For a lesson in the compounding effects of surprising events, go back to a March afternoon in 2011: A powerful earthquake hits 40 miles off the eastern coast of Japan. The country's building codes ensure that most structures can cope with even this major stress, but a resulting tsunami pounds the shore, unexpectedly breaches the sea walls, and ends up killing most of the more than 15,800 who die in this disaster.
The wave also knocks out the cooling system at a major nuclear-power plant situated on the coast, causing a meltdown. In time, the prime minister admits that the accident could have gotten out of control, forcing the abandonment of Tokyo, which would have crippled Japan. Citizens of the resource-poor country advocate abandoning nuclear power; analysts say that relying on imported coal or liquified natural gas could raise Japan's carbon emissions by 37 percent. The meltdown hobbles a renaissance for nuclear power in the United States, and miscommunication about the disaster leads to upheaval in the Japanese government.
Results of a 2013 World Economic Forum survey, of 1,000 experts in academe, government, and industry, on nations’ resilience to interconnected global risks.
An alder grows in land only recently exposed to daylight by a receding glacier.
The quake, tsunami, and meltdown also affect an area known for manufacturing products vital to the world economy, notably cars and other vehicles, and those plants are shuttered for months. Twenty percent of the world's silicon wafers come from this area, and electronics companies, which rely on just-in-time delivery of parts, brace for shortages. The meltdown also causes a brief worldwide panic about radioactive materials that might hitch onto Japanese exports.
In all, it is the costliest natural disaster of all time, with the World Bank estimating the damage at $235-billion. The full extent of disruption might not be known for years. The Tohoku earthquake and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi meltdown echoed other major catastrophes—acts of nature, of the market, or of terrorists—that we have endured over the past several years. Those events also created ripple effects in a highly interconnected world, revealing the urgent need to be able to absorb such shocks—because we are certainly going to see more of them.
Scholars and policy wonks have given this area of study a label: resilience. And you see it everywhere now. Ohio State University has a well-established Center for Resilience, and other institutions have centers or departments with resilience as a main focus. Scholars have collected in research organizations like the Resilience Alliance or the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Agencies as diverse as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the World Economic Forum, and the Rockefeller Foundation all support programs promoting resilience. Last year the National Academy of Sciences released a lengthy report on disaster resilience, which it defined as "the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events." Books in fields as different as ecology, economics, and engineering bear titles like Resilience Thinking, Resilience Practice, Resilience Engineering, Resilient Cities, Resilient Enterprise, The Resilience Imperative, and Resilience and the Future of Everyday Life.
"Forget sustainability. It's about resilience," declared a headline over a New York Times article by the futurist Andrew Zolli, whose new book, with Ann Marie Healy, is titled simply Resilience.
For the scholars who are deeply involved in this emerging field, it can be both an exciting and unsettling time. The attention on resilience represents a shift toward thinking more broadly about society's biggest challenges—perceiving the world in terms of interconnected systems, instead of stand-alone problems. Systems thinking also encourages interdisciplinary approaches, an evolution in higher education that not everyone is ready for.
But even as the concept has gained currency, its advocates worry that it is overexposed.
"People have grabbed this concept as a political and ideological tool," says Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation and a professor at the University of Waterloo who has long focused on studies in systems and resilience. The concept "is so broad now that it is becoming almost meaningless."
Daniel P. Aldrich, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University who studies how an active and connected citizenry endows a community with resilience, says the term is becoming another diluted buzzword, like "synergy" or "social capital."
"For me, it's a sad moment, because there really is something in the concept of resilience that is qualitatively different from previous efforts to define postdisaster recovery," he says.
Resilience, as it is now defined, has roots in various fields but perhaps most notably in ecology. In 1973, C.S. (Buzz) Holling, then a professor of ecology at the University of British Columbia, published an article titled "Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems." Holling argued that traditional studies of systems, using methods inherited from fields like physics, assumed that ecosystems existed in an equilibrium—to which they would return after a disturbance.
"What Holling was trying to introduce in this idea was that ecosystems could exist in qualitatively different forms," says Lance H. Gunderson, a professor of environmental studies at Emory University who worked extensively with Holling on resilience research.
Essentially, "resilience" refers to a system's ability to absorb shocks. Over time, various fields have adopted the term and the ideas behind it, and it has become value laden. When national-security experts and risk managers talk about resilience, they're often thinking about "recovery"—protecting "normal" life, and how quickly we can rebound to "normal" after a disaster. Others think of "resilience" and "sustainability" as synonyms.
Joseph Fiksel, one of the founders of the Center for Resilience at Ohio State University, says he used to think that way, too. Now he sees resilience and sustainability as complementary, sort of a yin and yang in constant tension. Sustainability—minimizing or eliminating a company's impact on the world through its use of energy and resources, its waste stream, emissions, and so on—implies efficiency, he says. But too much efficiency threatens resilience.
Fiksel is trained in engineering and operations research, and spent the early part of his career doing environmental-risk analysis and helping companies adopt sustainability principles. But he grew frustrated with the work. Sustainability seemed like an idealized and unachievable goal because companies were "operating in an unsustainable system," he says.
