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Disruption, catastrophe, and resilience in a hyperfast, hyperconnected world

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, a thought-provoking examination of the ins and outs, both philosophical and practical, of the contemporary reality of disasters, catastrophes, and “resilience” — a word and concept that, as the article points out, is currently all the rage among scholars and policy wonks:

In all, [Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown] is the costliest natural disaster of all time, with the World Bank estimating the damage at $235-billion. The full extent of disruption might not be known for years. The Tohoku earthquake and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi meltdown echoed other major catastrophes — acts of nature, of the market, or of terrorists — that we have endured over the past several years. Those events also created ripple effects in a highly interconnected world, revealing the urgent need to be able to absorb such shocks — because we are certainly going to see more of them.

. . . Most approaches to resilience, [Joseph] Fiksel [one of the founders of the Center for Resilience at Ohio State University] complains, resemble traditional risk management: Identify a set of risks, calculate the probabilities, and do what you can to mitigate those risks. Those techniques, says Fiksel, don’t account for the unexpected — the so-called black swans — and they don’t acknowledge the rolling, compounding effects that disruptions can have in a hyperfast, hyperconnected world.

“We tend to get locked into economic and technological patterns that constrain us in terms of our ability to evolve and cope with new challenges,” he says. “What we really need is to operate with variability as the norm.”

Consider what has hit us hardest in recent years, how some of these disruptions came from or led to other woes: September 11, 2001; the 2003 Northeast blackout; the oil shock of 2008; the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession; Deepwater Horizon; the intense droughts; Hurricanes Katrina, Irene, and Sandy.

There are surely more disruptions to come. Stephen E. Flynn, a security expert and former military officer who is co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University, ticks off the most likely threats: a breakdown in the power grid; interruption of global supply chains, including those that provide our food; an accident at one of the many chemical factories in urban areas; or damage to the dams, locks, and waterways that shuttle agricultural products and other goods out to sea. The No. 1 threat, he says, is a terrorist attack that prompts lawmakers and a frightened public to shred the Bill of Rights or overreact in another way.

. . .  Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation and a professor at the University of Waterloo who has long focused on studies in systems and resilience [and also the author of the much-discussed 2006 book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization] . . . . takes an approach that’s more radical than what most policy makers and security experts are comfortable with. Resilience, he insists, comes from a process of creative destruction, as coined by the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter described the way that capitalism brought about new businesses and new products from the destruction and discard of old businesses and products — a notion that has been adopted to describe the renewal of cities, information systems, political structures, governments, and so on. Our economic and political systems, Homer-Dixon says, are resilient because they have embraced a Schumpeterian framework, in a constant cycle of ruin and reinvention.

As for what creative destruction means for communities and societies, Homer-Dixon readily admits he doesn’t fully know. But the outline of the idea doesn’t always sit well with his audiences. “Fundamentally, it is a very threatening idea for vested and elite interests,” he says. Recently, when he spoke to civil servants in Canada about resilience, “they thought I was completely insane, or they were terrified,” he says. When most bureaucrats talk about resilience, they are talking about bouncing back to the status quo.

“Adaptation and innovation often require shock and crisis,” he says. “It can be a violent and messy process, and also really essential to real adaptation and real changes, instead of changes at the margins.”

More: “After Catastrophe