Environmental Resilience, and The day After Tomorrow
A short excerpt from the book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies
A short excerpt from Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies
Each week between now and November 15th (publication day!) I’ll be posting excerpts from Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies This week, it’s chapter twelve, and the movie The Day After Tomorrow.
I must confess I was in two minds whether to include The Day After Tomorrow in the book. On one hand, I couldn’t see how I could justify writing a book on the complex dynamics between people and society without including a chapter on climate change. On the other, there aren’t that many good climate change movies out there!
The Day After Tomorrow was a compromise–it’s a flawed movie with an absurd plot line and a confusing messaging, but it also has its entertaining moments, and perhaps surprisingly, it does set the scene for an interesting conversation around topics that are relevant to, if not at the core of, the challenges of human-driven global warming.
The excerpt here is inspired by the movie, but otherwise has relatively little connection to it, and is part of a longer section on resiliency.
On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean island of Barbuda. For the first time in three hundred years, the island was left uninhabited, apart from the dogs and other animals left behind by a fleeing population.
Irma was just one of a string of powerful hurricanes sweeping through the Caribbean and across the Southern states of the US in 2017, in one of the most destructive hurricane seasons on record. And, as one storm after the next battered communities, it challenged them to think about what it means to be resilient in the face of such devastation.
Resiliency, I have to admit, is a bit of a buzz-word these days. In the environmental context, it’s often used to describe how readily an ecosystem is able to resist harm, or recover from damage caused by some event. But resiliency goes far beyond resistance to change. In its broadest sense, it gets to the heart of how we think about what’s important to us, and how we make provisions to protect and grow this, in spite of events that threaten to cause harm.
Long before I became involved with environmental sustainability, I was used to the idea of resilience that’s commonly used in materials science. Here, resilience is a measure of how much energy a material can absorb, and still have the ability to return to its previous state when that energy is released. Imagine, for instance, a rubber band. If it’s stretched, and as long as it doesn’t break and is not is old and weathered, it will return to its original shape once released. In this way, it’s resilient to change. But push it too far and it will snap; there’s a limit to how resilient it is.
This idea of resiliency as an ability to return to “normality” in the face of stress is how it’s often used to describe ecosystems. Resilient ecosystems are frequently seen as those that resist permanent damage, and that recover fast if they are harmed. But in a world where change is the driving force behind pretty much everything, this turns out to be a rather limited concept. Despite change and adaptation being the bedrock of our planet’s biological and geological evolution, ideas of environmental resiliency seem too easily to slip into a mode of thinking that suggests change is bad, and should be resisted.
This is understandable if we believe that we should be preserving how things are, or some ideal of how they should be. But it’s important to ask what are we trying to preserve here. Is it the global environment as it now stands? Is it how we as humans are currently living? Is it the continuation of life in some form? Or is it the continuation of some future vision of humanity?
In reality, how we think about resiliency depends entirely on what we are trying to protect or preserve. And this, it turns out, is deeply dependent on context, to the extent that ideas that look like resilient approaches from one perspective may look highly precarious from another.
In effect, our understanding of resilience depends on what’s important to us, and in this context, resilience is not necessarily about maintaining the status quo, but about protecting and preserving what is considered to be “of value.” This may be the environment, or our health and well-being. But it may just as equally be someone’s ability to make a living, or their deeply held beliefs, or even their sense of self-identity and worth. From this perspective, we can begin to think of resiliency as something we use to protect many different types of value within society, or to ensure that this value can be regained if it’s temporarily damaged.
Thinking about resiliency in this way ends up with it being less about maintaining what we currently have, and more about ensuring future outcomes that we value. It also helps illuminate the complex landscape around issues like climate change where different, and sometimes hidden, values may be threatened. And with this reframing, we have a concept that is, in itself, adaptable to a changing world. It’s a way of thinking about resiliency that moves our focus from maintaining our environment as we think it should be to considering where we want to be, even as the environment around us changes.
This begins to get close to a perspective on resilience proposed by Tom Seager and colleagues in 2013.Thinking specifically about engineered systems, they explored the idea of resilience as being about what a system does, rather than what it is. In the language of “value,” this translates to resilience being about developing systems that preserve what we consider to be valuable, rather than simply describing the system itself. It’s all about getting to where we want to be, rather than simply trying to stay in the same place…
Originally published at 2020science.org on October 25, 2018.