O Canada

It’s our first morning on the coast of Maine.  As usual in a new place, it feels like Christmas morning.  No telling what gifts will be bestowed. It’s all a gift.  That’s why they call it the present.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

maine_coast_rev2There’s a tiny sliver of waning moon peeking out from the clouds.  Behind the moon the sky is getting lighter.  We got in soon enough last night to find a crab shack on the shore, crack open some crabs and suck out the meat as darkness descended. That was good, but this sunrise over the ocean is even better.

Our porch is perched above the Eastern shore and the sea is just starting to pink up as dawn floods the sky.  The Resilience Project was invited to Maine to participate in some national policy discussions on climate change, but we’ve got to see Canada first.

Canada is such a nice retreat when American aggressiveness gets to be too much.  Canadians have the politeness of people who live on the edge of wilderness where few visitors come.  This national attitude arose when they were a vast wilderness with few people and fewer visitors.  They cherished the few who would come to see them.  They still welcome immigrants with open arms.

They also have this parliamentary system of governance where multiple parties represent as many choices as the people desire.  In the US, we have a two party dictatorship of the mind.  It’s one or the other.  Yes or no.  Answer me.  You have to decide.  Which one will it be?  A rock or a hard place?.  The frying pan or the fire?

Americans are so used to being forced to choose between the lesser of two evils that we hardly even question our political system.  Looking at the world as the interaction of dichotomies can be useful–but only if you explore both ends and realize the truth integrates both extremes.

Someday Americans will wake up and realize there are more than two choices.  Or maybe we will continue to listen to the two parties and see politics as a choice between right and wrong, us and them, good and evil.  Politics has nothing to do with morality.  Having both parties led by amoral people should convince you of that.

Party politics has always been about loyalty. Loyalty to family and community helps build resilience.  Political parties work hard to subvert that loyalty.  For a family to be resilient, it helps to have a community which has your back.  For a community to be resilient, being a loyal part of a resilient tribe and nation can help.

Unfortunately, political parties can only succeed when other parties fail.  So the party has to divide, not unify; create enemies; destroy loyalty within families and community. 

But the morning is too beautiful here on the coast of Maine.  No more consternation about politics. Instead we’ll watch the sun rise and the tide come in while we drink our second cup of coffee. And again view the present as a gift.


No disaster is natural

Floods happen every year at Meadowcreek.  Rain from thousands of acres flows down into our narrow valley. At least once a year the flood gets so strong you can hear the boulders bounding along the creek bottom.  Our favorite swimming holes change their appearance every year as the creek fills up some holes and opens up others. We love to watch the creek at flood stage, though sometimes water over our low water bridges gets so high cars can’t get in or out.  One tree is marked where a blonde in a convertible got washed downstream.

floods-IndiaBut no flood is ever a disaster at Meadowcreek.  Nothing is built down in the floodplain.

People like to talk about natural disasters, but all disasters are man-made.  The worst earthquake or flood in the wilderness wouldn’t be called a disaster.  It might not even be noticed.

There is a subtle but fundamental difference between disasters and hazards. Jean-Jacques Rousseau first noted this difference in 1755 when Portugal was shaken by an earthquake. In a letter to Voltaire one year later, Rousseau notes that, “nature had not built the houses which collapsed” and suggested that Lisbon’s high population density contributed to the toll. In other words, natural events are hazards while disasters are the result of man-made social processes. A hazard need not turn into a disaster.

The distinction might seem academic until you consider the long series of human activities needed to create a disaster.  Disasters were traditionally perceived as sudden and short lived events, but we now know that disasters are continuous processes of gradual deterioration and growing vulnerability.

For some, the natural response to a disaster is to rebuild what was there.  The Mennonite disaster response teams are excellent at swooping in to rebuild houses and get people’s lives back to normal quickly.  They have come several times to rebuild houses after floods in the Yukon River valley in Alaska.  But rebuilding in a flood plain only recreates the process which leads to disaster.

Recently the Mennonites have begun working with villagers in a more resilient approach: moving villages out of the flood plain or building homes which can be moved when flood threatens.

Disasters are processes which begin long before any particular event. They begin as people become less and less integrated with local ecological systems.  In the past, many have used the term vulnerability to describe communities at-risk for disaster. But vulnerability focuses on the negative, the lack of something and implicitly invokes the need for external protection, overlooking the fact that many local coping mechanisms exist.

From the perspective of this top-down approach, international organizations are the rescuers and aid does not arrive until these institutions mobilize.

In contrast, the term resilience suggests self-sufficiency, and self-sufficiency implies a degree of autonomy; self-dependence rather than dependence on an external entity that may or may not arrive, that may or may not be effective, and that may or may not stay the course.

It’s hard for aid agencies to accept this approach. Some international aid agencies, such as FAO and OXFAM have even tried to redefine resilience to include access to outside aid.  When they do so, they are looking at resilience not of households or communities, but at a scale which includes the aid agencies.  Resilience at the household or community level cannot depend on outside assistance.

In fact, the fluctuations in policy of aid agencies can be just another disturbance which can cause disasters for households and communities. Not the least of which is dependence on the aid agency.

The foundation of resilience to disasters is the same as the foundation of life: self-organization.  In natural systems, this self-organization is based on the local ecosystem.  Man-made systems must work to insure ecological integration.  To eliminate disruption, many man-made system work to eliminate ecological integration.  Resilient systems incorporate local ecological processes and work to eliminate need for external inputs.

