Building resilience, as individuals and in community

09/05/2019

Resilience: our ability to adapt to or recover from adverse events, stress, threats or trauma. It’s a concept in focus in the circles I travel through, and it’s relevant to us all, both as individuals and in our community.

As a doctor, I have the privilege of counseling people on navigating stress, strengthening supportive relationships, and nourishing the body, mind and spirit. The more love and trust we experience, the more resilient we are. The more we feel confident in our own skills, the better we can problem solve and recover. Skills in communication, relaxation, self-care and relationship tending are central to our well-being.

What do we know about community resilience? As with individual resilience, community resilience requires people to come together in a supportive way, be prepared for emergencies and have useful skills to adapt to new conditions. What skills will allow us to adapt to the challenges facing us now and in the future? 

To answer that question, we must have the courage to peer into the not-too-distant future, to a time when we no longer have an abundance of fossil fuels enabling the transport of goods, services and people over great distances. The future will require us to live in an intensely local manner, care for one another, grow food in a regenerative way without external inputs like pesticides and fertilizers, make do with less, and hold fast to our essential humanness. Relationship tending will remain essential, particularly in terms of our relationship with the Earth and its web of life. 

For those of us accustomed to being consumers in a society awash with readily available goods, it is hard to imagine a greatly simplified life. We take for granted electricity and all that it allows until a brief power outage reminds us of our reliance. It’s worth noticing, as we go about our daily lives, all of the ways we have become reliant on fossil fuels. The trip I just took to visit family, the oatmeal I’ll cook for my daughters this morning, the phone and its wondrous functionality, and the medicine I prescribe to patients are all dependent on the structures and economy we’ve created with the one-time gift of fossil fuels.

For others, a sustainable future is not so hard to imagine. Many in our community were raised in places where the majority of food was locally grown, produced and processed, where electricity was intermittent at best, where the preciousness of material possessions and what it took to make or acquire them was still appreciated, where people walked from place to place and life was lived locally. Although living in such places is challenging in many ways, the stories I hear are often told with an appreciation of simplicity and human connection it enabled. 

As we realize that we must change our ways or suffer dire consequences, we have a window of opportunity to cultivate resilience. We can prepare for the eventual transition to intensely local life by growing food, eating seasonally, developing local sharing networks and learning how to collect water and energy. We can take a permaculture course with a friend or a child, or participate in disaster drills. We can lean into the joy found in tending a piece of land, and show up to community meetings and consider the role we play in our community. We can cultivate our ability to ask for and offer help, and share generously. 

The more people who are skilled in these ways, the more comfortable, secure and joyful our transition to a fossil-free world will be. Now is the time to imagine the beauty of a resilient local community, so we can develop the skills, networks and practices to make it so. 

 

Anna O’Malley is a family and community medicine physician at the Coastal Health Alliance and the founding director of Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden, where permaculture programs for adults and children begin in October.