Archive for April 15th, 2009

The elements of resilience

By David Parkinson
(Updated April 16, 2009 & April 20, 2009)

Western Skunk Cabbage: spreads underground, produces heat to melt away the snow, uses its odour to attract pollinators in order to ensure its reproduction. Edible, useful, and beautiful.

Western Skunk Cabbage: spreads underground, produces heat to melt away the snow, uses its odour to attract pollinators in order to ensure its reproduction. Edible, useful, and beautiful.

The future — the sustainable future where we survive will not be created by those who invented the world we have just lost and are reluctantly giving it up, while salvaging as much of their privilege from the ruins as they can. It will be invented by people who have only each other to lose and understand that, in the coming era of chaos, collapse, and reconstruction, we will find support, security, comfort, and solutions within the context of communities — on the ground, online, overlapping, and emerging.
(Chip Ward, from the introduction to “After the Green Economy, Green Security: How to Build Resilient Communities in a Chaotic World“)

In an earlier post, I talked a little bit about resilience and why I see this as an even more important goal than sustainability. I believe that the work that lies ahead of us consists of finding ways to grow back some of the resilience we have lost over the past half-century or so.

The economy we have right now is very fragile. We can see this in the collapse of some of its largest institutions and sectors: banks, insurers, real estate, car manufacturers, and the stock market. Closer to home, we see the slow and steady collapse of the forestry industry. We keep hearing that these sectors are “too big to fail” when what we should be saying is “too big to be allowed to fail”. And the solution to these failures? Throw more money at the problems and hope that that will somehow fix the underlying sickness causing supposedly robust and central pillars of the economy to fall apart. If you think that we can pay or pray our way out of systemic failure, then I envy you. I don’t think it’s going to be so easy.

I think a lot about this “too big to fail” syndrome in the context of our food system. Thanks to cheap fossil fuels and centralized production, processing, and distribution, we in North America have a food system which is the envy of the rest of the world. Our supermarket shelves are piled high with products of all kinds from everywhere on the planet. We can eat just about anything we want at any time. Obesity is more of a problem than starvation.

But the hidden downside of this abundance is an increasingly fragile system dependent on a continuing supply of fossil fuels for fertilizer, machinery, transportation, processing, refrigeration, and more transportation to the nearest supermarket. None of this would be possible without an ever-shrinking number of players in the food game: huge multinational conglomerates which control many steps in the food chain from seed supply to packaging. These corporations are becoming “too big to fail”, but there is no reason to think that their growth can be sustained for very much longer.

I believe, as a matter of principle, that control over our food supply should be in the people’s hands as much as possible. And I believe that we have surrendered too much control to corporations which do not have our interests at heart. Before the situation becomes an emergency, we need to take back as much control as possible.

Luckily, many people here and elsewhere are working hard to rebuild local food economies in communities all around the world, and to push back gently but firmly against total corporate control of the food supply. There are all kinds of efforts around here, from the Open Air Market to the 50-mile diet challenge to backyard gardening to canning, mixed farming, permaculture, and plenty of other good and important work. Everyone involved in these little efforts will admit that we have a long way to go before we have a truly resilient local food economy, but they are doing their part towards that goal.

So, what I’d like to do is think a little about some of the features of a resilient system, using a local food economy as an example. These are some of the goals we should be aiming for in the region; the details of how we achieve these goals are less important than keeping the image of resilience in mind as we start to develop new projects and new ways of producing, processing, preserving, preparing, and sharing food locally. (These aspects of resilience are in no particular order.)


The local food economy contains many parts and performs many functions.
Example: Food is being produced in backyard gardens, neighbourhood gardens, community gardens, cooperative kitchens and canning facilities, market gardeners, mixed farmers, and specialized operations (greenhouses, orchards, vineyards, livestock, etc.). Knowledge about producing, processing, and preparing healthy locally-available food is widespread throughout the region.
Result: The local food economy provides adequately for local needs and is able to withstand serious shocks and disruptions without immediately leading to panic, hoarding, and hunger. People can afford to eat very well under normal circumstances, and can continue to eat under adverse circumstances.


