Posts Tagged ‘community resilience’

Community Resilience Grows With Positive Feedback

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

This is the third and final article in our series on community resilience and building a sustainable local economy. The first and second articles are recommended background reading. All three articles are modified versions of originals that appeared in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”

~PSW

Is your community struggling to provide enough jobs and services to maintain a prosperous, healthy lifestyle for its citizens? Is the situation threatening to get worse as globalization continues to move jobs overseas and environmental constraints push the price of basic goods higher and higher?

How can your community rebuild its prosperity and ensure a sustainable future — create a resilient response to 21st-century environmental and economic challenges?

One approach would be to continue to invest in “creative destruction” — an economic paradigm that depends on continuously replacing existing products and services with new ones. Thus, for example, eight-millimeter home movies are replaced by video tapes which in turn are replaced by CDs and, ultimately, memory chips. As this process continues, the companies that produced the original goods or services are destroyed, or at least diminished so that most or all of their labor force is displaced, devastating local economies.

While some see this as a form of progress — technology is improved and the prosperity of society as a whole can, but by no means is assured to increase increase over time — it comes at costs that are increasingly unacceptable, especially for the local communities that must suffer the hardships of the destructive side of the creative/destructive coin. Technology-based businesses come and go — mostly go — in today’s global economy.

Thus attempting to do business as usual by attracting companies from outside one’s community with incentives such as creating business parks and offering tax breaks is a bad long-term strategy for prosperity. And as globalization is consolidated, resources become scarcer, and computers move investment capital at lightning speed, it’s an increasingly bad short-term strategy as well.

Community Resilience and Feedback Loops

Alternatively, communities can look to themselves and their local and regional economies and environment to build community resilience and long-term prosperity that is not dependent on the boom-and-bust creative-destruction cycle. To do so, they must identify feedback loops and understand the types of feedback they can expect from various policies and investments.

Accelerating, or “positive” feedback is a lever which makes certain societal and economic trends grow exponentially while others, by being deprived of economic or cultural oxygen, as it were, decelerate. For example, educating women in poor countries can break or diminish the cycle of poverty because educated women tend to have fewer children. Fewer children means reduced poverty and greater opportunity for the remaining children to become educated, which means even fewer children and, ultimately, less poverty.

This is an accelerating feedback loop based on positive signals — signals that encourage more of the same behavior. It is begun by deleveraging the destructive feedback loop of overpopulation which leads to poverty, which in turn leads to increased population — a trend which would now decelerate.

Communities in wealthier, developed nations can observe trends such as automation, globalization and the increasing scarcity and rising price of basic resources to pick the feedback levers they want to “pull” in order to build community resilience and sustainable development into their local economies. Does it make sense, for example, for communities to continue to encourage investment in suburban development instead of in compact, less car-dependent cities?

Community Resilience and Compact Cities

Continued suburbanization results in increased automobile dependence, which in turn means building more automobile infrastructure — roads and massive parking lots paved with asphalt (a petroleum product), parking structures and so on — which in turn encourages increased automobile use and more sprawl development. Excessive automobile dependence means people pay more to get to work, create more pollution and frequently have worse health.

Compact city design, which can include pedestrian-only zones in downtown shopping areas, encourages greater diversity of business ownership (more small business outlets rather than fewer businesses in malls ) — which in turn increases local employment, and strengthens the local economy — which in turn encourages even greater diversity of ownership and the creation of even more small businesses, reducing the harmful effects to the community if some businesses fail.

Compact cities also encourage public transportation development (creating jobs), and bicycle use and walking which reduce transportation and health-care costs, allowing for more investment in beneficial community functions — while gradually reducing dependence on the external automotive economy while … you get the idea: feedback.

Finding the right feedback levers is the first step in creating community resilience and sustainable prosperity at our ecological house.

Community Resilience, Diversity and Feedback Loops

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

This is the second in a series of three articles on community resilience and building a sustainable economy (first article, third article). It is a modified version of an article originally appearing in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”

~PSW

What can communities and local governments do to help ensure the well-being of their citizens as we face an uncertain future?

Many communities are discussing “community resilience strategies,” policies and programs that can help them bounce back from “perturbations” (problems) caused by widely anticipated global environmental and economic stress. And it’s a good bet that those communities that actually develop and invest in community resilience strategies will greatly increase their chances of surviving or even prospering in an era of dwindling resources, unpredictable economic fluctuations and rapid climate change.

Community resilience planning (as preparation for environmental and economic emergencies, no ordinary “natural disasters) is a fairly new concept being developed by environmental/economic think tanks such as the Post Carbon Institute (www.postcarbon.org). While the think tanks focus on solutions for human communities and economies — investing in sustainable local businesses, developing community energy systems and so on —  their work is rooted in a decades-old branch of ecology that studies resilience in ecosystems.

In the first article in this series, I discussed how learning about the resilience of natural ecosystems — which have survived and, mostly, thrived on this planet for over three billion years — can inform our own efforts at community resilience planning. I discussed how ecosystems conserve energy through seamless integration with their abiotic (non-living) environment and by closing food loops, thus circulating the solar energy initially captured by plants throughout the system.

While those basic energy-conservation mechanisms — amounting to “reduce, reuse, recycle” in human terms — provide ecosystems with a stable basis for continuance (sustainability), they are not resilience mechanisms as such. However, nature has provided additional mechanisms  — including biological diversity and tight feedback loops — that allow ecosystems to recover from perturbations such as forest fires, eventually returning to their pre-disturbance state.

