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Daniel Lerch
OR MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS, the world community has tried to
resolve the combined challenges of environmental degradation, fossil fuel
dependence, economic inequality, and persistent social injustice, largely under
the banner of internationally brokered “sustainable development.” Despite
some partial successes, it is clear today that the pace of these global trends has
not been slowed, let alone stopped or reversed. The scale of these trends has
grown, and their effects have become so widespread that they now threaten
the stability—in some cases, even the existence—of communities around the
world. The global sustainability challenges of the past have become the local
resilience crises of today.
Resilience is the ability of a system—like a family, a country, or Earth’s biosphere—to cope with short-term disruptions and adapt to long-term changes
without losing its essential character. A crisis is an unstable state of affairs in
which decisive change is both necessary and inevitable. We depend on the
resilience of all the systems that support us for life and well-being; if these systems falter, we suffer. Today we face four major crises—environmental, energy,
Daniel Lerch, The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval,
DOI 10.5822/ 978-1-61091-861-9_1, © 2017 Post Carbon Institute.
The Community Resilience Reader
economic, and equity—that threaten to overwhelm the resilience of the systems
we care about, particularly at the local level.
The failure of international sustainability efforts to thwart these crises means
that resilience-building efforts at the community level—working on all issues
and systems, not just on climate change and infrastructure—are needed more
than ever. The charge to build community resilience, however, raises important questions: Resilience of what, exactly? Resilient to what, exactly? Building
resilience how, and benefiting whom? The Community Resilience Reader aims to
answer these questions.
In 2010, Post Carbon Institute produced The Post Carbon Reader: Managing
the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises. The shocks of the 2008 stock market
crash were still reverberating, energy prices were at historic highs, and climate
change—although broadly accepted—was still largely seen by mainstream government and business leaders as a manageable future threat.1 We at the institute,
as well as many other observers of modern industrial society’s long-term trajectory, were deeply concerned that the end of twentieth-century-style economic
growth—coupled with the end of cheap oil and the beginnings of irreversible
climate change—could ultimately prove too much for the system to bear. It
seemed that humanity’s interconnected sustainability challenges were coming
to a head and that only deeper understanding of their systemic nature could
point to effective responses.
Awareness of these challenges grew quickly in the years that followed, but
the responses of the international community ranged from ineffective to counterproductive. The world’s major economies, having (barely) stopped a global
collapse in 2008, doubled down on efforts to produce short-term growth, but
with no serious concurrent effort at fundamental reform. The world’s fossil fuel
producers, flush with profits from sky-high prices, reinforced society’s fossil
fuel dependence with investments in more-expensive, more-destructive energy
resources like shale gas, tight oil, and tar sands. At one high-profile international conference after another, the world’s most powerful nations, although
well aware of the threat of climate change, decided to delay effective, coordinated reductions of carbon emissions. In each case, instead of making decisive
changes in the face of these challenges, the international community opted for
business as usual, both postponing the days when change would no longer be a
choice and ensuring that needed actions (whenever they finally got around to
them) would be that much more difficult to implement.
Now, at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, decisive
changes are indeed inevitable, and we have clarity on what this transition from
challenges to crises looks like:
• Ecosystems around the world are being pushed near or past their limits, with impacts like severe topsoil loss, freshwater depletion, biodiversity
loss, and climate change being felt worldwide.
• Modern industrial society remains overwhelmingly dependent on fossil
fuels, spurring the energy industry to pursue ever-more destructive—and
expensive—resource extraction practices like fracking for gas and oil and
mountaintop removal for coal.
• Our economies are structured to require constant growth, but the end of
cheap fossil fuels and the sheer biophysical limits of the planet are complicating this imperative more and more.
• The broken promises of globalization have helped create the worst economic inequality of the modern era, and institutionalized racism and
other forms of bigotry have been allowed to persist. Together, they are now
helping fuel a frightening rise in racist, nationalist, authoritarian politics.
Moreover, the effects of these global-scale crises—once isolated to a few
unlucky cities and regions—are now threatening the stability (economic, social,
or otherwise) of communities everywhere, including in the United States. Economic globalization and corporation-friendly government policies have left cities and towns across the country bereft of decent working-class jobs and civic
vitality. Decades of growth-oriented planning and underinvestment have left virtually every American city and town with an insurmountable backlog of infrastructure maintenance and replacement (sometimes with truly dangerous effects,
The Community Resilience Reader
like the lead water crises in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere). In addition, cities
from coast to coast are grappling with the worsening effects of climate change,
such as stronger storms and greater temperature and precipitation extremes.
