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Over the Cliff: More on Resilience and Sustainability

February 19, 2013

A colleague of mine -- who hails from Sweden -- tells me that there's a saying in that country that there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad attire. Tell that to residents of Hamden, Connecticut who received 40 inches of snow a week ago or residents of Old Lyme who have lost power in their homes several times over the past two years with Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, a pre-Halloween snowstorm that created havoc a few days after Sandy struck, and the recent Nor'easter.

But like the Swedes, many parts of New England and New York seemed to bounce back after the snow storm in pretty good shape -- owing perhaps to plenty of early warnings from local officials, a beefed up effort by local power companies and Governor Deval Patrick ordering all cars off the roads in Massachusetts before the height of the storm.

Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy explore these concepts of risk mitigation and risk adaptation through a clever analogy (think Thelma and Louise) in their recent book, Resilience – Why Things Bounce Back (see my blog posts of February 4 and 11, 2013):

  • Imagine that we gather all of the people who are concerned about a major global disruption…and place them, metaphorically, in a single car. Now let's send that car accelerating toward a cliff – a climatological point of no return.
  • At the beginning of the car's journey, one group in the car will hold moral authority: those who align themselves with risk mitigation. "Turn back!" they shout. "Hit the brakes! Or at the very least take your foot off the accelerator!" At this point in the car's journey, this is precisely the moral and proper thing to do.
  • However, as their calls go unheeded, and the car approaches a point where, even if the brakes were hit, the car would still likely skid over the edge, another group will come to occupy the moral high ground: those who align themselves with risk adaptation. "We had better build some air bags and a parachute" they say, "since we could go over whether we like it or not." As above, at this point in the car's journey, this is a moral and proper thing to advocate.

Clearly, both approaches – risk mitigation (or sustainability) and risk adaptation (or resilience) – are needed to avoid disaster, but when you're going off the cliff, adaptation is the way to go.

The other day, I was struck that this conclusion seems to have been embraced by Al Gore in his recent book, The Future – Six Drivers of Global Change. While not inventing sustainability, Gore certainly has done just about more than anyone else to embed the concept in our collective conscience – through efforts like the Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and his sustained environmental activism.

So, it was surprising to see that in his latest book, Gore admits that his singular focus on minimizing our impact on the environment may have prevented us from devoting enough attention to the need to adapt to changes in the environment:

  • For my own part, I used to argue many years ago that resources and effort put into adaptation would divert attention from the all-out push that is necessary to mitigate global warming and quickly build the political will to sharply reduce emissions of global warming pollution. I was wrong – not wrong that deniers would propose adaptation as an alternative to mitigation, but wrong in not immediately grasping the moral imperative of pursuing both policies simultaneously, in spite of the difficulties that poses.

Words for CSR programs and practitioners to live by.

If you have a comment or question about this three-part series on Resilience and Sustainability, please share it by clicking here. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing.

P.S. Did you know that Al Gore was co-recipient, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for "informing the world of the dangers posed by climate change"?


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