About The Resilience Institute

The Resilience Institute is part of WWU Huxley’s College of the Environment. It facilitates scholarship, education, and practice on reducing social and physical vulnerability through sustainable community development, as a way to minimize loss and enhance recovery from disasters in Washington State and its interdependent global communities.

Monday, March 31, 2008

New Katrina Documentary

The New York Times today has a brief review about a new documentary film called "Trouble The Water" about Hurricane Katrina's effects on New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward. It sounds interesting, focusing on the story of a young black couple rather than a whirlwind tour of what happened.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Social Determinants of Health

Kudos to Clark Williams-Derry at the Sightline Institute for his post skewering the New York Times' recent article on growing life expectancy disparities between rich and poor.

While I don't entirely agree with him that the article will not be surprising to some (maybe I'm more cynical?), I do agree that the article does a poor job discussing the links between wealth and health. If you read Clark's post, you'll get a great overview (and links to more) of issues related to socio-economic determinants of health. To the disaster folks out there, this is basically the progression of vulnerability from root causes to dynamic pressures to unsafe conditions.

By the way, Western Washington University is lucky to have a (recently hired) expert on this subject: Liz Mogford.

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(Sub)urban Demise

Slog posted this outstanding article from the Boston Review. The article is a retrospective on the demise of Chicago suburbs (and in the telling the previous demise of Chicago and New York), some reasons, and some solutions. It's a must read for those interested in fostering urban (i.e., human-dominated areas) resilience.

A little sneak peak:

A ... conclusion is that many of the current political structures and leaders are either unable or unwilling to deal with these new realities. ...waiting for most to act or blaming them when they don’t are often not constructive responses. This puts the burden of thinking and acting back on a new type of civic leader: a volunteer with a real following in a local community, but also with a range of analysis and understanding that crosses town or county or city boundaries. The renewal of most of the failed cities ... depends on men and women who live in and care about those cities. But they will need to relate to leaders well beyond their own towns. And they will need to become a kind of ad hoc economic strategy team for their area, for their state...

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Covering Up What They Already Told Us

The Associated Press is running a story about how the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been accused of covering up reconnaissance study findings related to the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. I don't have much insight on this, though I do respect Dr. Ray Seed -- a professor cited as one of the "whistle blowers." Obviously, there is no point to doing reconnaissance if you do not take every opportunity to reveal and learn from failures.

That said, the ASCE has been putting out a report card on the US's infrastructure since 1988. And let me tell you, they don't pull any punches in that report card. If you click the above link, you'll see our infrastructure's overall "GPA" is a depressing (scary?), big fat "D." (There is no grade above a C; though the ASCE did not look at infrastructure like fiber optics and cellular networks, which I assume would rank higher.) They estimate that the US needs to invest $1.6 Trillion dollars in the next five years to get our infrastructure up to snuff.

So perhaps the ASCE did cover up small (?) details in their reconn reports. But excuse me if I'm not that upset with them. They have been trying to tell us something much bigger for 20 years: the condition of our nation's infrastructure is severely increasing our risk of disaster.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Targeting New Families for DRR

Today I was chatting with a British colleague, Justin Sharpe, about disaster risk reduction public education. He lamented the low level of public awareness about natural hazard risk, but also the lack of public action when that risk is known.

The empirical research shows that natural hazard risks are often perceived as less critical than other more daily hazards. Crime and pollution, for example, have immediate visible signals. Yet, even when people live in relatively high risk areas like California, and even when preventative measures are relatively simple, people put off disaster preparation.

Justin Sharpe pointed out that the research he read suggested that being married and having children leads to greater preventative action. Living in a place of high risk has the opposite effect. It leads to a sort of risk tolerance calibration where people become less likely to take action the longer they live in a place. These trends certainly seem to have been true in Turkey and New Orleans, where I have worked previously.

The question Justin posed to me, and which I now send out as a challenge/suggestion is this:

Why haven't Disaster Risk Reduction practitioners targeted 'new' families through ante and neo-natal groups, for instance, showing how simple adjustments can protect both them and their young family?

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Recipes for Disaster


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Monday, March 3, 2008

Local food systems

I just finished a fascinating autobiographical account of a young BC couple that decides to eat only food produced within 100 miles of their home for a year. The book, Plenty by by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, suggests what locally-based, resilient communities of the future may look like.

The authors discover that most of the items on the shelves of their neighborhood grocery stores and co-ops are off limits. However, they also slowly come to appreciate the utter bounty that does surround them. They learn to eat seasonally, can and store for the winter but they also discover that they enjoy a more varied diet and that the tastes of their new diet are profoundly better than before.
Living in the region where this experiment commenced, the chapters that described past and present ecological abundance in our temperate "rain forest" are particularly interesting. Finishing the book, however, I now hunger for not only for some fresh local food, but for a stronger analysis of this and similar movements towards regional food systems.

Being a first person narrative, the book focused on the logistics and emotions of a 100 mile diet. The authors do not spend much space debating the merits or short comings of various local and regional food systems approaches. One study they do mention indicated that it was more energy efficient to ship fresh food from New Zealand to British eaters than to get the same food to them from the English countryside. Inefficiencies and waste are apparently replete in the local British farms.

I completely agree with the authors that this suggests that the British system needs improvement (not that the trans-global food system is necessarily better). But still, there are questions that need deeper discussion. Is the trans-global trade more energy efficient because regional markets try to replicate what can be grown better elsewhere? What does the balance sheet look like when comparing a standard no-season trans-global diet with a local, seasonal diet?

And how to include the energy costs that the authors induced during their 100 mile diet? One of the reasons they put forth for attempting a 100 year diet is that it was ecologically unconscionable and wasteful to have fresh food, on average, travel 1500 miles to their plate. Yet, they seems to also log many miles in their car that year driving out to local farms for the small amounts needed to sustain two people. The authors learned much in the process and came to emotionally connect with their food suppliers. This is important and cannot be discounted, but it was likely also a lot less energy efficient than a more centralized distribution system (certainly a centralized, regional distribution system).

They also did not address the politics of food distribution. While this made the book less provincial, I just happened to read a New York Times op-ed, entitled My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables) by Jack Hedin, the day after completing Plenty. The op-ed discusses how federal farm subsidies penalize a farmer who switches from soybean, rice, wheat, or cotton to fruits and vegetables in order to meet rising demands for local fresh produce. The piece is eye-opening, and suggests that there is a lot more politics to a wider adoption of a local foods diet (100 miles or not), than appears.

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