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Resilient Community
Alex Steffen, 2 Jul 08

I think pretty highly of John Robb. I don't always agree with him -- and sometimes I think he's way off base -- but I think he's really grappling with the new realities of violence, conflict and system instability in our times.

In particular, I find his on-going series of posts on Resilient Community a source of both worry and insight.

First, the insight. John's posts themselves tend to focus on work-arounds for brittle infrastructure, things like smart local networks (sort of the information equivalent of energy smart grids), community scrip and local fabrication. There are some really thought-provoking ideas here, new thinking applied in new ways, many of which fit well with a strategy of increasing neighborhood survivability. The world is getting bumpier, and preparedness, learning and innovation are called for.

But I worry as well about the role these sorts of ideas seem to often end up playing in the public debate. At the very least, I see these sorts of ideas playing into a misinformed understanding of the possibilities of localism, one which has the potential to seriously drain needed energy from efforts to stave off collapse. At the worst, I see it playing into an insane survivalism, one that's quite oblivious to the real nature of big systems failures.

Because, it bears repeating again and again and again, responses based purely on localism and scaling-back can't save us now. We need to remake our material civilization. If we don't do that, no amount of community preparation or personal bunker-building is going to save our bacon. If we don't avoid the tipping points, we're headed into an atmospheric singularity, which will likely involve cascading systems failures and a total inability to meaningfully plan our own lives.

Resilience is a great strategy for making sure our communities are capable of withstanding the bumps we're facing in order to keep generating solutions which can be used to avoid the crash; but if the crash comes, individuals and local communities are not going to be in any position to weather it through their own actions, no matter what they do.

Prevention is the only cure worth talking about here.

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I see your point, Alex. But at the same time, many of us WANT localism. It represents a series of important changes we can make in the short term - i.e., 1 to 5 years. Political progress is slow, and fraught with compromise.

I also think you're neglecting the cultural impact of localism. The more Americans who focus on building community, cohousing, co-ops, DIY neighborhood assistance, local money, locavorism, etc., then the more Americans we have who care about climate change and pulling us back from the brink - and the more Americans we have on our side, the easier it becomes to convince fence-sitting politicians to switch their votes on key legislation.

It's and/both, not either/or. Both community and legislative changes help, and both feed back into the other.

Posted by: Jay Andrew Allen on 2 Jul 08

John Robb is looking at this issue from his globalguerrillas perspective. Alex Wilson has been plowing some of the same ground for much longer with his ideas on passive survivability. I attended his sessions on the concept at both the 2007 and 2008 Building Energy conferences and there are some very good examples there. My notes are available online at if anybody's interested.

My scale is even smaller than local. It is personal. I say Solar IS Civil Defense and mean a flashlight, radio, cell phone, and extra batteries all powered by solar with hand crank or pedal power back-up. This means a reliable source of low voltage DC day or night by sunlight or muscle power. What you are supposed to have on hand in case of emergency and disaster in the developed world and solar survival in the developing world. That's my baseline and the foundation on which we can build toward the renewable world we need.

As for localism, I have become interested in Gandhian economics, the Constructive Program of swadeshi. It seems to me that Gandhi was talking about a human and restorative system of production that would support the village culture he believed was the heart of India. I also like the regional localism of John Todd's proposal for reclaiming the coal lands through ecological design. Every ecology is local after all.

Yes, we need sweeping changes in how we do just about everything; and yes, the public dialogue is completely dysfunctional around localism, resilience, and climate change; but no, we do not have an either/or dichotomy here between Alex Steffen and John Robb. We have have a both/and plus everything we can throw at the problem.

Posted by: gmoke on 2 Jul 08

Thanks Alex. Unfortunately, I don't think the global system can reform itself. Nobody is in charge of it. It's operating on autopilot. The only chance for a global fix is change at the ground level.

Usually that would take too long to have an effect. However, the growing instability (economic, etc.) we are seeing is changing the dynamic. People are at risk of losing everything and they are increasingly open to better alternatives.

