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Community Resilience, Ecosystems and Sustainable Economics

This is the first in a series of three articles on community resilience and building a sustainable economy (second article, third article). It is a modified version of an article originally appearing in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”

~PSW

Contemplate, if you will, the concept of “resilience in complex adaptive systems.”

“What’s that all about? ” you might well ask. “And what’s it got to do with me?”

I’ll answer the second question first. In recent columns I have pointed out that humanity is living in a state of environmental overshoot. We are using up the earth’s resources faster than nature can replace them. We are also filling up the earth’s “waste” sinks — the oceans and atmosphere — faster than nature can reprocess the byproducts of our global economy, bringing us to the verge of ocean ecosystem collapse and the onset of disruptive climate change.

Although these conditions potentially could be rectified by an international crash program of environmental restoration, our current population, economic growth trajectories and politics make such a late-hour campaign seem unlikely — at least until quite a bit more environmental damage has been done and the concomitant economic chaos ensues, forcing the issue.

Although the environmental crisis is global, its effects will be felt locally — by you, your family and your neighbors. And as the global economy weakens, the burden of response to the crisis will fall increasingly on local communities.

That’s why some communities are developing “community resilience strategies.” Those communities that have anticipated the changing conditions, invested in sustainable local economies and prepared resilient responses to “systemic perturbations” (trouble), will have a better chance of prospering, or at least of weathering the crisis, than those that do not.

Modeling Community Resilience on Ecosystems

But how can you prepare a resilient response to unknown or unpredictable developments?

That’s where studying “resilience in complex adaptive systems” such as ecosystems and human communities comes in. Ecosystems and human communities are complex because they are comprised of many elements that are constantly interacting with one another and the environment. They are adaptive, because they are capable of changing to meet new conditions imposed by internal and external forces.

Yet they also seek stability to maintain their core function — supporting life in an ecosystem, supporting people in a town. How do ecosystems — and, by inference, how can human systems — maintain their core functions when subjected to stress?

First, the life forms in an ecosystem are completely adapted to local environmental conditions including available sunlight, temperature and nutrients. That provides them with a strong basis for stability and self-correcting behavior to resist perturbations that fit within predictable or previously experienced parameters — “normal” environmental fluctuations such as cyclical changes in weather patterns or periodic fires.

Although humans can create environmental systems that are not constrained by location — we can live at the South Pole, if we so desire — there are significant costs to living in an environmentally inappropriate fashion. For example, consuming too much water by growing lawns in the desert is environmentally destructive and, therefore, ultimately self-destructive. If desert communities adopt strict water-conservation rules that require people to choose between, say, growing a lawn or taking showers, those communities will increase their chances of remaining viable. (They can landscape with native plants that are suited for the environment.)

Second, ecosystems conserve energy — and thus make sufficient energy available for the life forms they support — by closing nutrient loops. Once plants store the sun’s energy in their tissue, that energy is circulated as food up and down the food chain until it is once again reduced to basic plant food: nothing goes to waste.

Humans are notorious energy wasters, using far more energy than is required for the maintenance of their systems. By closing loops within their local economies — for example, reprocessing recycled materials locally, rather than sending them to distant countries for reprocessing, and reusing local food and human “waste” to grow food— communities can conserve energy while increasing local economic opportunity. Simultaneously, they will reduce their reliance on increasingly unreliable external energy, material and food supplies.

While seamless adaptation to local conditions and energy efficiency stabilize ecosystems against normal environmental fluctuations, additional strategies have evolved to protect against unique or extreme events or conditions. They include biodiversity, which ensures redundancy within an ecosystem’s living components; feedback mechanisms that regulate energy imbalances; and innovation potentials that allow for entirely new systems to evolve in response to severe perturbations.

In the next article in this series, Community Resilience, Diversity and Feedback Loops, I’ll discuss how to adopt these strategies to enhance community resilience at our ecological house.

~PSW

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