Species diversity ensures that if the population of an organism such as an insect pollinator that plays a critical role in an ecosystem is greatly reduced or eliminated — victimized, say, by predation, disease or human-made pollution — another pollinator’s numbers will increase to at least partially fill the role of the first. Thus the plants that depend on pollination for reproduction will survive — possibly preventing a general collapse of the ecosystem and eventually allowing it to recover to its previous state of dynamic equilibrium.

But what if there are no “other” pollinators to take the place of the original?

When diversity is reduced in natural or human systems, they become less resilient and more vulnerable to collapse. For example, monocultural farming has repeatedly led to crop failures that can induce famines such as the famous Irish potato famine of the 19th century. Similarly, economic systems dominated by a few “too-big-to-fail” players are far less resilient than economies that distribute wealth among many smaller institutions.

Thus communities are wise to encourage and invest in local diversity, funding or assisting small businesses, family farms and the like wherever they can. It is unwise to “put all your eggs in one basket,” for example by inviting giant corporations into your community, only to watch them pack up and outsource themselves a few years later.

Feedback loops control energy flows and populations in ecosystems and the ecosphere as a whole. Feedback can be accelerating or diminishing (positive or negative), and can destabilize or strengthen a system, depending on their relationship to the system’s components.

If that seems a bit abstract, think of a forest fire as a destructive accelerating feedback event — it feeds on itself until it consumes the forest. In response, forests have evolved resilience mechanisms that involve reseeding themselves after a fire to take advantage of the nutrients left in the fire’s wake.

This process has been termed “creative destruction” — creative in the sense that the destruction allows for new opportunities — for new organisms to thrive that were crowded out by the original, mature forest.

While creative destruction works in nature — which can rise again from the ashes of a former environmental “regime” — the implied sacrifice of the existing order is unacceptable for human civilization.

Therefore part of the challenge of community resilience planning is identifying destructive and affirmative feedback loops, and learning how they affect human “ecosystems”and how we can make them work for us — a critical topic we’ll explore in the next article in this series.

Community Resilience, Ecosystems and Sustainable Economics

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

This is the first in a series of three articles on community resilience and building a sustainable economy (second article, third article). It is a modified version of an article originally appearing in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”

~PSW

Contemplate, if you will, the concept of  “resilience in complex adaptive systems.”

“What’s that all about? ” you might well ask. “And what’s it got to do with me?”

I’ll answer the second question first. In recent columns I have pointed out that humanity is living in a state of environmental overshoot. We are using up the earth’s resources faster than nature can replace them. We are also filling up the earth’s “waste” sinks — the oceans and atmosphere — faster than nature can reprocess the byproducts of our global economy, bringing us to the verge of ocean ecosystem collapse and the onset of disruptive climate change.

Although these conditions potentially could be rectified by an international crash program of environmental restoration, our current population, economic growth trajectories and politics make such a late-hour campaign seem unlikely — at least until quite a bit more environmental damage has been done and the concomitant economic chaos ensues, forcing the issue.

Although the environmental crisis is global, its effects will be felt locally — by you, your family and your neighbors. And as the global economy weakens, the burden of response to the crisis will fall increasingly on local communities.

That’s why some communities are developing “community resilience strategies.” Those communities that have anticipated the changing conditions, invested in sustainable local economies and prepared resilient responses to “systemic perturbations” (trouble), will have a better chance of prospering, or at least of weathering the crisis, than those that do not.

Modeling Community Resilience on Ecosystems

But how can you prepare a resilient response to unknown or unpredictable developments?

That’s where studying “resilience in complex adaptive systems” such as ecosystems and human communities comes in. Ecosystems and human communities are complex because they are comprised of many elements that are constantly interacting with one another and the environment. They are adaptive, because they are capable of changing to meet new conditions imposed by internal and external forces.

Yet they also seek stability to maintain their core function — supporting life in an ecosystem, supporting people in a town. How do ecosystems — and, by inference, how can human systems — maintain their core functions when subjected to stress?

First, the life forms in an ecosystem are completely adapted to local environmental conditions including available sunlight, temperature and nutrients. That provides them with a strong basis for stability and self-correcting behavior to resist perturbations that fit within predictable or previously experienced parameters — “normal” environmental fluctuations such as cyclical changes in weather patterns or periodic fires.

Although humans can create environmental systems that are not constrained by location — we can live at the South Pole, if we so desire — there are significant costs to living in an environmentally inappropriate fashion. For example, consuming too much water by growing lawns in the desert is environmentally destructive and, therefore, ultimately self-destructive. If desert communities adopt strict water-conservation rules that require people to choose between, say, growing a lawn or taking showers, those communities will increase their chances of remaining viable. (They can landscape with native plants that are suited for the environment.)

Second, ecosystems conserve energy — and thus make sufficient energy available for the life forms they support — by closing nutrient loops. Once plants store the sun’s energy in their tissue, that energy is circulated as food up and down the food chain until it is once again reduced to basic plant food: nothing goes to waste.

Humans are notorious energy wasters, using far more energy than is required for the maintenance of their systems. By closing loops within their local economies — for example, reprocessing recycled materials locally, rather than sending them to distant countries for reprocessing, and reusing local food and human “waste” to grow food— communities can conserve energy while increasing local economic opportunity. Simultaneously, they will reduce their reliance on increasingly unreliable external energy, material and food supplies.

While seamless adaptation to local conditions and energy efficiency stabilize ecosystems against normal environmental fluctuations, additional strategies have evolved to protect against unique or extreme events or conditions. They include biodiversity, which ensures redundancy within an ecosystem’s living components; feedback mechanisms that regulate energy imbalances; and innovation potentials that allow for entirely new systems to evolve in response to severe perturbations.

In the next article in this series, Community Resilience, Diversity and Feedback Loops, I’ll discuss how to adopt these strategies to enhance community resilience at our ecological house.

~PSW