That solution is the RC (resilient community). It not only solves the immediate problem but it solves the bigger ones as well.

Posted by: John Robb on 2 Jul 08


I agree with you and Jay Andrew Allen. Often relocalization and resilient community backers seem to subscribe believe that the breakdown of society is imminent. I don't. But I think that localization of materials is really important. The piece that people often seem to miss or disregard is that information can be shared globally even if materials are used locally. I wrote about this in a recent post that describes how those two forces could work together:

Posted by: Dave Sohigian on 2 Jul 08

Thank You Alex! Finally someone expresses the point succinctly! Several years ago I found myself wanting to escape civilization and prepare for the worst - but where does one hide from nuclear fallout?

Localism is part of the strategy - but not an end in itself. I live in Bellingham, home of BALLE leaders, and I am so tired of hearing localism is sustainability because it is, as you state, dangerous. The problem is that to question localism in Bellingham means you are equated with being a Nazi sympathizer.

So, Jay Andrew Allen, if you truly are a both/and person than you have a lot of work to do. I appreciate your ideal, but is not the reality. At this point the localism movement has been built on an emotional appeal that says stopping WalMart by buying trinkets at a locally owned store is going to save us all. The foundational appeal of localism has been about local control - not the just, multicultural, sustainable society we seek . And the worst failing - all of the strategies you list will only have a noticeable impact with wide-scale adoption. Does anyone question that that is never going to happen?

Again, I realize you are making the incremental change article - some movement will move the rest of the system. The problem is that the premise is wrong. A local business owner who joins the "Buy Local" campaign to keep WalMart out of town has little reason to support CC regulations.

Finally, John Robb, betting that the global system can't reform itself is a bad bet because it cannot be "won" -you are now in the mitigation business. You may live a little longer in a collapse, but you will probably just live to suffer more. The challenge is unprecedented, the odds of surviving are low and the current trend is bleak. Yet, the odds of my existence are so low already (I recently found out my grandfather was a menopause baby!) that surviving doesn't seem to be a stretch, so why not get in the game and help make the systemic changes needed?

It's true that the system does not come with an instruction manual on how to change course. That is the fun part! It is not about reforming the global system, it is about forming the first system ever to allocate resources on a global scale. And I agree that it starts with local organizing, but that organizing is only helpful when it respects that it is interdependent with the global system.

If nothing else, a smart guy like you needs a respectable challenge to motivate to get out of bed in the morning! You already have the whole survivalism thing figured out already, right? Simply put, we need your help to solve the bigger problem. So when you get your area organized, get them to help solve this challenge of a creating an equitable, just and sustainable global system.

Posted by: SustainAbill on 2 Jul 08

While 'solar is defence' is a catch-phrase I can see a lot of merit to, there is a subtlety here which plays on the local v systemic issue that Alex is talking about.

Most commercially available home solar systems are designed to feed power into the grid via your meter. I'm not sure what happens in a power blackout but, unless you use the power as you generate it, I suspect you suffer with everyone else. Independent operation requires better wiring and energy storage facilities, and adds to the overall cost (and can such a system plug into the grid? I don't know. Do you, gmoke?)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 2 Jul 08

Dave and SustainAbill, I am not betting on collapse in the classic sense at all since there is a way to prevent/mitigate it. I really do think that resilient communities interlinked can drive forward quality of life faster than the current system. Further, its not even a lifestyle choice anymore, its an economic imperative.

This is a bifurcation moment for the global dissipative system. We can either attempt to make incremental reforms to the current system that wastes mass, energy, space, time, and information with alacrity or find a solution that compresses them all to tiny fraction of current levels.

Posted by: John Robb on 2 Jul 08

Alex, glad to see you address this important topic.

As others mentioned, we don't have to choose Just One Approach.

