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Learning to Bounce Back | COPE Preparedness

By ANDREW ZOLLI Published: November 2, 2012

FOR decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” — interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change — have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”: the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another. It’s an alluring and moral vision, and in a year that has brought us the single hottest month in recorded American history (July), a Midwestern drought that plunged more than half the country into a state of emergency, a heat wave across the eastern part of the country powerful enough to melt the tarmac below jetliners in Washington and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, it would seem a pressing one, too.

Yet today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

It’s a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances.

For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but — as was just demonstrated in the New York region — fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages.

Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves. For extreme weather events, that means developing the kinds of infrastructure more commonly associated with the Army: temporary bridges that can be “inflated” or positioned across rivers when tunnels flood, for example, or wireless “mesh” networks and electrical microgrids that can compensate for exploding transformers.

We’ll also need to use nature itself as a form of “soft” infrastructure. Along the Gulf Coast, civic leaders have begun to take seriously the restoration of the wetlands that serve as a vital buffer against hurricanes. A future New York may be ringed with them too, as it was centuries ago.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York hardest right where it was most recently redeveloped: Lower Manhattan, which should have been the least vulnerable part of the island. But it was rebuilt to be “sustainable,” not resilient, said Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer.

“After 9/11, Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEED-certified, green buildings in the world,” he said, referring to a rating program for eco-friendly design. “But that was answering only part of problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment” — for example, by having redundant power systems.

The resilience frame speaks not just to how buildings weather storms but to how people weather them, too. Here, psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists are uncovering a wide array of factors that make you more or less resilient than the person next to you: the reach of your social networks, the quality of your close relationships, your access to resources, your genes and health, your beliefs and habits of mind.

Based on these insights, these researchers have developed training regimens, rooted in contemplative practice, that are already helping first responders, emergency-room physicians and soldiers better manage periods of extreme stress and diminish the rates and severity of post-traumatic stress that can follow. Researchers at Emory University have shown that similar practices can bolster the psychological and physiological resilience of children in foster care. These tools will have to find their way into wider circulation, as we better prepare populations for the mental, and not just physical, dimensions of disruption.

Andrew Zolli, the executive director of PopTech, is the author, with Ann Marie Healy, of “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/03/opinion/forget-sustainability-its-about-resilience.html?emc=eta1

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