On the bright side, there is now more clarity than in the past about how
to understand these crises and most effectively deal with them. When we were
developing The Post Carbon Reader in 2009, we asked Bill Rees (chapter 6) to
write a chapter on the emerging ecosystems management concept of resilience
thinking; at the time, resilience was otherwise a specialist term mostly found
(with varying definitions) in emergency preparedness, engineering, and psychology.2 Sustainability itself was often a marginalized3 and even contested4
idea not very long ago, at least outside of progressive-leaning communities and
environmentalist circles. Today the concepts of sustainability and resilience
are widely recognized and are being used and explored by countless grassroots
activists, local government projects, academic programs, business initiatives,
and publications.
And yet, the application of resilience thinking to communities in modern
industrial society is still underdeveloped. Urban resilience (as it is commonly
called) largely draws on social-ecological systems resilience science, an approach
that was developed primarily for working with natural resources and the rural
communities that directly depend on them. After the unexpected (and very
urban) devastation of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, however, the popular
notion took hold that cities needed to build their resilience—specifically, to be
able to “bounce back” from the future impacts of worsening climate change. Over
the next few years, a concept of urban resilience developed that came to include
more proactive adaptation to future threats (e.g., “bounce forward”) as well as
non-climate issues such as economic development and social equity—not least
due to the efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities” program.5
This movement is in the right direction, but it is only a start, and the depth of our
crises and the insights of resilience science suggest it can go much further.
To help develop this application of resilience to urban settings, Post Carbon
Institute produced a report titled Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience in 2015. The report characterized the challenges currently facing humanity, and now broadly affecting communities, as crises, specifically environmental,
energy, economic, and equity crises (the “E4 crises”). It then developed the case
for responding to these crises by (1) using a deep understanding of social-­
ecological systems resilience thinking, (2) focusing efforts on the community
scale, and (3) prioritizing six “foundation” themes essential to all community
resilience work. (The full report, together with responses from various resilience leaders and practitioners, is online at
This book, The Community Resilience Reader, digs deeper into the E4 crises, further explores resilience thinking and related tools like systems literacy,
and shows how the notion of community resilience building can be applied to
specific areas of community concern like energy, food, and consumption. Here
are some of the underlying assumptions we build upon throughout this book:
• Approaches to the E4 crises must be grounded in critical thinking, sober
expectations, and acceptance of geophysical realities.
• Systems literacy is essential for understanding our systemic, multiscalar,
complex challenges and for developing effective responses. (Indeed, there
are only responses, not solutions.)
• Sustainability and resilience are distinct but complementary concepts. As
Charles Redman of Arizona State University has put it, “Sustainability prioritizes outcomes; resilience prioritizes process.”6
• Building resilience means intentionally guiding a system’s process of
adaptation so as to preserve some qualities and allow others to fade away,
all while retaining the essence—or identity—of the system. In a human
community, identity is essentially determined by what people value about
where they live; therefore, the people who inhabit a community must be at
the heart of the resilience-building process.
• Communities are the ideal level of focus for building resilience because
the particular powers held at the state and local government levels in the
United States make this kind of work possible and because regular people
can most effectively be involved at this level.
Chapter 1, “Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience,” is an
adaptation of the report of the same name mentioned earlier. It is a useful
The Community Resilience Reader
summary of this book’s approach, and it presents the “six foundations” that we
consider essential for effective community resilience building: people, systems
thinking, adaptability, transformability, sustainability, and courage. Watch for
those foundational themes as you read through each chapter.
The book then proceeds in three parts:
• Part I, “Understanding Our Predicament,” explores the E4 crises—environmental, energy, economic, and equity—with a view to both current
impacts and underlying drivers. The last chapter in this section digs yet
deeper, looking to human nature itself to inquire as to why it seems so
difficult for us to act on complex, long-term threats like climate change.
