When It Comes To Extreme Weather, Resilience May Not Be What's Called For

Oct 5, 2017

As we learn more about the devastations of the last three hurricanes, some of us are talking about the relationship of climate change and extreme weather events.

Oops. My bad. I meant to say that some of us are talking about the relationship of resilience and extreme weather events.

There. All fixed.

Resilience has become the term of choice in a political atmosphere where climate change is the Truth-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Resilience originally denoted recoiling or avoidance. Does replacing the term climate change with resilience accomplish the same thing, but with different words? Or might our shift in vocabulary indicate that we’re avoiding the serious questions.

Harvard Business Review points out that resilience develops by way of hardship, so too much resilience makes people too tolerant of adversity. Extremely resilient people can set unattainable goals. “Grit” can be mistaken for leadership.

The New York Times couldn't have taken "snapshots" of a so-called "resilient Houston” had myopic, lax regulations not led to poorly designed infrastructure. The mayor of San Juan's begging for help may not be seen as having "grit' by some, but she is showing leadership.

Also, by characterizing the ability to respond vigorously as resilience, we risk  blaming the victim. Islands too close to sea level? Entire electrical grid knocked out for weeks? Not too resilient, are you?

Resilience, in other words, is the privilege of those who can afford to build sea walls, relocate industries, filter water, install fuel-guzzling air-conditioning.  Using the term resilience allows the wealthiest among us to give ourselves a pat on the back, and maybe avoid the cause of the adversity.

I recently read an op-ed piece by a former FEMA official who made a number of strong points about building resilience to future disasters. It uttered not a peep about mitigating climate change.

I confess my own lack of resilience. I understand that we’ve gone too far down this path to avoid the crises that are on their way, but I'd like to test my resilience as little as possible. I’d much rather we do something to arrest climate destruction, so we have a planet earth. Let's save our resilience for all the other challenges of life.

Lucy Ferriss is a contributor to the blog, “Lingua Franca,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, where a longer version of this piece originally appeared. She is also a writer in residence at Trinity College.