Off and on over the years, whenever I could catch a break from the daily routine, I would indulge myself by musing on a question that had no real utility: is this normal?
By that I mean can life in 21st century be considered normal by any stretch of the historical imagination? Are the nature and scale of our present national economies, for example, or their social and ecological consequences, normal? In other words, do they fall within some range of variation for “normal” human activity? For many political and business leaders, of course, the industrialization and globalization of our economy fits a pattern of ‘Progress’ that’s been in place since the Civil War and thus appears to be perfectly natural. But I wonder: is this pattern normal or is it an exception?
What about the size of the human population globally or its exponential rate of expansion – are they normal? What about our rates of consumption and waste, as well as our complete disregard of natural limitations? What about species extinction? Or global warming? Or how fat we’ve become? Is this normal or an anomaly? Or have we accepted these conditions as the “new” normal even though we understand them to be exceptional? If so, what does that mean for us or the planet in the long run?
Luckily, the grind of the day job doesn’t allow me to muse on this topic for very long, or else I might start drinking heavily. That’s because I suspect that the answer to my question is not a happy one: this isn’t normal. Not by a long shot.
Take energy, for instance. The extraordinary infusion of energy calories in the form of cheap fossil fuel over the past 150 years, and the incalculable effect it has had on the project of civilization, is certainly not normal. It is, in fact, quite unprecedented – as are the consequences, both positive and negative, of this motherlode of oil riches.
Of course, all this energy has created an exceptional condition of prosperity and convenience that we don’t mind one bit. Life has steadily improved for nearly all Americans since the close of World War II, and most want it to stay that way. Besides, it feels normal now. That’s because sixty years of energy wealth, like any gold strike, has a way of creating its own sense of normality – fooling us into believing that this particular vein, unlike every other motherlode in history, will not run dry.
But there have been developments recently that have lifted this entire question of “normal” out of the realm of indulgent speculation and placed it squarely in the real world of practical “dos and don’ts.”
Take forests. As the current mega-wildfire season demonstrates, current concepts of forest management, which are often based on a forest’s historical range of variability – a cycle of ecological ‘boom and bust’ over decades that is considered to be normal – are no longer adequate. As a consequence, managers can no longer rely on past forest conditions to provide targets for the future. All bets are off.
Certainty in forest management has been replaced with uncertainty. This means we must manage our forests in new and creative ways. These management approaches include: flexibility in decision-making, a willingness to take risks, the capacity to reassess conditions frequently, the ability to change course quickly as conditions change, actions that emphasize ecological processes rather than structure and composition, and an expanded land management toolbox (not to mention money to pay for all of the above).
The goal of these approaches is to create conditions that allow forests to retain as much of their original ‘shape’ ecologically as possible. This ability to ‘bounce back’ after a shock or surprise – to keep one’s shape – is called resilience. A wildfire (of the non-catastrophic variety) is a good example of a shock to a forest system and a good test of a forest’s ability to bounce back to health. Promoting resilience is the most commonly recommended option for foresters dealing with the uncertainty caused by climate-change.
The second example involves water moving across landscapes and the concept of stationarity. This is the idea that systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of ecological and climatological variability. Stationarity means normal, in other words, which makes it the core premise on which water-resource engineering training and practice are based. Before you can build a dam or plan to tap a river for irrigation, for example, you need to know how much water a particular watershed could deliver and when – which means rain, which means climate, which means predictability. Planning requires stationarity.
But it no longer exists according to experts.
Stationarity is dead because global warming has altered the amount and timing of precipitation, rates of evapotranspiration, and rates of discharge of rivers. This means, as with forest conditions, the past expectations of the natural range of variability no longer apply to the water cycle. And there’s no way to turn back the clock. Even with aggressive mitigation, continued warming is very likely, given the residence time of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the thermal inertia of the Earth system.
We are at sea, in other words, regarding the future of our forests and water supply.
In the wake of Katrina ten years ago, I began employing the metaphor of a hurricane to describe our global predicament. It stands for the combined forces of change that are rapidly bearing down upon us – global warming, energy depletion, food security, water scarcity – all of which I’ve logrolled into something I’ve called the Age of Consequences.
As I’ve written before, we need to do two things: work to lower the hurricane’s wind speed as much as possible (reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for instance) while simultaneously beefing up our defenses on shore. We don’t know precisely when or where the hurricane will strike, or how much destruction it will actually cause, but we do know that landfall is inevitable and so we must do everything in our power to prepare – such as build up local food systems.
But this “no more normal” business has added a big wrinkle to the picture.
Now I wonder: perhaps a hurricane is the wrong image. After all, hurricanes move along and eventually clear out, right? And after the rain and wind have stopped, doesn’t a community try to ‘return to normal’ as soon as possible? Once the sun comes out we get busy picking up the pieces of our homes and lives and begin the long process of getting back to way the way things were before the storm struck.
But what if the storm never stopped? Or perhaps more importantly, what if, under climate change, we weren’t exactly sure which ‘normal’ to return to?
This is where resilience comes in.
In ecology, there is a principle called the Adaptive Cycle in which a system (forest, swamp, desert, etc) passes through a sequence of phases over time, including rapid growth, maturation, breakdown, reorganization, and rapid growth again. The critical moment is breakdown, such as what a fire – or beetle infestation – does to a forest. After the ecological disturbance has ended there follows a period of recovery and reorganization, followed by growth and maturation, such as new trees after a fire for example, and so on.
Resilience is the ability of a community to hold its shape after a breakdown. When communities aren’t resilient, they can cross ecological thresholds into a new state, such as when a forest becomes a grassland after a particularly intense fire. There are social thresholds too, such as the demise of so many farming towns in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl. Or what prolonged drought did to many prehistoric villages in the Southwest.
What, then, are the differences between communities that are resilient and those which are not? I think a place to start is with what I call the little normals. These are things that have been remarkably persistent over the millennia: such as the way water moves across the land, or the love a parent feels for a child. The metabolism of a grass plant hasn’t changed significantly in millions of years; it needs rain and minerals, of course, to thrive, but otherwise it functions normally – as it always has. It is the same for human communities too.
We still need food to live. We like to work and enjoy relaxing, as we always have. We need a sense of community, we like to belong, we prefer marriage and the family-scale household over anarchic social arrangements. We like to live in proximity to other people. We feel a deep affection for animals. We are moved by spiritual concerns.
These are examples of little normals that I think remain largely unfazed by the changing nature of the big normals. Global warming is a big normal with big consequences, but it doesn’t alter our need to be loved, to care for other creatures, or to be remembered. The global supply of oil may soon peak and decline, causing all sorts of rearrangements in our daily routines, but it won’t change our need to eat, to play, or make music. Expanding population pressures and diminishing food stocks mean increased suffering globally, but they don’t mean we stop laughing.
Resilience means seeking out the little normals – the constants in human nature, including the behaviors, institutions, and durable scales, that have stood the test of time – and reengaging with them meaningfully.