from the preservationist management strategies commonly associated with Earth Day and environmentalism more broadly. Whereas preservation focuses on returning to a fixed, idealized past environment, resilience emphasizes a roll-with-the-punches-like approach to living with and managing environmental change. Ecologists generally define resilience as a system’s ability to return to its prior condition after a disturbance, with more resilient systems mitigating the impacts of disturbance more quickly and completely.
Ultimately, however, resilience today must be about more than just “bouncing back;” it should include taking proactive steps to minimize risk and vulnerabilities and building systems that will naturally recover themselves.
Resilience management, then, is the undertaking of practices– switching to clean renewable energy, making buildings energy efficient, moving communities from flood-prone areas when necessary, developing public health warning and treatment centers, and diversifying agriculture and food systems, among many others–so that climate change does not drive human societies and ecosystems toward greater biodiversity loss, resource scarcity, and human misery. In pursuing resilience, we facilitate opportunities to strengthen communities by creating local jobs, attracting new businesses, and improving public health and quality of life.
Here, we offer a few key features of resilience—interweaving ecological and social contexts—that deserve deeper understanding and greater public commitment in response to our unprecedented moment of environmental crisis.
- Self-Healing and Tolerance for Failure: Expect the Unexpected
Climate change is a wicked problem because its effects are variable and, to a certain extent, hard to predict. Resilience is fundamentally about a system’s capacity to overcome these uncertainties and avoid collapse by remaining flexible in the face of change. Resilient systems are designed with shocks and failures in mind; they expect and are designed to confront the unexpected.
Socio-environmental systems, and the organisms within them, that are more resilient to stresses such as climate change have mechanisms that allow them to manage disturbances via adaptation (evolution, or social efforts to redirect resources in a more sustainable manner); plasticity (diversifying resource and land use), and movement (shifting locations to offer greater capacity to weather environmental change). Climate change adaptation and mitigation measures must rely on strategies crafted around the basic tenet that resilient systems are, above all, failure-tolerant, and capable of self-healing.
See related podcast: Celebrating the 50th Earth Day amidst a global pandemic
- Flexibility and Receptiveness to Change: Harness Human Ingenuity
Resilience recognizes that change is an inherent part of life. Our hope is that by reframing environmentalism with a resilience lens, humanity will become comfortable with the challenging but unavoidable reality that responding to climate change requires major societal changes. In order for society to be resilient to climate change, we must forego preserving certain values and norms that promote over-consumption, and perpetuate massive inequalities in access to resources and decision-making capacity. We must develop an openness to new ways of working, living, and establishing social identities and traditions within our cultures and families. Our current crisis managing the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that this capacity for change is within us–personally and at the political level. The challenge with climate change, now, is finding the strength to pursue proactive shifts in our lives and politics that challenge our sense of what is.
- Resilience for Whom? Prioritize Our Most Vulnerable Communities
Especially problematic in the past 50 years of the American environmental movement has been a failure to address environmental inequalities. We must proceed with care, and a sense of ethical responsibility. We already know that climate change disproportionately harms our most socioeconomically vulnerable communities. Resilience is a malleable term, subject to cooptation by both neoliberal and grassroots causes. This tension is not unlike the problem of corporate greenwashing that has plagued mainstream environmentalism, particularly around Earth Day each year.
Therefore, we must approach resilience with a critical reflexivity that keeps us attuned to how powerful elites can use resilience as a tool to preserve their social privileges. Resilience planning involves trade-offs and varied outcomes for different populations, sometimes with environmentally unjust consequences. Continually asking “resilience for whom?”reminds us to prioritize fairness, environmental justice, and equitable access to resources.
Tipping Point at 50?
The beauty of Earth Day is its capacity to unite diverse groups and force a conversation among political foes. But this has tended to gloss over the provocative nature of Earth Day’s origins, which centered on disruption, reflection upon the habits that anchor our day-to-day lives, and a commitment to a more just and sustainable future. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown us into a collective moment of disruption that demands a long, hard look at the ways in which we live within our environment. With resilience thinking, our understanding of environmentalism becomes better suited for the immense challenges that we must tackle before another Earth Day passes. We need to develop and practice resilience’s defining features–tolerance for failure, receptiveness to change, and attention to climate justice–if we are to achieve these goals.
What does “resilience thinking” offer for those who are considering how—or even if—they might engage in Earth Day’s 50th anniversary? Project Drawdown offers some of the most comprehensive individual and systemic solutions to promoting resilience, including reducing food waste, adopting plant-rich diets, and replacing fossil fuels with emissions-free electricity. While resilience recognizes the importance of individual efforts to address climate change, it particularly underscores the need for systemic-level reform that holds corporations accountable and promotes equitable solutions for those communities that are most impacted by climate change. If individuals collectively and persistently pursue a more sustainable, resilient and compassionate society, they can affect change in their communities, states, nations and the world. Resilience, in our view, speaks to the inherent capacity for a movement of everyday people to achieve these grand shifts.
Elizabeth Grennan Browning is a postdoctoral research fellow with Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, and penned this commentary with the ERI Research Fellows.
Banner image: Blackwater lake in the Peruvian Amazon via drone. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.