Resilient Systems in the Face of Disaster | from ‘Deep Community Resilience’ by Jason McLennan

The size and number of community disasters are increasing globally.  Natural disasters like the hurricane flooding of New Orleans or the F5 tornado in Joplin, MO have triggered a new discourse about how communities should respond after a disaster.  In his essay ‘Deep Community Resilience’, Jason McLennan discusses how communities should be preparing for a coming age of challenges.  McLennan suggests that through the understanding of fragility and the new realities of climate change, communities should rethink concepts of power and work to create more decentralized systems that are scaled appropriately in order to become more resilient in the face of disasters. 


When disasters strike, people respond across a wide scale.  Often, the relief efforts are coordinated from different cities and resources must be organized from greater regions to obtain solutions for the effected area.  Societies inherently must respond and rebuild after disasters to maintain quality of life.  However, McLennan points out that the focus should be more on working to prevent or mitigate damages rather than simply rebuilding the same way again and again.  Cultural and physical vulnerabilities can be identified and modified to better withstand what is to come.  We should be learning from our victories and mistakes to be proactive about designing more resilient systems.

Understanding Fragility

Our societies are less resilient than they have ever been throughout history.  Overpopulation places more people in harms way, particularly in flood and earthquake zones.  Dangerous technologies and resource extraction such as deep-water drilling, fracking, and nuclear energy increase the chances of natural disasters while our societies dependence on fossil fuels continuously contribute to global warming and climate change. In addition, the way that contemporary cities have been designed, spread people out over great areas.  Sprawl creates cultural separations as well as being highly expensive and difficult to support.  As the population rises, we will continue to become more fragile and need to seek new solutions. 

New Realities v. Old Habits

Many experts believe that we have already lost the battle against climate change.  Projections suggest that it is already too late to viably reduce emotions enough to avoid catastrophic disaster.  The question is not ‘how can we avoid damage?’ but ‘how can we thrive and continue to survive in a damaged environment’? 

The typical scenario today consists of a large-scale crisis that triggers an outpouring of relief aid from large outsourced institutions such as FEMA or The Red Cross to help the community rebuild as it was before.  McLennan argues against this pattern saying “Why would these communities return to business as usual in the wake of devastation?  Why wouldn’t they re-think the way they re-build so that they can be more resilient the next time around”? 

Rethinking Concepts of Power

We all have memories of the power going out in our home.  Candles and blankets are brought out as we wait for the electricity to be restored by some abstract, exterior power.  This scenario is almost romanticized because we know that it is only temporary.  But there is always the bit of uneasiness because of the small thought of ‘what f the lights don’t come back on?’  

McLennan refers to this feeling as the unconscious awareness of our fragility.  We are beginning to become aware as a society that we are tethered to unsustainable practices.  Our The complex systems we have created to support our way of life have become our greatest weakness as a society in the face of disaster.  As a comparison, McLennan gives the example of the Amish community.  The Amish build structure together with their neighbors, they learn how to fix the tools they use on a daily basis, they grow their own food, and have no centralized infrastructure in which all systems are tied.  As a culture, we often refer to this kind of lifestyle as ‘backwards’.  However, there is a lot to be learned from these tactics.  A decentralized infrastructure and centralized cultural fabric are the bedrock of a resilient community.

Ingredients to a Resilient Community

1.       Resilient Infrastructure

Resilient communities are dense and walkable with human-based relationships to buildings.  These communities have sustainable water systems that work to capture and use water on site along with treating waste water.  Renewable and simple energy sources such as solar, wind-power, hydro-power, or geo-thermal are implemented instead of a central power grid.  Resilient communities should be site-specific; responding to their unique character, climate, and available resources.

2.       Resilient Culture

People who live in resilient communities know their neighbors.  People understand their role in society and value cultural elements of caring for the weak and elderly, educating children in a safe environment, and inclusion of all people, regardless of difference.  In resilient cultures, people know how to build and fix what they used.  People grow what they eat and understand where their food comes from.  Most importantly, resilient cultures collaborate and share knowledge to better the community. 

3.       Resilient Individuals

Individuals should understand their role and responsibility within a greater social framework.  Before, or In the wake of disasters, individuals should understand how their skills can be valuable to the community.

If our society is to succeed in the face of impending future disasters, we must become more resilient as individuals, as a culture, and in the way that we build.  A radical paradigm shift must occur in the way that we scale systems.  These systems should be site specific and agile.  We must understand how to better harvest and store resources in a more sustainable manner.  Current practices should be revisited and altered to reduce their impact and strategic reserves of resources should be built up on the community level.    Communities should rethink concepts of power by learning from the past and educating the next generation on the realities that we face.  Resilience should be discussed in the classroom along with practical skills and a philosophy of connectedness.  Finally, we should strive to create new models for resilient infrastructure and decentralized solutions that measure the carrying capacities of regions and respond appropriately.