Self-organization and ecological integration are the foundation, but resilient systems have a few additional qualities.  Resilience is maximized when this foundation is joined with conservative innovation, redundancy, modular connectivity, building infrastructure, complementary diversity, and an embrace of transformation.

Learn more about all these qualities of resilient systems at: https://meadowcreekvalley.wordpress.com/projects/.

Healing beaches through storms

“Physician, heal thyself”  is a challenge which should be issued to any psychologist or prophet or teacher or resilience expert.  Right after leading a workshop on resilience in Vermont last week, I proved how much I need that advice when I caught a cold.  I’d been getting by on too little sleep and traveling too much.  My defenses were down and encountered a new cold virus in the crowd at the resilience conference.  I realized once again my limits.

1 Azov Sea July 2012 029

Luke, the Physician, cited this pre-Christian proverb because the prophet or expert should show the proof of his theories in his own life.  So, I rest, drink plenty of liquids, dose myself with Nyquil now and then, and am thankful for the knowledge of Nature which led to the chemicals which remove most of my symptoms and help me recover.

I take pride in not using medicines, except healthy foods.  I used to rely on copious quantities of grapefruit juice to help me get over colds.  This regimen led to low grade colds which hung on for weeks.  I once ignored a cold and it turned into double pneumonia and intravenous antibiotics.  Not the epitome of a paragon of resilience.  Now I am Nyquil from the first day.  Like all resilient people I am conservative, but embrace innovation which gets the system back to efficient long-term effectiveness.

The thunderstorms we’ve gotten lately are just like my cold.  Both are disturbances which a system responds to.  Just as I have adapted my system of dealing with colds, so do most communities need to adapt their systems to deal with storms.

Storms are regular occurrences in any ecosystem.  They blow down weak and diseased trees so that healthy ones have room to thrive.  They also expose the weaknesses in any system’s infrastructure for resilience.

For years coastal communities have tried to counter storms with seawalls and jetties–imposing structures of wood and/or concrete intended to fend off angry tides and surging waves. Not only have seawalls in certain areas been shown repeatedly to fail when tested, but they pose a threat to the delicate ecosystems associated with wetlands and intertidal areas.

Instead of absorbing energy generated by wind and waves, seawalls reflect that force back into the water,  further eroding the shore and erasing important habitats for fish, crabs, and shore birds.  Recent research suggests that biological barriers both better protect against erosion and preserve vital ocean habitats.One researcher contends: “You are essentially talking about a little over a 25 percent loss in biodiversity and also around a 35 to 40 percent loss in abundance when you have a seawall instead of a natural shoreline.”

If you go to the coast this summer, look at how your favorite beach is protected.  Does the community use seawalls, jetties and other physical structures to prevent erosion of the beach?   In many cases, seawalls, jetties, breakwaters and groins have caused down-coast erosion problems with associated costs that have greatly exceeded the construction cost of the structure.

Research  along the North Carolina coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011 suggests that the use of “living shorelines” instead of seawalls can protect private property from these coastal hazards without compromising the habitats.  Living shorelines use plants, sand, and rarely stone to provide shoreline protection and maintain valuable habitat.  They are created by planting native wetland plants and grasses, shrubs, and trees at various points along the tidal water line.  Plantings are coordinated with carefully placed bioengineering materials, such as manmade coconut-fiber rolls (or biologs) to protect vegetation and soils. Where viable, oysters can be included as well.

In an area of North Carolina hardest hit by hurricanes, one study concluded 75 percent of the seawalls had some kind of damage, while other types of shorelines, including living shorelines, were damage-free.

The problem is that many homeowners and communities want their property to stay exactly the way it is.  Resilient systems, instead, embrace change and use it to create better systems.  I know that healthy foods and exercise are the best routes to avoiding colds, but when I get one anyway, I use Nyquil because I know it helps make my colds go away.

Similarly, coastal communities cannot just let Nature take its course.  Nature has and will sweep whole communities into the sea.  But the resilient approach is to understand and work with Nature instead of fighting it.  Coastal communities need to embrace innovations in shore protection which are far better than seawalls and jetties.

To know which innovations will work for a community, we have to know how waves and beach sand interact.  Beach sand comes from rivers and moves from river mouths to the beach. It then moves along the coast in the direction of prevailing currents and eventually it moves offshore. This sand transport system is called a littoral cell.

When waves break at an angle to the shoreline, part of the wave’s energy is directed along the shore. These “longshore currents” flow parallel to the shore. Surfers call this the “drift”. This current will move sand along the shore and a beach will be formed. The same current that transports a surfer down the beach from the point of entry will also move beach sand down the shoreline. When this longshore current turns seaward, it is called a rip tide.

If inland property is biologically protected and sand is permitted to flow along the shoreline, beaches will be naturally replenished.  Unfortunately, when one community builds a jetty to protect it’s beach, the force of the waves is amplified downsteam at the next community, which must intervene to save its sand..

This vicious cycle just amplifies the damage caused by storms. It’s just like the mother who tries to sanitize her baby’s environment to keep it away from all germs.  Often these mothers realize too late that babies who encounter natural, unpolluted soils and plants grow into children with fewer allergies, asthma and other maladies.

Whether you’re trying to protect your beach or avoid illness, learn from and work with Nature and you’ll always be . . .more resilient, of course.