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Living Resiliently on a Crowding, Turbulent Planet


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This short essay (a final draft from a forthcoming conference summary) was written following the Pace University Summit on Resilience in January, 2012.
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Living Resiliently on a Crowding, Turbulent Planet

  1. 1. Living Resiliently on a Crowding, Turbulent PlanetAndrew C. Revkin, Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding, Pace University, Dot Earth blogger, TheNew York Times ( communities will always be in harm’s way even as we improve our technological andsocietalcapacity for withstanding threats -- either natural or of our own making. This is partlybecause history and geography have placed many of our centers of habitation and commercein zones of implicit hazard. Just two examples are severe and recurring seismic activity inIstanbul1 and the inevitability of a calamitous storm surge in New York City.2 Thesuperimposition of allure, utility and dangerledgeographer Peirce Lewis to call New Orleansan “impossible but inevitable city.”3The inevitability of calamity also springs from another (and exceedingly uncomfortable)reality:The same technologies and collaborative skills that create civil, sophisticated societiescan also be turned against them by those embracing the darker side of human nature. Thecoordinated and unprecedented tactics of the men who conceived and carried out themomentous and terrible attacks of Sept. 11, 20014illustrate how preventive strategies only goso far when countering the inventiveness that can accompany evil.Another critical metric amplifying the importance of preparing for inevitable disasters andtheir aftermath is the trajectory for human development in the next half century – whichalmost assuredly will add another two billion people to the seven billion alive today.5 Most ofthat growth will come in cities, both old and efficient and new-built, sprawling andchaotic.6Accompanying the growth in numbers is the projected construction of more newsquare footage of buildings in the next few decades than all of the structures erected throughall of human history combined. Structures that are built well can be havens; those builtpoorly can be death traps.1Andrew C. Revkin, “Disaster Awaits Cities in Earthquake Zones,” Feb. 24, 2010, The New York Times.( Navarro, “New York Is Lagging as Seas and Risks Rise, Critics Warn,” Sept. 10, 2012, The New YorkTimes ( Peirce F. Lewis, “New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape,” 2nd edition, 2003, U. of Virginia Press.4 9/11 Commission Report, C. Revkin, “The Future of Calamity,” Jan. 2, 2005, The New York Times.( Peirce and Curtis Johnson, “Century of the City (No Time to Lose),” 2008, the Rockefeller Foundation.
  2. 2. As Pace University President Stephen J. Friedman explained in opening the January Summiton Resilience, cities and nations have demonstrated some success in boosting vigilance,preparedness and emergency responses, but appear to lag in developing the organizational,financial and political tools needed for disaster-resistant planning and efficient and smartrebuilding and redevelopment after the worst has happened.In her plenary talk, Margareta Wahlström, the Special Representative of the United NationsSecretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, noted how the damage from 2011 floodingin Bangkok, which had global economic ramifications bydisrupting the flow of vitalcomponents for computers (insured losses were $20 billion), was the result of the unplannedand sprawling canal network and footprint of the vast city. “We are building cities thatactually generate the disasters that destroy their viability,” she said.There are ample signs, particularly in Asia’s fast-spreading industrial zones,7 that the lessonsfrom the Thailand flooding have not been integrated in many other places facing identical,and inevitable, threats. In the discussion at the New York City meeting, which was co-sponsored by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., a range of panelists fromacademia, corporations and agencies recognized that there are no simple templates orprotocols for transferring lessons and innovations arising in one country’s, or city’s, disasterzone to others.But it was clear to many participants that one path to better outcomeslies in building andsustainingforums and networks through which best practices and painful lessons are sharedacross all sectors of society, and from one society to others.The logic in pursuing a borderless approach to fostering resilience in the face of inevitabledisasters is a matter of both ethics and economics. The disruptions to global supply chainsfollowing the Bangkok floods and, of course, Japan’s extraordinary triple shock from a majorearthquake, tsunami and radiation release reveal the interconnectedness that can quicklymake a major regional catastrophe into a global event.Within the United States and each ofits cities, great and small, there is a similar imperative to plan and invest for the worst, and toreserve yet more attention and investment for increasing the capacity to respond to, andrecover from, unforeseeable hazards as well.7David Fogarty and Clare Baldwin, “Flood risk rampant across Asias factory zones,” July 22, 2012, Reuters.(
  3. 3. One critical pathway for facilitating fruitful exchanges is the explosively expanding globalnetwork of computer, telecommunications and social networks. It is not by chance thatMargareta Wahlström and the United Nations office of disaster risk reduction maintainenergetic presence on Twitter8 (via @WahlstromM and @unisdr and the “hashtag” #iddr).While some still see Twitter as yet another Web distraction, she and her staff (as withofficials at United States agencies dealing with various disaster risks) see it as a vital two-waysensory apparatus for sharing ideas and information before, during and after an emergency.Only through sustained engagement, from the scale of face-to-face campus forums to globalInternet connectedness, can disaster planners, elected officials, citizens and companies hopeto keep pace with the scope of risks, both to lives and wealth9, attending the next phase ofhumanity’s extraordinary growth spurt.A core theme at the meeting was that a boosted capacity to withstand and recover fromdisasters will not come by establishing some set menu of protocols and responsibilities. IvanSeidenberg, who as chairman of the board of Verizon Communications Inc. dealscontinually with managing resilient responses to emergencies, went so far as to challenge,playfully, Albert Einstein’s menu for saving the world. While Einstein said that, if given anhour, he would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and the final minute designing asolution, Seidenberg noted that in a fast-changing world, the rules and stakes – the verynature of the question – are in constant flux. That kind of situation requires a commitmentto constant reevaluation, to learning and adjusting, to knowing resilience building is notaccomplished from the top down, and is not a task, but a trait.Former Governor Tom Ridge, in his keynote talk, echoed this line of thinking. In a singleline, he distilled the importance of creating a national culture attuned to the importance ofresilience, from family homes to college campuses to corporate boardrooms and beyond.“Homeland security isn’t an agency,” he said. “It’s a national mission.”8 Search for their Twitter output here: C. Revkin, “The Varied Costs of Catastrophe,” March 29, 2011, The New York Times.(