Resilience Takes Time and Action

I recently participated in a Resiliency Summit hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), and by pure coincidence the summit was held on a day when Colorado experienced devastating flooding.  It brought me right back to Vermont’s own terrible floods two years ago when Hurricane Irene laid river photo with textwaste to many of our rivers, roads and communities; watching northern Colorado’s bridges get washed away and neighborhoods left stranded sparked memories of Vermont’s travails.  I remember driving through parts of the state destroyed by torrents where trickles had never been seen before.  The fall in Vermont is a wonderful thing, but as the leaves drop this year the scars from Irene reappear still raw and ominous.  I’m sure other communities such as New Orleans, the New Jersey shore, and parts of Long Island shudder with empathy.  And who will be next?

Here in Vermont stories poured out of neighbors and strangers banding together to dig out of the disaster. The social fabric of these devastated communities strengthened during this terrible time and was really something to behold.  Rebecca Sanborn has shared one such story from her town; the papers and radio waves were full of others.  While damage to our rivers and roads was repaired quickly, the long term environmental or planning concerns were not always considered.  Colorado is now facing the same question of re-building as before or thinking first about the changes coming down the pike due to climate change and then building with these trends in mind. 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimgreenhill through creative commons license

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimgreenhill through creative commons license

The Resilient Vermont project, in partnership with the State of VT and funded by Jane’s Trust, High Meadows Fund, Waterwheel Foundation, Lintilac Foundation and ISC’s own Climate Innovation Fund, is a collaborative project lead by ISC with the purpose of preparing Vermont for the next severe, climate-change event, whether by flooding, drought, fire, severe winter storm or power outage.  In a report that is moving toward final publication, ISC states, “A resilient Vermont [will be] focused on identifying and managing risks, proactively reducing our vulnerabilities and improving our response and recovery to ensure that we are continually building resilience to climate change and natural disasters.”  In another section the report identifies elements in Vermont needed for resilience: “strong social networks, committed leaders and our well-known ‘can-do spirit’.” 

The report goes on to recommend actions at the state, regional and local levels.  At the summit the participants agreed that while various actions at the state and regional levels were necessary, more of the focus should be at the local level where the river meets the road, so to speak.  The words “education, training and leadership development” were quickly offered, words easy to say but far more difficult to accomplish effectively.

Despite our national politics of gridlock and hopelessness I find people eager to get involved at the local level. One problem with getting folks actively engaged is the regular use of traditional techniques for participation (you know, those age-old notices “Public Meeting at the Town Hall at 7:00 pm”).  The invitation and meetings are often lifeless and draw only that small segment of the community willing to show up and comfortable speaking into a microphone (and as we know, in these types of meetings the vocal people are often the naysayers).  Getting people to participate in a proactive discussion (i.e., without an emergency) is both difficult and important, and attaching the word “education” makes it doubly challenging.

That said, people will come if the gathering has relevance to them and they can be assured a real voice and role in the process. When they see the meeting is going to be different, when stories, listening and authentic interaction will play pivotal roles, they’ll come. When well-trained teachers and facilitators guide the process fairly, creatively and transparently, they’ll come.  When designed and implemented effectively, these sessions will produce invaluable local knowledge helping to shape thoughtful and appropriate strategies and solutions to foreseeable natural disasters.  And all this learning and training will also strengthen the all-important social fabric. 

 It is imperative that Vermont, Colorado and most other states spend the time to go wide (inclusion and diversity) and deep (emotion and wisdom) with their citizens.  Collaborative and sometimes contentious exploration of the issues and possible solutions followed by a participatory process of drafting a plan that makes sense for a community and region will produce the kind of resilience we all need in these changing conditions.  It’s not as easy as it sounds to do it right —  it takes time and careful planning ensuring all the right ingredients are in place before commencing.  If it sounds expensive, well, in the long run it will be less expensive in time, money and pain than simply reacting when the next disaster comes.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimgreenhill through creative commons license

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimgreenhill through creative commons license

When ISC’s well-considered, final report comes out, it will be time for action.  Climate change and the ensuing extremes of heat, precipitation and wind are not just passing trends; they are well documented by many including Alan Betts.  There’s no time to sit around and admire the report sitting on the shelf and there’s no time to waste on the same old approaches.  Let’s do our best to get it right this time by employing slow principles and tapping the power and wisdom of our local residents, volunteers and leaders.

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