Loss of Resilience

Ishtiaque and his colleagues (2017) noted that one of the system fragilities that emerged from the imposition of flood controls on the Bangladeshi river delta revealed a surprising relationship between human traits that are equally valued but apparently negatively correlated with one another. One set of environmental conditions produced resilience, which is considered a positive adaptive trait in human beings. A different set of environmental conditions produced the stability most people in Western culture feel is essential for sustainability. Two sets of environmental conditions worked at cross-purposes: maximizing either set of environmental conditions to reap its associated benefits minimized the other environmental conditions and its benefits.

People who no longer had mild exposure to disturbances (extreme ecological events) because of seemingly beneficial changes made to stabilize their environments lost their resilience. So they suffered more severely when the inevitable flooding did occur. Mild disturbances taught people coping skills and caused them to develop better resilience. So after the Bangladeshi deltaic system was engineered to prevent minor daily floods, more extreme occasional floods became catastrophic because the people had lost their resilience. Ishtiaque et al described the situation very directly:

“. . . structural measures designed to suppress familiar disturbances result in overestimation of robustness among the coastal community. The structural measures successfully reduce the exposure to disturbances, yet it has been noted by numerous studies (e.g., Bohensky and Leitch 2014, Di Baldassare et al. 2015) that they eventually result in increased vulnerability because the reduced exposure causes the loss in social memory of floods (Alam and Collins 2010), thereby, encouraging increased development in the risk prone areas. Coined as the ‘levee effect’ by Montz and Tobin (2008), it is an often-observed phenomenon across the globe, and is another example of RFTO between robustness in the short term and fragility in the long run. As seen in our case study, mild exposure to disturbances promotes coping and adaptive capacity, and prevents hazards from becoming catastrophes.” (This passage is from a paper published in the online journal Ecology and Society, which has no page numbers.)

Loss of resilience in populations whose environments have been engineered to mitigate natural hazards is even more counter-intuitive to people of Western culture than is the idea that disturbances such as wildfire are beneficial to forests. But a similar phenomenon was noted in Japan after the tsunami of 2011. Seawalls dramatically increased urban development on Japan’s coastal plains when they were first built after World War II (Fackler 2011), which made more people vulnerable to tsunami when the walls eventually failed several times in the years after that. Further, direct memory of previous tsunamis was transmitted only three generations before the stories died out (Lewis 2015), so as the walls went up the Japanese people stopped teaching their children the tsunami protocols that could have saved many lives in the hour or so between the major 2011 earthquake and the tsunami that followed it (Fumio Yamashita, quoted in Fackler 2011). Even the massive tsunami stones the ancestors of local people had erected specifically to warn their descendants to build away from the coast and flee immediately to high ground when an earthquake struck were ignored once seawalls were built.

Some studies suggest the resilience lost when humans try to control environmental risks goes beyond simply knowing how to survive that specific risk. An extensive study of earthquake survivors in New Zealand by Nicholas Cradock-Henry and his colleagues (2016:9) documented that disaster delivers momentous changes which seem to wind up giving people¬† “the chance to change institutionally, economically, and personally” in ways that develop “organizational resilience.”

None of this suggests that ignoring disaster or danger is somehow resilient, or that “it toughens people up and makes them stronger” to simply abandon them in high-risk environments. The issue is more complicated than that. Remember that resilience is about being willing and able to change one’s own behaviors in response to environmental conditions. On the Japanese coast, resilience isn’t a matter of stoically accepting loss of home and family when a tsunami hits. Instead, resilience on the Japanese coast may (as one example) involve the willingness to give up living conveniently close to one’s fishing boat and, instead, relocating to a house at a higher elevation that requires inconvenient daily travel to the pier where one’s fishing boat is moored. Or it may involve being willing to abandon one’s home and possessions when an earthquake strikes, to flee to high ground before a tsunami hits — and to accept the consequences of this resilient behavior as appropriate whether the tsunami comes or not.

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

How would you define resilience at this point in your process?

How does resilience relate to the value change for survival that Oren Lyons describes?

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