We have the unfolding realities of a global credit crisis (or liquidity crisis, or bankruptcy crisis, or anything else you want to call it), peak oil, climate change, and its attendant droughts, floods, and spooky weather, and, of course, growing political tension throughout the world. Of ALL these issues, the economic crunch is what people FEEL. It's what has EVERYONE worried, yet it's too easy to forget how much economics drives everything.

What is the correlation between GDP and green house emissions, or energy consumption? Anyway, the responsible thing for anyone to do is prepare on several fronts. Become more self-sufficient. This helps everyone. Build more resilience at a community level. This helps everyone. Pray for global intervention and reform. We're largely powerless about this except for evangelism through sites such as, political activism, entrepreneurship, and influencing the Uber Elite, such as the Al Gores of the world. Until we change the way money works, however, we've done nothing at the global level, as economic growth requires the consumption of energy (thus historically far) which is both limited by nature and exacerbates green house emissions.

As much as I hope the Sustainability Fairy comes and waves a magic wand over all the world's leaders' heads and reconfigures civilization to not run off Coal, Natural Gas, Heating Oil, Gast, etc., I ain't counting on it, and I applaud those who are working hard to do what they can. Nobody wants a crash, but the responsible thing to do is to make the effort to become as self-sufficient as possible, both on a local level and a community level.

Posted by: Brad Bonham on 2 Jul 08

Dear John Robb, Alex and other participants,

There are two questions I would like to ask the two of you and other participants.

As almost everyone knows but few openly discuss, wealth and power buy freedom. What is all too obvious but often cloaked in silence is this: A small minority of individuals in the human family with great fortunes and virtually all large corporations exercise their great wealth and the power it purchases in ways that allow all of these self-proclaimed masters of the universe to live lavishly as well as to willfully refuse assumption of the responsibilities which necessarily come with freedom.

1. How do rich and famous people, who live large and have huge ecological footprints, as well as corporate `citizens' that cast giant shadows over the Earth today, so easily get away with socially irresponsible behavior?

2. The exercise of freedom without the requisite assumption of responsibility by citizens can lead to psychopathic behavior; the exercise of freedom by those individuals and corporations with great wealth who consensually-validate each others refusal to accept responsibility for their excessive, pernicious and amoral behavior is sociopathic, is it not?



Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 3 Jul 08

Answers to the questions asked by the last poster:

1. For humans, read Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class". It's available as an e-book, somewhere, and it is more relevant now than any time since it was published.

The sound-bite version is "because we aspire to join them."

For corporations, try Joel Bakan's "The Corporation". Corporations seek solely to maximise return on investment. The instrinsic structure of capitalism requires this monomania.

It's been said that if a fishery could return 10% on investment by being harvested sustainably, but 15% by being fished out in ten years, it will be fished out. And then the capital will move on, looking for the next best "investment".

2. Yes.

Posted by: Greg on 3 Jul 08

I really do think that resilient communities interlinked can drive forward quality of life faster than the current system.

That's the money quote. When resilient communities are interlinked, they're neither local nor global. We learn to overthrow another false dichotomy.

Posted by: David Foley on 3 Jul 08

Reply to Tony Fisk:

"I say Solar IS Civil Defense and mean a flashlight, radio, cell phone, and extra batteries all powered by solar with hand crank or pedal power back-up."

This has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the grid. Solar IS Civil Defense is purely AA battery, off-grid and minimal, essential, survival solar power.

Home PV systems are generally grid-connected and do have an automatic cut-off when local power goes out. This is to prevent electrocuting power line workers when they are working on restoring the lines. It should be easy to have a battery back-up for home power even with a grid-connected PV but it costs money for the switching system and the batteries, which also require some maintenance.

But this is not what I am talking about. I am talking about small-scale solar, personal scale solar, survival scale solar. For some strange reason, this seems to be a concept that is very hard for people to imagine. It is a scale of development that is hard for people these days to see.

I know Solar IS Civil Defense works because I use it myself. I have one room essentially off-grid now and have a solar/dynamo which charges AA batteries. This provides me with a measure of security and the whole thing cost less than $200.

