Bounce Forward: Building Resilience for Dangerous Times

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, supported by the Kresge Foundation and the JPB Foundation, is committed to a greener, fairer future for all.​ This post was originally published on The Solutions Journal

Photo Credit: Shutterstock Images

 

When Superstorm Sandy came ashore in 2012, thousands of New Yorkers were plunged into what seemed like an earlier century. No lights. No heat. No refrigeration. No elevators. On the upper floors of high-rise apartment buildings, the taps went dry and toilets would not flush.

For the poorest New Yorkers, this went on for weeks. Less than a mile from the seat of global capitalism where stock traders were back at work soon after the storm, residents of public housing rifled through dumpsters full of discarded food looking for something to eat.1

Sandy was many things: a disaster that cost hundreds of lives and billions of dollars, a wake-up call on climate change, and a reminder of the fragility of the systems that hold our civilization together.

It is a reminder we would do well to heed. We live in a time of wrenching change and widening inequality; of growing vulnerability to disaster. The good news is that there is much we can do to make our communities stronger, fairer, and more resilient. That does not, however, mean "bouncing back" to the status quo that got us into this mess in the first place. Instead, it means bouncing forward to a world that is more sustainable and just.

The New Normal

It's safe to say that we've never been here before. While change is a constant in natural and social history, the pace, scale, and impact of change today is utterly without precedent.

Part of that change is environmental, reflecting our wholesale transformation of the natural world. Over the last half century or so, human beings have altered the planet's ecosystems more than in all of previous history combined—clearing forests, diverting rivers, replacing the riotous diversity of nature with uniform monocultures. Those changes have improved the lives of many, but they have weakened nature's ability to protect and sustain us in the long term.2-4

Most ominously, we are changing the climate. Through industry, agriculture, and the business of daily life, humans have increased the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent above pre-Industrial Era levels, trapping heat and warming the planet.5 The impacts are increasingly visible: in monstrous storms and devastating droughts, in spiking food prices, and wrecked infrastructure. Climate-related disasters in North America have nearly quintupled since 1980.6

On our altered planet, the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. Temperature records are broken on a regular basis and "hundred-year storms" arrive every few years. October 2015 was the warmest in recorded history by a wide margin—a record that may be broken again by the time you read this. And 2015 is shaping up to be the warmest year ever.7

As the planet warms and climate disasters multiply, there are more people in harm's way than ever before. The global population has tripled in the last hundred years, with most of that growth taking place in coastal areas that are exposed to rising sea-levels.8,9

At the same time, our world is rocked by enormous technological and social changes. More than any previous generation, we are connected by dense global networks of commerce and communication. Those networks can accelerate the spread of innovation, information, and opportunity, but they can also spread disaster. For example, the financial crisis that began in 2007 was triggered by risky mortgage lending in the United States, but in an interconnected global economy, its impacts continue to reverberate around the world. Other threats—from Ebola to terrorism—can easily hop a plane and go from local to global overnight.

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