Efficiency vs Resilience

Like most economists, I’m big on efficiency. Even in my personal life I tend to group tasks together so that I save time, and I always feel a bit guilty if I retroactively realize I somehow failed to optimize my behaviour.

In my recent work on climate change, efficiency comes up in the context of GHG mitigation; for example, a carbon tax  comes up tops on the policy list for achieving emission reductions in the least costly manner possible. But with our governments doing a whole lot of nothing to reduce emissions, policy is going to be increasingly about adaptation, or how we respond to the physical impacts of locked-in warming. In this arena, the dominant concept (or perhaps, buzzword) is not efficiency but resilience, which generally means being robust to shocks and ensuring redundancies, which may actually be the opposite of efficiency.

BC needs to think about this a lot. A province where big weather systems move in from the Pacific to smash up against warm land and tall mountains is bound to have its share of calamity. Most of the settlements in the province are in river valleys or on the coast, making them susceptible to climate-change-related phenomena, from rapid onset events like landslides or windstorms to longer term changes like sea level rise. Indirect impacts also include the decimation of forest land by the mountain pine beetle, itself a consequence of climate change, and one that has upped the ante for massive fires. Every BC community will have a different set of risk factors but they share in common the potential of treacherous conditions that lead to flooding or hail storms, or that cut off electricity or transportation links.

So, how to plan for such potential outcomes? A lot of thinking has gone on about what sustainability means, however, and I generally take an ecological economics interpretation that sustainability is when inputs into production are harvested in a way that does not deprive future generations, and when wastes from production are within the sink functions of the planet. Resilience is harder to pin down.

Resilience is like “competitiveness” in economic policy discussions, a value or desirable attribute that is typically not anchored in anything measurable. The Climate Justice Project has been developing a framework for understanding community resilience, trying to find the right intersection between the top-down principles and components as understood in the academic literature, and the bottom-up efforts made by communities themselves, usually in the aftermath of a major shock.

First of all, resilience of what? By community are we talking about a municipality, or the broader region, which may include native reservations, the resource base and farms, and neighbouring towns to which people frequent for work, public services or family visits? Within municipalities, are we considering the various sub-populations that live there? Are we just talking about resilience for humans or also other creatures or biodiversity in general? Do we mean resilience of status quo structures and consumptions patterns? How do adaptation policies interact with mitigation policies? And so on.

I’m also particularly interested in the justice considerations of a resilience framework. It is reasonable to think that high income people will generally have greater capacity to weather storms than lower-income people, although the latter are also more accustomed to hardship, which may in fact increase their resilience. In New Orleans, many poor people lived in areas vulnerable to a dyke breech, whereas in BC it may be wealthier people with waterfront homes that are more at risk. Age is also a risk factor, with seniors more vulnerable to climate events like heat waves and less mobile should there be a need to evacuate.

Anyway, income or age per se may matter less than social networks, or how connected people are to others who can help in times of need. Which is a social form of redundancy. But even more mundane forms, resiliency demands redundant systems or networks: back-up power systems should the hydro lines go down; food supplies in emergencies but also greater self-reliance should supply chains fail; alternative sources of potable water. All of which requires planning, and public engagement processes to better understand different perspectives and how networks can be cultivated to better ensure reslience. So resilience policy is in many ways contrary the individualistic, hyper-efficient, just-in-time economic system we have developed.

[Thanks to a number of students and faculty at UBC who engaged these questions and issues in work for the Climate Justice Project and a recent student-led conference at UBC. This post is channeling many threads from that work.]

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