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Resilient Future [Future
Posted on June 30, 2015 @ 10:50:00 AM by Paul Meagher

This morning I read an interview with Dennis Meadows called Growing, Growing, Gone: Reaching the Limits. Dennis was co-author of the seminal "Limits to Growth" book. In this interview he expresses his viewpoint on the future and how to deal with it. I found two passages particularly interesting. In one passage he downplays the importance of long term planning as a way to deal with climate change using an interesting white water rafting metaphor:

I think we are now in a situation where it doesn’t make much difference what we want to see happen fifty years from now.

White water rafting provides a useful analogy here. When you are going down the river, most of the time it is placid, but every once in a while, you hit the rapids. When it is placid, you can sit back and think where you want to be, how you should time your journey, where you want to stop for lunch, etc. When you are in the rapids, you focus on the moment, desperately trying to keep your boat upright until you return to quiet waters. During the placid moments, it is very useful to have a discussion about where you want to be tomorrow or the day after. When you are in the rapids, you don’t have the luxury of that kind of discussion. You are trying to survive. Our society has moved into the rapids phase.

Climate change is an example of this. There was a period where we had some possibility of influencing future climate by our decisions about the use of fossil fuels. I think that time has passed. Climate change is increasingly dominated by a set of feedback loops—like the methane cycle and the melting of Arctic ice sheets—which are beyond human control. They have come to be the drivers of the system. The dominant drivers of the system are not people sitting around trying to reach a consensus about which of several different possible outcomes they most prefer.

White water rafting might also be a useful metaphor for thinking about business planning and its relevance to dealing with the day to day issues of starting and running a business. Business planning is like the placid lake, and the rapids are where you have to adapt to what life throws at you. Long range planning cannot be used to navigate through the white water part of your journey, there you have to exercise different skills that are appropriate to dealing with the challenges at hand.

Towards the end of the interview, Dennis discusses why he has become more preoccupied with design for resilience than with sustainable development as a way to deal with what the future may hold.

In my own work, I have shifted from a preoccupation with sustainable development, which is somewhat of an oxymoron, toward the concept of resilience. I think that is the future: to understand how different scales—the household, the community, the school––can structure themselves in a way to become more resilient in the face of the shocks that are inevitable regardless what our goals might be.

You see the climate debate evolving this way. Talk about prevention is on the wane, giving way to talk of adaptation. Adaptation really means resilience. It is about designing actions for dealing with New York City the next time superstorms threaten to paralyze the city or for figuring out what California can do if the current drought continues for many more years, or even decades.

Aspirations and good fortune will get us only so far. Human survival cannot risk reliance on them alone.

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