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Resilient to what?: a fascinating new look at risk

I was reading through the Executive Summary of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2011 this afternoon (as you do) and the chart on page 3 (see above) caught my eye (click on it to enlarge it). In it, the authors set out all the risks they see in the world on a matrix which positions the various risks by their perceived impact on the global economy and by the perceived likelihood of their happening. What you might expect to be at the top, given recent media reports, would be the threat of terrorism or perhaps some hideous computer virus that knocks out nuclear power station. But no. There at the top, leading the pack, are climate change, ‘extreme energy price volatility’ and fiscal crises.

In my research over the past couple of years on the subject of resilience, I often ended up at the question of ‘resilient to what?’ In a paper for the think tank DEMOS called ‘Resilient Nation’, Charlie Edwards listed the things he felt we should be preparing resilience to. They were climate change, floods, extreme weather events, pandemics, energy shortages, nuclear attacks, terrorism and a few others. The UK government Cabinet Office runs ‘Regional Resilience Teams’ who are charged with creating plans for each region. Yet the main focus of this will most likely be on terrorism and pandemics.

In the Transition movement we have argued for 5 years now that we need to base thinking about resilience primarily on both mitigation and adaptation when it comes to climate change, as well as to peak oil and the volatility of energy prices and, more recently, to the economic troubles affecting us. We have argued that planning for resilience without these concerns at the forefront runs a high risk of really rather missing the point. Indeed, we have argued for a different take on the whole notion of resilience, one that says that rather than it being about what do we need to put in place so that we can just about survive when something extremely ghastly occurs, perhaps building resilience could be seen as a positive process.

If breaking our dependency on cheap fossil fuels, massively reducing our carbon emissions and creating more economic resilience were instead to be seen as an opportunity, then our thinking shifts. In this context, making our communities more resilient becomes a historic opportunity to rethink how it feeds, houses and heats itself. The whole idea of ‘localisation as economic development’ comes into its own. Yet we still live in a time where the official government position is that peak oil isn’t a problem for a couple of decades yet, and where the idea that it is a sufficient risk to warrant preparations for is dismissed. DEFRA in 2006 argued that the just-in-time distribution model on which our food system depends actually increases our resilience, a position which, apart from more recently recognising the value of local food production, is still largely in place.

Yet here is the World Economic Forum stating categorically that the three key risks over the next 10 years are actually energy price volatility, climate change and economic crises. Last year, at the summit about what a government response to peak oil might look like, which Peter Lipman and myself attended, we gave a talk where we put up Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ’5 Stages of Grief’, in order to show how Transition initiatives had, in effect, moved through the denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and had moved into an acceptance of the reality of peak oil and had begun giving serious and creative thought to what to do about it. This graph from the WEF really stresses the importance of that. What was most depressing about that event was how most of the civil servants there saw the solution to peak oil lying almost exclusively in improved vehicle efficiency.

Over the last 18 months of writing ‘The Transition Companion’, my thinking has been that these two concepts, of resilience and localisation, are central and vital ideas moving forward. What the Transition movement has catalysed over the past 5 years has been a hugely insightful and useful ‘dry run’ of thinking through what all this would look like in practice, as well as actually starting the process of leading by example with the creation of a new infrastructure. It is the practical embodiment of Tom Homer-Dixon’s assertion, in ‘The Upside of Down’ that “if we want to thrive, we need to move from a growth imperative to a resilience imperative”.

Anyway, I could write about this for ages, but I need to finish my preparations for the trip to Liverpool for the Transition Network conference which starts tomorrow. In summary, I think this chart is fascinating, and it puts current government thinking on the question of resilience in the spotlight. If these three things, and also economic disparity, which is another area that Transition initiatives are working hard to address, are actually the key risks over the next 10 years, then surely a profound rethink is needed. ‘The Big Society’ surely doesn’t even come close.

Editorial Notes: At Transition Culture, you can get a a taste of the forthcoming ‘The Transition Companion’. Direct link to the PDF. -BA

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