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ResilienceTerror attacks in Paris and California expose modern society’s lack of resilience

By Joseph Fiksel

Published 14 December 2015

Our complex global society lacks resilience. The root cause of our vulnerability is the structure of the global economy: highly interconnected, complex, and filled with turbulence. Major disasters can occur unexpectedly, and even minor incidents can cascade into significant human and financial losses. Emerging pressures such as climate change and urbanization will only intensify the potential for extreme events and severe disruptions. Risk management makes sense in a stable environment with predictable events, but in today’s more complex risk landscape — the new normal — it is inadequate for dealing with fast-moving, unfamiliar threats that may cascade into disasters. The good news is that brittleness is not inevitable. It is a fundamental design flaw. Resilience — the capacity to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of disruptive change — is a basic characteristic of all living systems, from individual creatures to entire ecosystems. In this age of turbulence, resilience has become a prerequisite for continued prosperity.

The terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris on 13 November shattered the complacency of the French lifestyle. A few weeks later, a savage attack erupted in San Bernardino, California, further exposing the vulnerability of Western societies.

Dealing with terrorism and, in particular, with the frightening emergence of the ruthless Islamic State organization, also known as ISIS, will preoccupy the attention of world leaders for some time.

But there is a larger lesson to be gained from this and other recent crises. Put very simply: our complex global society lacks resilience.

What do I mean by that? Everything from our vulnerability to power failures to our overreaction of vilifying people who merely “look like” the perpetrators of violent acts, an overreaction demonstrated by Donald Trump’s recent call to close our borders to Muslims.

The good news is that we can improve our resilience. First let’s examine our society’s vulnerabilities.

Economic vulnerability
Terrorism is just one of many global threats that we face.

Our economy is highly vulnerable to a range of unexpected crises such as the 2011 tsunami that destroyed Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station, causing costly delays in the electronics, motor vehicles and other industries.

Since 2001, the United States has endured a series of disruptions, including hurricanes, power blackouts, oil spills, bridge collapses, gas-line explosions and aircraft accidents.

The giant reinsurance company, Munich Re, reports a sharp increase in the number of natural disasters during the past thirty-two years — a trend that is linked to climate change.

Are we adequately prepared for the next catastrophe, even though we cannot predict what it will be?

Warning: turbulence ahead
The root cause of our vulnerability is the structure of the global economy: highly interconnected, complex, and filled with turbulence.

Major disasters can occur unexpectedly, and even minor incidents can cascade into significant human and financial losses. Emerging pressures such as climate change and urbanization will only intensify the potential for extreme events and severe disruptions. When a catastrophe occurs, we rush to aid the victims, but the memory quickly fades and we return to business as usual, dealing with more immediate financial or political pressures.

Could we do a better job at anticipating and responding to unforeseen events?

Although businesses, communities and government agencies have developed elaborate “risk management” systems to detect vulnerabilities, this approach has an inherent weakness. It cannot protect against unidentified risks.