Book Review: Resilience Matters (5th edition)

Invited review by John Plodinec, Ph.D, who is an independent scholar and a Distinguished Fellow of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University.

Once again, Claire has asked me to review the latest in the Resilience Matters series – this one subtitled Collective Action for Healthier Communities. The ebook, again edited by Laurie Mazur, consists of 55 short essays, most of which have appeared as opinion pieces in various periodicals. The ebook (206 pp) is free, and it can be downloaded here.

The Introductory essay by Laurie Mazur sets the tone for much of the rest of the book: “For those who care about sustainability and equity, 2022 brought plenty of good news. Notably, the Biden Administration is rolling out its Justice40 initiative, which  targets 40 percent of certain federal investments to disadvantaged communities. Through the Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the American Rescue Plan, money is—finally—flowing to climate change mitigation and resilience in hard-hit communities.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Now that more funding is available, it’s important to make sure it is spent wisely and goes where it’s needed most. In 2022, contributors to the Island Press Urban Resilience

Project dug into the details, devising concrete plans for collective action to build a greener, fairer future.”  

The other 54 essays echo this in part or whole.  They are organized into five sections:

  1. Climate Adaptation, Climate Justice
  2. Sustainable Cities for All
  3. Policy and Funding
  4. Environmental Health
  5. Climate and Health Equity Fellowship (CHEF)

Your perception of this book depends on how much you believe

  • We are in a climate “crisis” that is more important than almost anything else.
  • We should electrify everything, using renewables, immediately.

Just to make my prejudices clear:

  • I don’t think we are in a climate crisis. Our climate is evolving, but the oft-made claims (esp. in this book) that the number and intensity of severe storms is increasing are simply not true. The IPCC – the most authoritative articulation of the state of knowledge about climate change – in their most recent report said: “There is low confidence in most reported long-term (multi-decadal to centennial) trends in tropical cyclone frequency- or intensity-based metrics.” For more detail, the papers of Roger Pielke, Jr., and Ryan Maue demonstrate conclusively that there is no trend in the number, intensity or accumulated energy of hurricanes. They have similar data – and the same non-trend – for tornadoes. That we are having more expensive storms is testament only to the fact that we keep putting more assets in harm’s way.
  • Transitioning to renewables has attractions, but it’s not clear how far or how fast we should go. California’s experience – periodic rolling blackouts at times of high demand – demonstrates that we still haven’t overcome the problems of intermittency. Add to that mandates (e.g., electric cars) that will increase the demand for electric power. Add to that that the amounts of important metals such as lithium and cobalt that will be needed exceed known reserves by a factor of 10 to 30. Add to that the shuttering of baseline nuclear and fossil plants. In short, we’re trying to mandate our way to a plan that requires a miracle or two at critical junctures in order to meet an arbitrary deadline.

Among the 10 essays in Section I, I found two of  special value. Jeff Peterson’s take on stepping back from coastal areas is a thoughtful look at the subject, and makes some useful, common-sense recommendations. Daniel Rothberg’s essay on the wrangling among the states that withdraw water from the Colorado River, and the various users, provided me with a good overview of the what he calls the “coming crisis.” 

Somewhat to my surprise, I found the ten essays in Section II, Sustainable Cities for All, the most useful. Alison Sant’s take on the use of city streets as public places is a West Coast echo of something then-Governor Cuomo envisioned for NYC. Laurie Mazur’s reminder that arts and culture are important for building social cohesion was nicely done. Kamp and Rojas’ essay on their efforts to get people past our current political polarization was interesting, and decidedly apolitical. This sentence serves as an excellent starting point for them: “If your sense lately has been we are living in a society that has grown increasingly cranky, tired, and creatively bereft, it’s because, in our text- and language-obsessed era, we are.” They demonstrate what we all should know – trust must and can be built, but targeted effort is needed to build it.

William Fulton’s thoughts on economic development also ring true: “At its core, prosperity is not about a single business but about the permanent assets that an economic development effort creates. The most relevant economic development question is not “What business are you attracting?” but rather “What do you have left the day after that business leaves?” And the answer is place: the character and the quality of the location that you’re selling to businesses in the first place.” Ellice Patterson’s used Montreal to illustrate how to make city streets truly accessible by the physically challenged. I’ve never visited Montreal, but she made it sound very livable (except in the Canadian winter, of course). Fulton, again, provides an interesting take on gentrification: “The anti-gentrification approaches taken in recent years sometimes seem like mere bandages, dulling the problem but not solving it. But that’s why we need to keep trying different approaches … that take advantage of market trends—but respect the underlying culture and economics of gentrifying neighborhoods.

The fifteen essays in the third section, Policy and Funding, not surprisingly, were rather uneven. Ocana’s essay on climate adaptation networks is a good reminder that “linking capital” can be an an important resource for communities looking to solve problems. I especially appreciated Smith and Williams’ essay on rebuilding Mississippi’s water infrastructure. Having lived in Mississippi for eight years, I recognize how poor much of its infrastructure is. It’s good to see the state and federal government working together to start to rebuild the water infrastructure in the poorest state in the nation.

Two of the essays in Section IV, Environmental Health, really resonated with me. Both are focused on making schools healthier environs for our kids. Stotts calls for schools to explicitly add Nature to their curricula. As he points out: “As a Black master falconer, I have learned that if young people don’t have opportunities to really comprehend nature, they never fully learn how to understand themselves and others.” The second, by Davis and Adelmann, calls for a reimagining of the American schoolyard. They point out that schoolyards are not only places where kids can play but also where – if properly imagined – they can sit and talk. Well worth reading.

I found the nine essays in the last section, Climate Health and Equity Fellowship, full of inaccuracies and special pleadings. I’m sorry I read them.

This is the fifth of this series I’ve reviewed. As is usual for this series, these essays represent Progressive thought; but they are too often self-laudatory polemics aimed at the Progressive echo chamber. However, as I’ve noted, there are several valuable nuggets buried here. While I won’t recommend this ebook, I certainly can’t condemn it, either.

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