• Part II, “Gathering the Needed Tools,” packs everything you need to know
to get started with systems literacy, sustainability science, and resilience
science into just a couple hours of reading. Chapter 10, a transitional chapter, then pulls us down from the cloudy heights of theory to the grounded
roots of community.
• Part III, “Community Resilience in Action,” shows how the information
from part I and the tools from part II can be used to think about seven
issues of particular importance to community resilience. The relevance of
some of these issues (energy, food) will be obvious; for others (consumption, streets), it might not be as obvious. Through these varied topics, we
demonstrate that resilience is not just applicable to structures and services, but also to social and cultural patterns.
Although The Community Resilience Reader is not a typical “reader” collecting prepublished material (all but three chapters were written specifically for
this book), it is still a book with multiple authors and thus multiple styles and
approaches. The authors were asked to write about the things they believed were
most important to convey from their fields of expertise as they relate to community resilience. For Leena Iyengar (chapter 2, “The Environmental Crisis”), it
meant including personal reflections on biodiversity loss, memory, and meaning. For Howard Silverman (chapter 7, “Systems Literacy”), it meant an essay
on enacting “purposeful change.” For Rebecca Wodder (chapter 12, “Building
Community Resilience at the Water’s Edge”), it meant a systematic exploration
of community water issues. For Scott Sawyer (chapter 13, “Food System Lessons
from Vermont”), it meant a walk through Vermont’s innovative food system
resilience initiative.
Perhaps because the writing of these chapters spanned the final months of
the raucous 2016 election and the first months of the Trump administration,
many of the authors told me they found themselves preoccupied with deep systems change and came to the conclusion that collaboration is critical for meeting
the challenges of our new political and social reality. That certainly fits well
with the bookends of the six foundations: people and courage. People is the first
foundation, because where else should community resilience start but with the
people who live there? Courage is the last foundation because, in the end, working with other people—friends, strangers, and even adversaries—on topics that
can be threatening, politicized, and deeply personal is not easy.
The work, however, is necessary. Nearly anyone who has collaborated with
neighbors to strengthen their community—in the street, in a meeting room, at
city hall—will also admit that the work is usually enjoyable, the results rewarding, and the new relationships invaluable.
Building community resilience starts with the courage to collaborate with
the people around you to protect the things about your community that you
value most. We hope The Community Resilience Reader helps support you and
your community in shaping a future that is rewarding for everyone.
1. Two years later, then-ExxonMobil chief executive officer (and as of early 2017, secretary of state under President Donald Trump) Rex Tillerson said of the impacts of
climate change, “It’s an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.” Matt
Daily, “Exxon CEO Calls Climate Change Engineering Problem,” June 27, 2012,
2.See William Rees, “Thinking ‘Resilience,’ ” in The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, ed. Richard Heinberg and Daniel
Lerch (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010),
/publications/thinking-resilience/. Probably the first significant book to introduce
social-ecological systems resilience to nonacademic audiences was Brian Walker
The Community Resilience Reader
and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing
World (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006).
3. In 2007, while researching for my book Post Carbon Cities, I attended the national
conference of the American Planning Association (APA) (the largest professional
organization in the United States for urban planners) in Philadelphia. At that conference, after realizing that I could count the number of sessions (out of hundreds)
dealing with sustainability issues literally on one hand, I connected with other
members to get the APA to allow an official special-interest division focused on
sustainability issues. Over the course of the application process, we were told that
there was resistance among some of the national leadership who believed that “sustainability” was no different from well-established environmental planning issues
already represented in the APA. A few years later, however, the Sustainable Communities Division was established. Today it is one of the largest and most active of
the APA’s twenty-one divisions; see
4. For years, sustainability-focused efforts associated (accurately or not) with the
United Nations and its various programs and summits have been the target of conspiracy theorists and political disinformation campaigns, including harassment of
sustainability advocates and disruption of local government meetings and public
processes dealing with sustainability issues. See, for example, Jonathan Thompson,
“Fearful of Agenda 21, an Alleged U.N. Plot, Activists Derail Land-Use Planning,”
High Country News, February 6, 2012,
5. See Rockefeller Foundation, “100 Resilient Cities,” accessed April 5, 2017, https://
6. Charles Redman, “Should Sustainability and Resilience Be Combined or Remain
Distinct Pursuits?,” Ecology and Society 19, no. 2 (2014): 37.
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