On resilience

When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.


After last week’s discussion of efficiency, it’s time to talk about its complement: resilience, literally the quality of springing back, like a rubber ball. It’s a broader and vaguer concept, with none of the satisfyingly crisp arithmetic we can bring to bear on efficiency, but I would argue it is more important.

As I mentioned, efficiency and resilience are in some ways antagonistic. If you have a warehouse full of goods waiting to be sold, you’re paying the costs of that now before you get any income from sales. On the other hand, you are resilient to disruptions to supply. Sometimes choosing the full warehouse is obviously the way to go, as it was for many UK business who stockpiled in the run-up to Brexit. Usually, however, businesses are under pressure to remain “lean.” Like many things in modern life, this strategy works well until it doesn’t.

On a more individual level, resilience might mean keeping money in a savings account, earning effectively no interest, rather than relying on borrowing to cover major expenditures. More generally, it would imply being ready to cope in the event that services on which you rely – healthcare, fuel, food in the shops – might become expensive or unobtainable. Many people have only one income stream, for example: their job, or their state pension or other benefits. They rely on that income for pretty much all of their needs, and yet it is in no way guaranteed. Job security is a distant memory these days (except for Cabinet ministers, apparently), and if you think you can rely on a state pension you clearly aren’t Greek.

This is the standard way of life in industrial civilisation, even for farmers. It’s typical for a farmer to focus on just a few crops, perhaps maybe even one, and feed themselves and their families from the money they make from doing so. The vast majority of farmers in history (or indeed today outside the industrialised world) would find the idea of farmers buying their food at the supermarket bizarre, but that is what they end up doing.

Our model of agriculture, in fact, is designed to be fragile. We depend, for one thing, on a small number of crops and animals, often growing the same varieties will little genetic variation. This increases our vulnerability to plant or animal diseases. It was a novel pathogen that led to the great Irish potato famine; since most of the population were heavily dependent on potatoes, the result was a catastrophe (admittedly not helped by the British government’s deliberate decision to continue exporting Irish wheat rather than feeding the Irish with it).

Resilient potato cultivation is quite a different beast. In his classic book The Unsettling of America (Counterpoint Press, 1977), Wendell Berry describes traditional potato farming in Peru. Here farmers have to cope with difficult conditions on the steep slopes of the Andes, with different parts of the same farm often being in quite different climate zones. They deal with this by using a very large number of different potato varieties, typically seventy or more, often planting many different varieties in the same small field, trying to match the characteristics of the plant to the specific microclimate in which they are gown. Their aim is not to maximise yield as such, but to ensure a consistent yield. They always want to have enough to eat: a surplus might be nice, but it isn’t the goal. They have been successful in this approach for many centuries, because it is resilient: enough of their crop will always do well in any given season.

Attempts have been made to try “conventional” potato farming methods in this environment. They have never succeeded for long. In a context where a failed harvest means going hungry, and two in a row would mean dying, only a fool would gamble everything on a single variety. And while potatoes are the staple crop, they grow others as well, such as oca, which is a tuber similar to the potato but unrelated and thus impervious to blight.

This is inefficient in a number of ways: it’s hard work, you need to know a lot about different potato varieties, it isn’t easy to mechanise, and you will never get the biggest possible harvest. On the other hand, you won’t starve to death either. It’s hard to argue that the Peruvian farmers have made the wrong trade-off here.

By contrast, our entire way of life is almost as if designed to be as un-resilient as possible. Consider a typical day for an average person. They wake up in what they think of as their house or flat, although if it’s rented or mortgaged they depend on being able to pay someone else for the privilege of living there. They have breakfast from food they bought from a third party, using energy which also comes from sources they don’t control and which again they must pay for. They travel to work, which is likely to involve energy from somewhere else, perhaps in a vehicle on which they owe even more money and which they cannot repair or maintain themselves. The job they do is unlikely to give them skills they could use to make money on their own account, especially if they work in an office, and probably offers few intrinsic rewards other than money. Then they go home and spend the evening consuming entertainment provided by other people. And so to bed, to do it all again tomorrow.

It should come as no surprise that many people feel helpless, because in actual fact they are helpless. But the good news is that this can be remedied. After all, human beings may be born helpless but they don’t have to remain so.

There are measures we can all take to make our lives more resilient. Modest stockpiling of some essentials is not expensive and will buy you some time if the shops empty. I lived through the UK miners’ strike of 1972, when we had to cope with power-cuts (most of the UK’s electricity was generated using coal at that time). Luckily, my family had camping equipment, so we could provide cooking, lighting and some heating for ourselves during those times. Many people were not so fortunate. If anything, our society is even more dependent on reliable electricity today than it was then.

More broadly, learn some skills. You won’t be able to do everything for yourself, but if you have some useful skills you can offer to others then you won’t have to. I recommend skills over material things (such as gold coins) because things can be stolen. If you already have a solid trade such as plumbing or carpentry then you have a head start here, but you might want to reassure yourself you can still work without things like power tools or plastic widgets that might present problems down the road.

Broaden your social networks too. I’m not talking about Facebook “friends” here, but in-person relationships with people in your vicinity. They say the definition of a friend is someone who will help you dispose of a body without asking questions. I’m not suggesting that level of trust, but the more people who might have your back in a crisis the safer you are. After all, they also say that any society is only three missed meals away from anarchy, and that isn’t so hard to imagine if you live as I do in a country that imports almost half of its food.

Issues with transportation are something we may all have to face in an uncertain future. By this I mean both transporting ourselves and the transport of goods. We have spent decades de-localising our lives in the name of efficiency; that process needs to reverse, and the sooner we start the better. Find and support local businesses that provide the things you need. If necessary, start one. Someone’s going to have to, sooner or later.

And remember, you are not alone. There are a lot of us in the same boat, and more and more people are starting to notice the resemblance to the Titanic. Check out movements like Transition Towns or Strong Towns or similar organisations; they’re trying to facilitate progress in the right direction. You’re not going to be able to fix everything all at once, but the more you can manage without, the better off you’ll be when less is readily available. It doesn’t have to be the Apocalypse; a lot of people would be seriously stuck if they had no electricity for a week, say.

More than anything else, resilience is an attitude of mind. Call it adaptability, call it bloody-mindedness, call it what you like, it is an attitude that has served our species well for quite a few millennia and with any luck will do so for plenty more. Look at your life, see where the weak spots are, and consider what you can do to fix them. You might surprise yourself.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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