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October 22nd, 2013
Cultivating Resilience in the Face of Ecological Change

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In the past decade, approximately 200-300 million people have been seriously affected by natural disasters or technological accidents each year-a staggering figure that is bound to only increase in the coming decades. It is becoming clear that a failure to make political systems pay attention to climate challenges might lead to massive population displacements. In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, the Worldwatch Institute discusses the imperative to prepare for such disasters and outlines how we can move forward on the path toward resiliency.

“The repercussions from environmental degradation do not occur in a void,” notes Michael Renner, contributing author and senior researcher at Worldwatch. “They interact with a cauldron of pre-existing societal pressures and problems.”

Building up a globalized and industrialized market economy and growing our food in globe-spanning monocultures may increase efficiency, but such practices also decrease resiliency. Many societies are now at risk of either short-term or permanent displacement due to both environmental and non-environmental disasters.

“Of course, disasters of all kinds are nothing new,” remarks Laurie Mazur, contributing author and nonprofit consultant. “But the current era may be one in which their frequency, scale, and impact are greater than anything our species has previously confronted.”

In State of the World 2013, contributing authors discuss an array of strategies and case studies that offer lessons for surviving and coping with the coming calamities that may result from climate and other ecological changes.

Recipe for resilience. In order for societies to be truly resilient-able to mitigate and withstand disturbances and recover afterward-socioeconomic practices should include redundancies, so that the failure of one component does not impact the entire system. Modularity is also critical, in that individual units retains some self-sufficiency when disconnected from the larger networks. Other characteristics of resilient systems include diversity, inclusiveness, tight feedbacks, and the capacity for innovation.

Adjusting and adapting. We must consider how the physical changes that take place on Earth will translate into social and economic changes. Adaptation can help reduce vulnerability by way of disaster and famine early-warning systems, livelihood diversification, drought-tolerant crops, restoration of ecosystems, flood-defense infrastructure, and crop insurance.

Cultivating social capital. Social capital, the sum total of resources, knowledge, and goodwill possessed by everyone in a network, provides a web of connections that communities can use to obtain relief and reconstruction aid. Members in well-functioning communities are best able to organize support, articulate their needs, and work together to rebuild and stabilize.

The Cuban Experiment. Over the past two decades, Cuba has moved to the forefront of sustainability. In 2006, it was the only country in the world rated as having achieved “sustainable development” in WWF’s Living Planet Report. Although it is materialistically poor, it has First World education, literacy, and health care. The Cuban example proves what many wealthy nations are hesitant to even consider: that high material consumption does not necessarily equal human well-being. Cuba represents an alternative where material success as measured by energy consumption is secondary, while other quality-of-life issues are given priority.

A global paradigm shift is in order. We must not only alter our outlook on consumption and realign our consciousness with sustainability, but also begin to integrate policies and practices that diversify and strengthen our social, political, and economic domains.

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2013, released in April 2013, addresses how “sustainability” should be measured, how we can attain it, and how we can prepare if we fall short. For more information, visit

Authors of mentioned chapters include :

  • Paula Green, founder and senior fellow at the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, professor at the School of International Training, and author of Chapter 33, “Shaping Community Responses to Catastrophe.”
  • Laurie Mazur, D.C.-based writer and consultant to nonprofit organizations and author of Chapter 32, “Cultivating Resilience in a Dangerous World.”
  • Faith Morgan, executive director of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions and co-author of Chapter 30, “Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline.”
  • Pat Murphy, research director of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions and co-author of Chapter 30, “Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline.”
  • Michael Renner, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and author of Chapter 31, “Climate Change and Displacements.”

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