Is Resilience Just a First World Concept?

While you were doing the World Cafe, people were marching in Tahrir Square. And they aren’t protesting because Mubarak is a bad leader, that is beside the point, they are protesting because people in that country didn’t think about  the issues you are thinking about.  Back when the protestors were two years old, people in that country didn’t think about what they would grow up and do, and this is what happens when young men have nothing to do. So that’s why you see protests across the Middle East right now.”~ Craig Applegath, CAPS-ACEAU.

The final keynote speaker said these words a few minutes before the conclusion of the Canadian Association of Planning Students annual conference, and I’m still surprised it happened. Given the fact that many countries ( the US etc) have supported the Egyptian dictatorship for so many years and have been so timid in supporting the Egyptian people during the recent events, this is a simply inaccurate and inappropriate way to describe what has been going on.

More than it just being a crazy thing to say though, I mention the example of Egypt because it perfectly describes a wider problem with the CAPS conference this year. The discussion of resilience was incredibly simplistic.

I say this because in March 2010 I attended the 2nd Annual UBC School of Community and Regional Planning Symposium about Planning for Resilience, and over the course of an amazing two days, the conference showcased sessions about diverse topics ranging from planning for housing in Mumbai, to the relationship between social media and planning and resilience, to disaster management in North Vancouver, to just so so much more. Before the conference we were sent required readings that related to the keynote speakers, and Mark Holland sent us his Resilient Cities and Regenerative Regions Manifesto.  It was and still is, one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read. I blogged about a few key points here on Terry last year, but really the whole Manifesto is well worth a careful reading.

In Mark Holland’s work, his principles about the relationship between us and other places include:

  • “Everything is connected and that the dispassionate karma of the earth offers a reaction for every one of our actions;
  • That we must transform our cities from a parasitic to a symbiotic relationship with our all other species in the world;
  • That the scale of change we need can only be realized when we work together to coauthor a future that fits us all;
  • .. because there is no “social out there” any more than there is an ecological “out there”,  we must confront our fears and work to heal those who have been hurt or have hurt us ‐ for pain is a virus that is passed on until it is confronted and healed – and while in action, it hurts all species.

and later on in the Manifesto it says:

I will open to the pain that I cause in the world through my ignorance and fear and the distance I seem to have from my internal dignity and nobility, and I will feel the pain, shock and injustice of participating in the death of so many, if only by accident – and then I will move past that grief to the restless serenity of my responsibility – to my planet, to my community, to my family, and to myself;”

The key point: We are a source of harm and have a responsibility to rectify our actions because we are all connected. This idea is clearly evident throughout the whole document which emphasizes that while yes we must focus on building healthy communities, this can only happen when we are engaged and committed to building resilience everywhere.

At CAPS however, Thomas Homer Dixon noted in his presentation that it is very likely that Israel will invade Iran in the next five years, and that would cause disturbances in our energy supply, so we need to be ready for that. In other parts of his presentation he spoke about the need to de-couple and reduce energy dependency, and it seemed as thoug attacks in other places ok is long as long as we aren’t affected. Surely we don’t care about populations merely when our own survival is threatened.

So while withstanding shocks was spoken about, thinking deeply about reducing the occurrence of human produced shocks in the first place was not.  This is a shame because if we are concerned about fluctuations in access to oil from the Middle East due to conflict, our discussion is incomplete if we don’t talk about reducing conflict in the first place. It is a bit like trying to give a patient a pill for a fever, without thinking holistically about what is making the body sick in the first place.

It reminded me of the work of Scott McMurray, (one of the keynote speakers who actually was phenomenal), who said:

“Interdisciplinary work helps us avoid what Kenneth Burke called “trained incapacity,” which is a kind of blindness associated with being deep but not very wide. Despite the risks, we should step outside of the metaphors and narratives that form our intellectual safe zones as often as we can”.

And as much as I enjoyed meeting cool people, the experience of presenting my research, the humour and warmth of the Professional Panel, and the dynamic mobile tours, sadly, the conference discussion of resilience by a few of the keynote speakers did feel lacking. We all know energy is a problem, we all know climate changing is happening and that we need to think about food, but you’re only saying something  innovative and meaningful when we think about the system, the planet as a whole.

To illustrate, what wasn’t discussed was that as first world industrialized countries  we actively produce shocks in other places, and a real difference exists between places in terms of their capacity to plan for resilience.  A resilient city we were told, has “sustainable energy flows, maximizes flexibility, is about local self sufficiency, reduces redundancy of systems while still ensuring diversity of systems, and has a decentralized system (in addition to one more attribute related to the environment). On an international scale though, there are real impediments to places implementing these characteristics; foreign policy gets in the way. One of the panel presenters responded to a question about planning in Africa and noted that in Durban they got tired of what the World Bank was saying their cities had to look like, and so they created their own plan in response. Think of the capacity of places like Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq etc etc to do the same.  The whole Gaza flotilla crisis was about enabling basic supplies to enter Palestine in order to reduce the fragility of the Palestinian people and ensure basic human rights. The policies of our governments often create barriers for other nations to achieve resiliency.

Finally, we never spoke about the impact our work to become more resilient will have on the rest of the world. As we try to revitalize local manufacturing and increase local food production, what does that mean for other places? Wouldn’t that create ripple effects and create external shocks?  That doesn’t mean resilience planning isn’t important, but we do need to understand the wider picture.

In sum, without a description of power, the model is not helpful at best, and at most is scarily preservationist. The result is a world with resilient pockets and non resilient pockets, which is perhaps a recipe for an overall non resilient world, a world that is constantly generating shocks that we will be forced to respond to.

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