Resilience Beyond Disaster Recovery

July 18, 2016

Written By: Katherine Gloede, UNHSI 2016 Psychosocial Resilience Sustainability Fellow

The effects of anthropogenic climate change are already being felt across globe, most visibly in the form of increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Although gradual changes like drought, heatwaves, and sea level rise are also making their way into media coverage, it is perfectly reasonable that natural disasters, which cause the most immediate and visible physical destruction, are given the most attention. There are hundreds of thousands worldwide who devote their careers to managing and responding to both manmade and natural disasters. The ability for government planning and spending to group the two forms of threats together also likely contribute to a focus on disasters in urban planning for resilience. Resilience, especially in policymaking, is often framed as the ability to quickly respond to and recover from disasters. Resilience implies strength during and following disruption. These priorities are important preparations for a rapidly changing planet and continued human-made threats, but they leave out a crucial part of the equation. Resilient communities require resilient people.

Recent articles in The New York Times and Rolling Stone discuss resilience for New York City following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Media hype represents a vested interest in how the largest city in the U.S. will fare following the next major storm or event gradual sea level rise. Articles in The Times and The New Yorker reflect on Sandy and have chronicled growth in New York’s government investment in planning for resilience. This is great news. It means City Government, particularly with respect to climate change, is aware they must expect the unexpected—or at least the predicted at a moment’s notice. Adapting to climate change is becoming a bigger part of government planning internationally. Networks like 100 Resilient Cities and C40 Cities place climate change and resilience at the top of their agendas. Still, by examining media coverage, these networks, and at city plans such as former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s policy response to Sandy, A Stronger, More Resilient New York, the focus is clearly on emergency management and disaster response. It is also directed largely toward physical infrastructure. Even measures rooted in overall preparedness to gradual environmental change address housing and transportation more than people.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, disasters impact much more than infrastructure. Studies show Superstorm Sandy led to spikes in PTSD. Following the 2007 summer floods in the UK, a study published by the National Institutes of Health found that almost 50% of people directly impacted experienced anxiety and depression, and about 25% suffered from PTSD. As climate change causes increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events and as manmade threats to safety and security continue, rates of psychological trauma will grow. Furthermore, such major events aggravate psychosocial responses such as crime and violence. Without equipping individuals to personally cope with major events, both healthcare and law enforcement systems will be rapidly overburdened.

Second, planning for resilience that has no focus on individuals does not adequately prepare them for the stresses of daily life—let alone those gradual toxic stresses produced by climate change. Heatwaves, droughts, and the spread of disease vectors all impact mental health and personal wellbeing alongside risks to physical health.

Third, even when resilience planning addresses people, it is commonly directed toward this notion of bouncing back and trauma recovery. Look to rates of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns that already impacts millions of people. Bouncing back to what slightly predates a disaster does not deeply strengthen society. Resilience, as it is argued more and more by experts in a number of fields, must incorporate learning and constructive coping after major events that do not just enable recovery and rebounding, but growth.

Fourth and finally, the psychological and psychosocial stresses people face everyday are enough to leave many in dysregulated, self-protective states. When in a self-protective state, people are often incapable of assigning mental space or energy to other, external problems. Among the many external problems a dysregulated person may be unable to address includes adopting climate change mitigation measures like reducing personal carbon footprint or assisting in maximizing energy-efficiency. Enhancing resilience through successful sustainability initiatives, in addition to disaster response, benefit from resilient individuals and communities.

This more recent field of study is dubbed transformational resilience. In short, transformational resilience extends bouncing back from disaster to bouncing forward. It may draw on many of the techniques used to help individuals and groups cope with trauma, but is rooted in proactive prevention rather than reactive recovery. In his book What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, Dr. Stephen Joseph writes on how major events and trauma can be used in individual strengthening. Bob Doppelt, director of The Resource Innovation Group, directly applies transformational resilience skills to climate change adaptation. In his recent book, Doppelt uses resilience skills-building tactics in the Resilient Growth Model, which combines presencing (skills to calm emotions and thoughts) and purposing (skills to find direction, meaning, and hope in adversity) techniques.


(Image: Transformational Resilience, Bob Doppelt, “Introduction to Transformational Resilience," 2016)

Drawing on these mental health awareness tactics, which combine coping and growth, better prepare individuals for oncoming daily stresses and major events predicted as the globe reaches a 2-degree Celsius temperature increase above pre-industrial levels. Similarly, at a larger scale, individuals can contribute to organizational or community resilience by creating supportive physical spaces, fostering robust relationships, and facilitating trauma-informed citizenry. Networks like Neighborhoods USA and Transition Towns already utilize some of these well-known tactics to increase wellbeing in order to increase community resilience. Members of International Transformational Resilience Coalition (ITRC) are committed to bringing together individuals, professionals, and organizations to strengthen wellbeing.

(Image: Three Pillars of Community-Level Psychosocial Resilience Building Strategies, Bob Doppelt, “Building Resilient Organizations and Communities”, 2016)

The next step is to add to this missing piece of the resilience equation to planning and policy. This is where the ITRC’s work has a direct impact. Every individual, once knowledgable and equipped with transformational resilience skills, is capable of building resilience in his or her community. The key, as with arguably any newer model or initiative, is outreach and activism. Through workshops, collaboration, and publicly available resources, coalitions like the ITRC are empowering individuals worldwide to look not only at post-trauma recovery, but proactive, transformational resilience. It is essential that these skills become embedded in larger scale policy and planning initiatives. A focus on physical resilience to natural and manmade disasters does not necessarily need redirection, but the addition of transformational resilience to help people constructively cope to both major events and toxic stresses produced by gradual environmental change. Ultimately, successful mitigation of and adaptation to climate change depends on it.


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