The parts of the local food economy are spread around geographically and permeate many sectors of the community.
Example: Every neighbourhood has resources which supply people with local food, whether it’s a farm gate, cooperative, food store, community kitchen, or whatever. Specialized sectors of the community such as churches, schools, social clubs, etc. have their own pieces of the local food economy which serve the needs of that sector. All ages, ethnicities, and people with special dietary needs or wants are well served.
Result: Everyone is woven into the local food economy and can easily access the food and information they need to eat well.


Each function of the local food economy is performed by more than one part of the system.
Example: Canning happens in the home, in neighbourhood groups, commercially on the small scale as well as on the larger scale (possibly for export outside the region).
Result: If one part of the food economy gets knocked out, there are many others still performing its functions.


Each part of the local food economy performs more than one function.
Example: Neighbourhood groups can come together to exchange knowledge; pool resources to purchase, produce, or process food in bulk; create cooperative business opportunities; provide healthy meals for low-income people; tend each other’s gardens; and so on.
Result: No parts of the local food economy are putting all their eggs in one basket, and can easily adapt to changes in local needs, productive capacity, and shifts in the market.


Parts of the local food economy are able to change their functions and goals quickly.
Example: Small, inexpensive, easily replicated experiments proliferate throughout the region, testing out new methods in food production, processing, and preservation. Growers and processors are more easily able to shift their output towards the more lucrative or necessary ones.
Result: The local food economy is cushioned against disruption or rapid shifts in supply or demand; fewer business failures.


As much as possible, parts of the local food economy connect to each other as equals.
Example: Producers’ cooperatives and other less formal groups work together to  maximize productive output and ensure a fair price for goods; consumers’ cooperatives work to support local producers and provide high-quality food at affordable prices. Barter among and within these cooperatives takes the form of food, labour, or other goods or services.
Result: People have a high degree of control over the local food economy. Every part of the local food economy succeeds to some extent when one part succeeds; no one player becomes “too big to fail”.


Information circulates quickly and freely among the parts of the local food economy.
Example: New techniques and labour- or cost-saving devices are shared or bartered. The common good is respected and recognized as an essential part of a resilient regional economy. Anyone can involve themselves where their skills or interest are most needed.
Result: Everyone can understand how their food is produced and prepared and how it gets to the table. The local food system is not a mystery.

This fairly abstract overview just scratches the surface of resilience and how it might play out in our local food economy. The bottom line is that we need to shift our whole way of thinking, talking, and planning for the future of this region. Continuing to rely on a relatively small number of producers and retailers is dangerous; the danger may not be acute now, but the global food supply shows no signs of becoming more resilient — and how can it? It’s another top-heavy, centralized, hierarchical system consisting of a huge number of highly specialized companies hooked together in a non-flexible way. We need to be doing what we can now to move away from reliance on that system. As E.F. Schumacher famously said, “Small is beautiful“.

Unfortunately, we tend to seek a privatized market solution to every problem we recognize. And that works in some cases, but not in all. We need to create more opportunities for non-corporatized solutions based on barter, local currencies, and the free exchange of goods and services in a gift economy. These may sound like crazy ideas right now, but large-scale capitalism itself is looking increasingly like a crazy idea. A system based on giving profit to private corporations and individuals while sticking the public with the risks and the consequences of pollution and environmental devastation can only go on for so long. It’s brittle and top-heavy and prone to catastrophic and widespread failures. As it winds down we’re going to need proper working models to take over its functions and provide for human needs and desires. These models will naturally be more resilient and we can work hard to design even more resilience into them. In future posts I’ll look at local seeds of resilience that we can expand and connect to other parts of the economy, and at real-world models of resilience that we could adapt to our needs in this region.

Update (April 16, 2009): This post from John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog discusses another characteristic of resilience, which he calls scale invariance:

Essentially, scale invariance means that across all scaling factors (large, medium, small, tiny, etc.), the properties that define the whole are conserved (intelligence, mobility, form, productivity, etc.).

This is the missing piece in the argument that resilience needs to be built up at every level: not just that of the region, in our case, but from the individual on up through the household/family, peer group, neighbourhood, and so on. Only by having resilient individuals and families and other smaller groupings can you achieve genuine resilience at the higher levels we usually think of as most important (because those are the levels at which we elect people who we pretend are fully responsible for our well-being).

Update (April 20, 2009): Jamais Cascio, of the Open the Future blog, has a little article in the May/June 2009 issue of Foreign Policy magazine in which he lays out some of the differences between sustainability and resilience.


Post facto

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