On August, 7th Multisolving Institute Director Beth Sawin joined a panel on Community, Reciprocity, and Sustainability at the Loka Initiative’s Resilience in the Anthropocene [RITA] Summit. She spoke about four principles that can build resilience to environmental shocks in communities. We share her remarks below:
I have four principles for building community resilience I’d like to offer today. I’ll get to those four quickly, but first— two pieces of background so they make more sense. I live in Vermont, and we have been getting slammed with climate change impacts. Some have made the national news, but the disasters are ongoing.
Picture a small mountainous state, with settlements in river valleys, especially for less affluent Vermonters. Then picture a very rainy June, waterlogged soils. Then picture in one weekend in early July, six to nine inches of rain in just a few days — that’s when four to five inches is normal for the whole month. That’s the flooding that made national news. We’ve had storm after storm since then, including one that dropped another six inches on part of the state. It rained all night last night.
In my thoughts, you’ll hear this reality in Vermont but please know I’m offering the specifics to illustrate general principles that I believe apply everywhere. So please listen, beyond the specifics, for what these examples might mean for your place.
The second piece of background is the idea of multisolving, which means doing things in a way that your efforts solve several problems at once.
If you take only one thing from my words today it should be this: we can build resilience in a way that accomplishes other things at the same time. And that’s critical because we are facing other crises beyond the climate one. There’s not enough time or money to tackle them one by one. But tackling them together opens up possibilities.
That’s what these four principles are for, how to build resilience for shocks in ways that make our communities healthier and more vibrant all the time.
Principle #1 | Work with nature.
The Otter Creek runs through Vermont. It caused a lot of damage during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. But just upstream of one town is a conserved wetland that soaked up and slowed down the water and prevented millions of dollars of damage downstream. That conserved wetland meets other needs too, like improved water quality and recreation for humans and habitat for many species. Living shorelines, reforestation, ecosystem restoration — these are all examples of how working with nature builds resilience and brings other benefits too.
Principle #2 | Support a strong social fabric.
In Vermont’s flooding, we are seeing what people see in every disaster. The first responders are neighbors, local businesses, and local community-serving organizations like food pantries and churches. Right now in Vermont, these organizations know who needs help and who wants to help and how to connect them. But this social fabric does many other things beyond responding to disasters. It feeds people and cares for them 365 days per year. Investing in this fabric builds resilience but it also pays off everyday too.
Principle #3 | Work to make societies more equitable.
Inequitable societies have places that are neglected or actively harmed, including sacrifice zones, extraction zones, under-investment zones, all these places where some lives don’t matter as much as others. These places are also, frequently, climate risk zones. In Vermont that looks like the affordable housing being in the flood plain. A society where all people matter would invest in all places and be prepared for impacts in all places. But increasing equity isn’t just a resilience measure. Heather McGee gives countless examples in her book The Sum of Us about how equitable societies are better for everyone in them. They have higher overall well-being and stronger economies.
Principle #4 | Go fossil free.
There are limits to what societies can cope with. No matter how equitable, how strong the social fabric is, how much nature is being worked with — if you receive a month’s worth of rain in a day and that happens multiple times in a month, coping gets really difficult. The same for endless heat or wildfire smoke or droughts. Going fossil free is needed for all our other resilience measures to work. It’s also multisolving. It brings other benefits, especially in healthcare from breathing cleaner air. In fact, the World Health Organization says that the health benefits of meeting the Paris Climate goals would more than outweigh their costs.
So I will say these four principles one more time: working with nature, strengthening the social fabric, boosting equity, and going fossil free. And the amazing thing is these four don’t stand alone. They lift each other up. Communities can grow more cohesive because of how they are working together to restore an ecosystem. Societies can become more equitable because the way they are getting off fossil fuels creates good jobs in previously marginalized communities. That’s the vision I’d like to leave you with — that what we must do to create resilience has the power to make our communities more vibrant, healthier, and more whole.
Watch the full panel discussion here.