Thoughts on resilience - I welcome your feedback!

Over recent months communities across the western world are struggling to adjust to a new era of profound and abrupt change. Although not of their own making, these changes compel communities to re-consider how they plan to move forwards into the 21st century.

I know from my own experience that it has a profound personal effect when you realise that the consequences of the past 150 years of rapid industrialisation are simultaneously coming home to roost around you and your loved ones.

Yet as we internally accept that the most recent evidence on both climate change and energy security reveals a situation more urgent than had been expected, even by those who have been following it closely for decades, we must also balance this by taking some positive action which mitigates the problem, and prepares us for the challenges ahead.

It is important that we all realise that humanity faces a complex composite of climate, energy and economic crises. Left unchecked they are likely to synergise, resulting in unprecedented economic collapse and dislocation, but in balance, there is an equally important realisation that if we act quickly, and act collectively we can not only rise to these challenges, we can move forward in a manner which not only rises to our climate and energy security challenges, but also makes us more resilient, stimulates the economy, creates long-term employment and offers a powerful sense of collective purpose.

In the face of these challenges, there are already a great many people already mobilising solutions. From establishing social enterprises to running a community housing initiative, from developing local food projects to inventing local money schemes people are rolling up their sleeves and taking action to support the local economy, build social capital, and take collective action to develop a wide range of community assets. We have learned that communities that thrive in the face of external pressures do so through the graft and inventiveness of busy local people.

Resilience is going to be an important factor for communities in the face of the turbulence of the 21st century. It can be defined in two ways – both of which highlight different properties.

The first is the speed at which a household, town or ecosystem recovers from shocks or up-sets. The second is a measure of how well a system can flip into a totally different ordered state, if the original state becomes un-tenable.

Both of these definitions are useful – but I would also like to consider a third. The above definitions see resilience as a means of dealing with negative impacts. It is also possible to consider a third type of resilience - our ability to adapt to good fortune. In this book we explore the new assets we find on our doorstep – but if we are to harvest them quickly enough we need a rapid adaptation to a new terrain.

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain 2030 project set out to stimulate debate and build consensus over this new and challenging transition, integrating detailed knowledge and experience from a wide range of disciplines into a single framework. Zero Carbon Britain demonstrates how, through developing a smart new attitude to energy use and by taking advantage of new technologies and efficient design, we can power-down demand by over fifty percent by 2030. At the same time, through the widespread deployment of existing technologies, Britain can rapidly power-up its massive indigenous renewable energy assets to meet this demand.

Rising to this challenge means switching from the dipped political headlights of 20th Century short-term decision-making to the main beam of a longer term, sustainable 21st Century approach. Decades of access of abundant, cheap fossil fuels have led us into some very wasteful practices.

We can’t wait for government, but can’t ignore government either. Clearly there are many things that need to be done at national and international levels, and there are a wide range of campaigns and organisations we can join to make our voices heard. But there are also a wide-range of actions we can take ourselves at domestic and community level that can help us build the physical resilience we will need in the coming years. And by working to develop our physical resilience, we also build psychological resilience both on a personal and community level. We are no longer in denial; we are actually working on the task at hand. Being on such a trajectory brings you into relations with others, and so builds pathways into a new community, this alone can do wonders to improve our quality of life, as many of the Transition Towns demonstrate so well.

Building real resilience is, of course, a community networks thing, and clearly linking into your wider community is going to be important, but a closer action or affinity group is invaluable. These will form the group you build deeper trust with, they will be you first port of call in times of difficulty, they will be the group who share your investments in energy efficiency or renewable generation systems.

The new book exploring community scale actions towards a zero carbon future does not intend to duplicate the excellent group-working advice provided by the transition and other movements, what we are going to focus on here is re-defining our attitudes and approaches to energy, and creating a new sense of power and place.

Exploring resilience will not deliver universal results – the actions needed depend on our individual location and circumstance, but there is a universal approach.

One of the best ways to begin your journey to energy resilience is to get to grips the information which lies behind your energy use - get your hands on your data, begin to understand the scale and speed at which the different types of energy flows into and out of your life

This process can begin with a list of the types of energy you use in a typical w eek, month or year and what things you use it for. How much of each type do you use and how much have their costs increased in recent years. You can do this as a group, family or on your own, the data is there from electricity and gas bills, petrol receipts etc. Many of the new utility bills have your previous consumption printed on as a graph.

