Beyond Sustainability and Community Resilience:  II.  Evolution of communities

Beyond Sustainability and Community Resilience:  II.  Evolution of communities

In the last post, I talked about the importance of time in trying to understand the relationship between sustainability and community resilience. In essence, sustainability is concerned with the total amount of resources used by the community over time. Resilience is more concerned with the time required to recover from a disruption, i.e., how quickly resources can be deployed. Thus, while both are concerned with time and resources, resilience is more about time while sustainability is more about resources.

In this post, I want to look at both through in terms of the evolution of a community.  We can define a community as a group of individuals and organizations bound together by geography and perceived self-interest to efficiently carry out common functions.  Perceived self-interest is meant to imply more than simply financial self-interest. To a parent, self-interest can mean that my kids are going to good schools, have good friends and that I can be the parent I want to be. To an artist, it can mean having a quiet place where I can create and grow in my vocation. To a scholar, it may mean having access to journals and books in my field, and convivial colleagues.

In practice, a community may not have all of the resources it needs to fill every need, but may trade resources from one area (usually economic) to “buy” resources in another.  As an example, an isolated rural community might not be able to afford its own hospital, or even be able to support a full-time medical professional, but could forge an agreement with a regional medical facility to operate a clinic.

I have tried to represent the thoughts above in a graphic (see Figure 1).  For each community system (e.g., water, health care), the community receives a certain level of service.  Taken together at any time, these define the state of the community. In the figure, I have state functions for two communities – F(t) and F’(t).  Since I’m not a very good artist, I’ve collapsed all of the community systems into three service areas – infrastructural (including the built and natural environment), economic, and social.  Also seen in the figure is a rendering of a 3-dimensional surface, D.  This represents the region in community state space in which the level of service provided is no longer acceptable – at this point those who can will leave the community.  If F(t) and F’(t) are for two different communities, then the community represented by F(t) is relatively healthy. However, the community represented by F’(t) is in a region where it cannot deliver an acceptable amount of services. If that community remains within D, the community will either reorganize or collapse (I think of D as the Dome of Doom; it might also stand for Detroit.).  We don’t know the exact shape of D, nor do we know much about where its boundaries lie; however, we can infer its existence from phenomena such as the disappearance of rural American towns and of cities such as Youngstown, OH, St. Louis and Detroit. 

Focusing on the curve on the right, F(t), the state of the community changes over time:  in good times, the community can provide more services, i.e., move away from the origin.  However, because of the interdependence among the services, a community rarely moves straight out from the origin.  As an example, while the capture of a new manufacturing facility may be a huge economic plus for the community, it will reduce the capacity of the community’s infrastructure because of new demands for water, electric and transportation services. 

The location of D will also change over time; if the community members prosper, they will want additional services that they may not have had before.  Thus, an isolated rural community initially might be satisfied with a clinic, but – at least in more prosperous times – would demand more complete medical services.

Figure 1.  Evolution of a community

If we look at a single facet of a community (let’s pick water services), we see little change during normal times (see Figure 2).  There are changes due to the seasons, but not huge ones.  Small events like a line break (the dip in the autumn) may cause a minor disruption in service, but generally the level of service provided is relatively constant over time.  It also is greater than that actually needed – after all, we don’t really need our lawns to be green!  It is important to note, however, that almost always the level of service provided reflects what the community wants and not necessarily what it needs.  In this case, the seasonal changes in water usage reflect the difference between what’s wanted and what’s needed. One could say that this usage is sustainable; after all, water usage is less than capacity. However, the resilience of the system is determined by the length of time capacity is restricted by the line break.

Figure 2.  Normal water usage

Suppose an earthquake occurs at time t (Figure 3) that causes major disruption to the water system (for this example, I’ll treat the pre-disaster service as a constant).  The amount of water provided to the community will fall precipitately and this community is unable to reach the same level of service as before the earthquake. In this case, one could argue that the community’s water usage is now more sustainable than prior to the disaster, since the difference between the amount of water actually needed and that used is less, i.e., the community is meeting its need for water more efficiently.  However, one also has to admit that the community wasn’t very resilient  to the earthquake.

Figure 3.  Impact of a disaster

Thus, a community’s evolution – particularly the impact of a disaster – further illuminates the relationship between sustainability and resilience.  Both are related to use of resources to provide service.  Sustainability is more about filling needs; resilience is more about providing the services the community wants.  Wants can change dramatically over time, needs likely change more slowly.  During a disaster, the community will want essential services to resume quickly, at least to the same level as before – efficient use of available resources will be important only if those resources are limited.  For the community, speed is of the essence.  Conversely, sustainability is all about efficient use of available resources – as long as needs are being met there is no need for additional resources.

The relationship is clearly complex; the concepts are intertwined.  As we have just seen, greater sustainability may not mean greater resilience – and the converse is equally true.  A community’s sustainability is the integration over time of all of the actions the community takes and reflects the efficiency of its use of resources.  A community’s resilience is demonstrated by how well the community continues to meet its citizens’ expectations even in the face of adversity.  Thus, sustainability and resilience are not antipodes, nor at right angles but complementary concepts both important to community success.

However, neither alone is what we want our communities to be. In my next post, I’ll introduce future-fitness, a way to more accurately depict what is necessary for viable communities going forward.

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The collapse of the Afghan government is perhaps the operational antonym of resilience. I am part of a group who studied Vietnamese at the Defense Language Institute and then served over there. Naturally the collapse has been a subject of lively interest to us, remembering what our exit from VN was like. This is a note I sent out to the group as part of our discussions.

One of the things the West needs to keep in mind is the idea of “appropriate technology.” Several years ago, I was tangentially involved with a group that wanted to provide water to remote villages in the Andes. They developed a very simple, easily maintained, system for collecting dew. They showed the villagers how to use and maintain the system. Material for maintenance was readily available to the villagers. And yet, after the development group left, the villagers stopped using the system. In some of the villages, the people who knew how to maintain the system moved elsewhere. But in most of the villages, the villagers ultimately rejected the system because it was “foreign” (and the idea of maintenance was really foreign) – not of them, or a part of their culture.

Yes, we gave the Afghans (and before them the VNese) lots of military hardware. Yes, we gave them “free elections.” But I’m sure we all have memories from our time in VN of massive boneyards of jeeps, helicopters, and so on that had been scavenged for spare parts. In both VN and the ‘Stan the elected politicians were the best that money could buy. But we couldn’t really give the Afghans the in-depth know-how to maintain the hardware. We couldn’t give them pride in a country that had/has no cohesive center or organizing principle. We couldn’t get enough of the people to appreciate the value that a system of free elections can bring to a country, or even to value freedom. For one reason or another, all of these were “foreign” to them, and not maintained.

And so we have created another Hell paved with our good intentions. If the past is an indicator of the ‘Stan’s future, we will once again be treated to the sickening spectacle of rape, genital mutilation and other horrors committed against Afghan girls and women. We can hope that “this time, it will be different.” But I can see no basis for that hope.

I offer this not as a profound thought about the US involvement in Afghanistan but rather as a cautionary note for those of us working with communities. Many, especially in academia, seem determined to change our communities in ways they think are better. But a good gardener knows that a plant’s vitality is as much a function of the soil and the climate as of the plant itself. Some plants flourish in acid soils, some in alkaline; some in hot climates, some in cooler ones; some in wet, some in dry. If we look at the impacts of some of these ideas on our cities, we have to question whether their leaders have been so enamored with the plants they hope to grow that they have ignored the soil and the climate where they are trying to plant them.

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