Posted by: gmoke on 4 Jul 08

Does anyone remember a post-apocalyptic flick called "The Postman"?
In the original book by David Brin, and less well defined in the movie, its the survivalists who destroy civilization. Running off to their enclaves and looking out for number one, but still drawing resources away from rebuilding after a series of disasters. Good book.
I've been leery of localism ever since, because this does seem to be where the trend is going.
Besides. I've always been a loaner; we aren't all capable of buying in to the 'community' spirit.

Posted by: Tyler August on 4 Jul 08

We need people to be more self-sufficient at all levels. If nothing else, Hurricane Katrina should have exhibited how quickly things can break down even within a "first world" country. When brown fecal matter hit the fan, the talking heads began casting blame at the local government, the local government passed blame to the federal government, and very little was being done aside from the more intrepid locals with boats, Sean Penn, and the US Coast Guard.

The ideal would be to have great state, federal, and global responses to the crises we face, but what we can realistically control is the individual response and to some degree, our community response. We need to be able to work on our own levees and stop waiting for others to fix them for us.

When we talk about "remaking our material civilization", I have no idea how that's accomplished when we already have dwindling fossil fuel supplies. Our civilization is the result of ever growing amounts of practically free (except for environmental and social costs) energy. We are now at the point where EVERYTHING is more expensive. We need people who can work with all materials within all sorts of conditions wherever we are at right now. We're not going to Sustainify Detroit, LA, Houston, Atlanta etc if people within those cities keep looking for a Big Green Fix. Who is going to give it? FEMA? The UN?

I hope we get a Big Green Fix and a Civilizational Get Out of Jail Free card, but until then the responsible thing for each of us to do is to look at ways to become less dependent on brittle systems for life support. I believe John Robb is doing that, so I feel like there's something to learn there, even if his strategy might differ from the strategy employed by another community.

Posted by: Brad Bonham on 5 Jul 08

I would suggest the socio-ecological movement to push another concept then resilience, who scares everyone (human capacity to adapt to climate change... brrrr). Then should talk about what they really do to me: shaping integrated environmental/human policies and tools. I really like the work done by the resilience alliance. Of course we should go more holistic in our approaches and put people on the map!

Posted by: laurent on 7 Jul 08

What David Foley said: "When resilient communities are interlinked, they're neither local nor global."

Most people (not the exceptional examples) will work harder on what's immediate and local to them. Through that engagement, they will join efforts to change both the local and the global, for what can be sustainable in a world going through radical climate change? If millions of local communities reduce their carbon footprints through local activism and buy-in, is that not both important and essential?

The vast majority of individuals feel no sense of involvement with global scale strategies such as cap and trade, or with the high level technical concepts of the energy future. But they might become more interested if it's given some local context and related to their community survivability.

I advocate building a social network of local communities working toward resilience. Seems like that's where the rubber meets the road (or whatever bright green metaphor may apply). Who wants to help?

Posted by: Cliff Figallo on 7 Jul 08

Through that engagement, they will join efforts to change both the local and the global...

Cliff Figallo, thanks for your compliment and for your thoughtful post. But we can't assume that people working just at the local level will somehow automatically become engaged on the regional, national and global scales. There's a science and art to making that happen, and most of us understand neither the art nor the science all that well.

My hope is that we won't waste time arguing the false dichotomy of local versus global, but instead figure out a kind of "fractal sustainability," where our competence, on whatever scale, is linked, networked, cascaded, etc. to mesh with work done at other scales. Sustainability as fungal network, as opposed to organizational chart.

Posted by: David Foley on 7 Jul 08

Cliff Figallo is right to call for a network of local communities working towards resilience. A good place to start is ICLEI which has been linking cities and towns working on sustainability for a number of years, Institute for Local Self Reliance, and the Transition Towns movement. Alex Wilson at Environmental Building News has been working on Passive Survivability as well.

Posted by: gmoke on 11 Jul 08



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