A ravenous appetite for short-term profits and a cultural bias against long-term thinking—these perspectives are at the root of some of the destruction that business causes in the world, and they threaten businesses themselves. "I realized what was more important to individual companies was not sustainability but resilience," he says. He was struck by a 1997 study conducted by Royal Dutch Shell that showed that major corporations valued longevity over profitability. He saw that corporations wanted to "learn, grow, and survive" and that a company was "best understood as a living organism rather than as a machine engineered to deliver profits," as Fiksel put it in a 2003 article in Environmental Science & Technology that crystalized his thinking about resilience.
Soon after that, he helped found the center, based in Ohio State's College of Engineering, and has worked with companies and groups as diverse as Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the City of Columbus. One of the center's central projects has focused on helping companies analyze their resilience against unforeseen disruptions or catastrophic events. That work assesses a company's capabilities and vulnerabilities but not specific threats.
Most approaches to resilience, Fiksel complains, resemble traditional risk management: Identify a set of risks, calculate the probabilities, and do what you can to mitigate those risks. Those techniques, says Fiksel, don't account for the unexpected—the so-called black swans—and they don't acknowledge the rolling, compounding effects that disruptions can have in a hyperfast, hyperconnected world.
"We tend to get locked into economic and technological patterns that constrain us in terms of our ability to evolve and cope with new challenges," he says. "What we really need is to operate with variability as the norm."
Consider what has hit us hardest in recent years, how some of these disruptions came from or led to other woes: September 11, 2001; the 2003 Northeast blackout; the oil shock of 2008; the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession; Deepwater Horizon; the intense droughts; Hurricanes Katrina, Irene, and Sandy.
There are surely more disruptions to come. Stephen E. Flynn, a security expert and former military officer who is co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University, ticks off the most likely threats: a breakdown in the power grid; interruption of global supply chains, including those that provide our food; an accident at one of the many chemical factories in urban areas; or damage to the dams, locks, and waterways that shuttle agricultural products and other goods out to sea. The No. 1 threat, he says, is a terrorist attack that prompts lawmakers and a frightened public to shred the Bill of Rights or overreact in another way.
The tendency in government has been to focus intensely on these threats—or other problems, considering the wars on cancer, poverty, drugs, crime, and so on—and to try to eliminate them.
"If you look at the post-World War II area," Flynn says, "there is almost an overarching focus on reducing risk and bringing risk down to zero," the idea that this could be done "if you brought enough science and enough resources and you applied enough muscle." Since 9/11, that policy has meant spending vast sums to go after terrorists out there, but perhaps we aren't safer.
"Why do we have all this money to go after man-made terrorist attacks, and then we let our bridges fall down?" Flynn wonders.
He advocates a different approach. We should make American society more robust so that it can absorb shocks and carry on. Part of that shift includes reorienting people's attitudes so that they are more willing to deal with these uncertainties. The generation before World War II accepted risk as a matter of life, he says. "They had less ambition or hubris to believe that you would contain all of these things," he says, "and a measure of character was how you would deal with adversity, how you overcame it."
Obama's administration has picked up the resilience approach—particularly in a policy directive in February to emphasize "critical infrastructure security and resilience"—and his budget directs $200-million to help communities develop resilience to extreme weather and other effects of climate change. That took political courage, Flynn says, because many other government officials, particularly in security, see resilience as defeatist. "They believe our job is to prevent these things from happening," says Flynn. "What we have seen is that we keep having big events that are profoundly disruptive and that we are woefully underprepared to deal with. That can't continue."
Colleges have yet another challenge in researching and teaching resilience: The field is based on studies of complex systems, an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor. Homer-Dixon, from Waterloo, says that most disciplines have seen the world as composed of "simple machines." The traditional, reductionist view assumes that you can take the machines apart and analyze their components individually, and from those components make assumptions about how the whole will operate. But the world is actually composed of complex systems, and the individual components don't necessarily tell us how the system will work. For example, going back to the Tohoku earthquake, some might not expect an earthquake to lead to a meltdown, political upheaval, worldwide distress in supply chains, and so on. Only in retrospect does it all make sense.
This worldview might be second nature for some. "But when I stand in front of audiences of even sophisticated people—civil servants, or social scientists—I have to do Complexity 101," he says. "People have a natural tendency to assume that systems migrate toward equilibrium, that small causes cause small effects, that we have known unknowns, and we live in a world of risk, not deep uncertainty."
Even though Homer-Dixon is "wistful" about the overuse and watering down of the term "resilience," he sees that as an encouraging signal that people are seeing the world as complex. "I think that is the real challenge."
His own view of resilience takes an approach that's more radical than what most policy makers and security experts are comfortable with. Resilience, he insists, comes from a process of creative destruction, as coined by the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter described the way that capitalism brought about new businesses and new products from the destruction and discard of old businesses and products—a notion that has been adopted to describe the renewal of cities, information systems, political structures, governments, and so on. Our economic and political systems, Homer-Dixon says, are resilient because they have embraced a Schumpeterian framework, in a constant cycle of ruin and reinvention.
As for what creative destruction means for communities and societies, Homer-Dixon readily admits he doesn't fully know. But the outline of the idea doesn't always sit well with his audiences. "Fundamentally, it is a very threatening idea for vested and elite interests," he says. Recently, when he spoke to civil servants in Canada about resilience, "they thought I was completely insane, or they were terrified," he says. When most bureaucrats talk about resilience, they are talking about bouncing back to the status quo.
"Adaptation and innovation often require shock and crisis," he says. "It can be a violent and messy process, and also really essential to real adaptation and real changes, instead of changes at the margins."
Scott Carlson is a senior writer at The Chronicle