Resilience is the ability of a system to recover from shock, trauma, or change. The more resilient a system, the more shocks and impacts it can withstand and still recover. As systems—cultural or ecological—lose the strength of diversity, they become vulnerable to disruption or collapse. Nature is the ultimate example of resilience, with its systems of multiple planned redundancies and complex relationships between organisms responding in different ways to threat. Fungi have the ability to begin the regenerative processes within a landscape after fire, paving the way for other microorganisms and animals to return to the devastated area and continue the repair work. Animals contain population through the checks and balances of the food chain. Nature grows through an understanding of limits and through the conservation and recycling of resources. We must learn to do the same. Inevitably, nature will be our strongest teacher in the process of change, or the agent of our harshest consequences. To quote Paul Hawken, “There are no economies of scale; there is only nature’s economy.”
While individuals and sometimes communities possess resiliency in the face of difficulties, the more common human reaction to threat is a frozen or traumatized state of fight, flight, or freeze. People (and cultures) in this state can’t make good choices or think clearly through a problem or creatively get out of a box. This frozen reactivity keeps us repeating the nightmares of the past, unable to see what is really happening in front of us, doing the same things and imagining a different future. Yet the imperative is clear. We need to find a way beyond our terrifying possibility—the collapse of our environment and our civilization—and we need our thinking to be crystal clear, creative, and responsive to the challenge facing us.
Even as global consciousness about our situation rises, it remains difficult to harness our energies toward cultural regeneration. We see this especially when we look at our social institutions, but also when we look at ourselves. What is it that makes it so hard to change, especially when the problems we face are so serious, and have been so well articulated? Part of our limitation is our understanding of change as something that just “happens,” as opposed to a process that requires our participation, awareness, and agreement. Denial, addiction, and a lifestyle of affluence also insulate people from the need (or desire) to change. And finally, a pervasive sense of pessimism about the powerlessness of our actions immobilizes many of us. If we are to make sense of the situation we are in, each of us has to go through our own individual process, confronting our habitual mechanisms of avoidance and denial to overcome our fear and conditioned cynicism. This process can only happen in stages, and will require patience, cooperation, and a little bit of humor.
The writing my essay Stages of Change, highly successful with addicts in recovery, seems particularly apt for our relationship to fossil fuels and our inflated sense of planetary entitlement. The Stages include recognition of a problem, a willingness to contemplate change, planning for possible new behaviors, and a time for both activating a plan and integrating the changes. Within the process lies the inevitability of relapses and cycling back again. This model requires a shift in awareness and a personal desire to participate in making change happen. It works best within a context of community support, over time. An awareness of the cyclical nature of the process helps us keep renewing our commitment toward new behaviors, which cannot happen overnight. Change really is two steps forward, one step back.
In terms of the ecological and cultural problems we face, pre-contemplation on a social level began about forty years ago with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the emergence of a broader ecological movement. Contemplation of the problem followed, and beginning steps toward change were enacted: early attempts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel, the back-to-the-land movement, and the inevitable pushback from industry. The cyclical and recursive nature of the process is evident in the progression of these cultural movements.