Assembling this picture is the first step to getting rid of that out-dated 1950 approach to energy and equip you for rationalising energy demand now, in a way that prepares you both for high prices, brownouts and the assorted other energy shocks ahead

It is also worth doing a quick “energy vulnerability” analysis for your current lifestyle. What would happen to your personal choices if any of the forms of energy you currently use, became very much more expensive, or even intermittent?

Please don’t be fooled – although they are important, your individual preparations are unlikely to be enough on their own. The only way ahead is to get through the energy challenge is to do it collectively, both nationally and internationally – but even being personally aware, and partially prepared is a great deal better than being totally un-aware and totally un-prepared.

Resilience can become the new lens through which we filter our lifestyle choices. Resilience can create a powerful new driver for engaging more deeply with our friends and neighbours. Of course, a group of resilient individuals does not necessarily make a resilient community. But once they come together in common purpose they become a powerful force for change.

Dealing with the gathering storm of energy and climate challenges means re-defining our attitude to the energy choices. We can switch energy suppliers, we can generate energy ourselves, but far and away the most powerful tool for increasing our resilience is to reduce what we use, freeing us from energy dependence. The ‘Powerdown’ section of this book takes us through this in great detail via insulation, smart appliances etc, suffice to say for now that even more than putting panels on our roofs or windmills in our gardens, actually cutting our demand is the most significant and most powerful first step we can make to increasing our personal resilience in an increasingly turbulent world.

As we make our own changes, and explore the changes others have made, we are glimpsing a sustainable future, dappled in the present. Replicable beacons of good resilient practice then begin to multiply, harnessing economies of scale multiplying it by community ingenuity and courage. This in turn begins to change wider culture.

Shifting our attitudes and understandings of energy is not the only action we should be considering. Another very tangible way of increasing you personal and community resilience is to work together to reduce your debt. The economic approach of the 1990s meant living with increasing levels of debt became the norm. The economic reality of recent years has left many of us with levels of personal secured and unsecured debt far above what is good for us. Many of the paths for carbon descent energy descent and debt descent are run a very similar course. Using less energy, buying less things required less money, releasing more funds to repay debt as quickly as possible.

Technology and resilience

Last winter was a wake up call for the UK. We had weeks of minus 15 degrees for the first time in a number of years. As a consequence of our poorly insulated home and offices, UK gas consumption rose to an all time high, with many newspapers warning of only a few days reserves in the pipeline.

In 2020 or 2030 a period at minus 15 degrees could be a lot more challenging. Currently we still get a lot of the energy we need from our own North Sea oil and gas reserves, but these have now peaked and their output is declining annually. By 2030 they will be a small percentage of current production, and our supplies will be coming from much further a field. We would be foolish not to take action now, particularly if the same actions actually saves us money too!

We are clearly more resilient when we have a super insulated home with an extra insulated ‘refuge room’ with a heating system powered by at least two different fuels.

So where do I start?

Resilience is going to play an increasing role in defining how we shape our lives in the coming years. Creating resilience in the communities that surround us cannot only be a creative and empowering process, it can help deliver tangible benefits. There is no single best way to proceed, but as a general guide:

• Get a group
• Get informed
• Get skilled
• Get a plan
• Get connected
• Minimise demand
• Manage supply
• Recycle the savings
• Dump the debt

We know we are using a great deal more energy than we actually need to deliver our well being, and burning that extra energy does not really make us any happier, healthier richer or wiser. By working together, we can pioneer new ways of living that are even richer, far more resilient and that use a lot less energy.

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Comment by Paul Allen on December 6, 2010 at 17:40
Thanks Davie,

it is amazing how a little snow peels away the veneer of modernity and show us just how un-resilient our systems actually are! See my 2 new posts....

Keep warm!

Comment by Davie Philip on November 30, 2010 at 11:15
Love that Paul.
Resilience, especially at the community level, is now the focus of our work here in Ireland. I have found that this resonates more for communities, especially rural ones, than the 'sustainability' talk of a future that works. There is an opportunity now to mainstream the ideas, tools and appropriate technologies that have been developed by the organisations and individuals like yourselves at CAT to thrive in an environment which is now dominated by abrupt change and surprise.
Thanks for this post

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