A few years ago, I attended a kick-off workshop in Atlanta after the city was accepted into the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities Initiative (ironically, a program that has since folded). I thought it was a valuable initiative that helped to broaden the sustainability focus in our city, injecting the concept of resilience. As they defined it, and I think this is a good definition, resilience is the capacity to “survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks [we] experience.”
The meat of that definition is found in “chronic stresses and acute shocks.” The former are slow-moving challenges like unemployment, food deserts, and the climate crisis. The latter are sudden events like a terrorist attack or tornado. I would argue that the primary difference between the two categories is the factor of time, not the substance of the challenges. Stresses are long-term challenges, while shocks are short-term ones.
[Sidebar – what prompted me to think about this was an actual tornado warning my family experienced at 2:45am on Monday. Fortunately, no tornado came near us, but my 2-year-old daughter thought it was hysterical to be woken up and taken into a closet under our steps. It was…odd…to be frantically checking weather updates in hopes we would be spared a natural disaster while my child was having a giggle fit.]
I’ve been reflecting on this distinction in light of COVID-19. To me, it occupies this unusual middle-ground between long-term stress and short-term shock to our society. While not as sudden as the storms that rocked the southeast on Easter Sunday, COVID-19 has upended how we work and live (in far too many cases, WHETHER we work and live) in a relatively short period of time. That said, COVID-19 is already demanding long-term response planning that will almost certainly stretch another 12 to 18 months until a vaccine or treatment is readily available to the masses. Even then, we will continue to live in a modified version of “normal” because of this pandemic. I don’t think there will be any going back to the way things were before.
So with the ambiguity in the time-scale of COVID-19, I actually do think we should look to the substance of the challenge and compare it to others. That’s exactly what this article from Yale Environment 360 did a few weeks back.
As explored in this piece, there are a number of interesting parallels between COVID-19 and the climate crisis. The most succinct comparison is made by Elizabeth Sawin of Climate Interactive, who was interviewed by the author: “Both the pandemic and the climate crisis are problems of exponential growth against a limited capacity to cope.”
Bingo. And the way that governments around the world are responding to the pandemic is almost universally to get ahead of the exponential growth curve (that’s what flattening the curve is all about). Though it feels reactionary, most countries are actually doing this proactively – social distancing, increased testing, contact tracing, and quarantines are happening before most countries have an uncontrollable spread of the virus.So the lesson to be learned is the importance of proactively getting ahead of exponential growth (of emitted greenhouse gases, in the case of climate). And as Sawin notes in that article about both the pandemic and the climate, “if you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.”
We are currently getting a crash-course lesson in resiliency in the face of COVID-19. I very much hope that humanity is taking notes and ready to apply what we learn to that other big resiliency problem that hasn’t gone away!