It was not that long ago when a conversation about disaster resilience was only a code word for disaster preparation the old fashioned way. I can’t recall all the conversations I had about this subject but I do recall some really well. I still recall some conversations, when in the aftermath of the Queensland Floods and the Cyclone Yasi (just about the time when Australian government released the first National Disaster Resilience Strategy) when the resilience certainly was a big word, how some felt that resilience was really nothing new. The existing model of disaster preparedness was more than adequate, was the thinking despite the simple fact that it was not. For instance, we rarely saw any activity on the part of government/s during the winter period that talked about disasters. Mostly those things were done seasonally, just before the natural disasters were likely to happen. The resilience culture is not something that can be built seasonally. It is something that marks our behaviour all year round. On surface it seems as if no real benefit can be derived from talking about cyclones in July. But, I think that is where we go wrong. Not all preparation can be done only weeks ahead of a storm or cyclone. Brisbane North storms took place only two weeks into the season and it certainly caught many residents off guard. As someone once remarked; culture eats strategy for breakfast; so it is with resilience. It should be a culture and not merely a strategy.
One of the most important lessons about the way resilience to disasters needs to be approached I gained when I was talking to different groups of people across Queensland when I was thinking about various projects that I wanted to include in the proposal to funding via National Disaster Resilience Program. Two points emerged then. One was what I considered clear lack of awareness in general public about the disaster resilience and what governments meant by that. It is not that hard to come across member of public today who would not be able to elaborate on the concept of disaster resilience. But a few years ago, especially before the Queensland Floods and Victorian Bushfires before that, that was almost the default state. So, on local level people essentially thought the disaster resilience is just another fancy government speak. To an extent that was that too, but in reality there was an emergence of a new thinking about the way we engage with natural disasters. The second part of the lesson was the way how communities assessed their own resilience. Essentially, there was no real consensus that was based on common understanding on what matters in relation to resilience. People were looking at different indicators of resilience in order to make a right call. That may not have been necessarily a bad thing because it also indicates that there are different things that matter to people. However, a good policy as an ingredient for resilient community and society at large can’t be developed without some degree of consensus. Which is precisely why a national strategy has to dovetail with local factor.
Those were only very small part of long list of insights that when compiled into a coherent narrative reveal some crucial principles of what resilience should be. I’ve come to think that the overarching narrative of resilience has to be expressed in subtle manner. Perhaps that is well summed in the words of Rolf Jensen formerly from Copenhagen Future Studies Institute when he states “A society without a positive attitude towards the future – one that does not believe that the challenges can be met and the problems can be solved – is not a healthy society.”
The aspect of resilience that remains unclear to many is the total benefit it delivers not only to community but also individual. I am reminded of point that Scottish philosopher David Hume made centuries ago when he asserted that government plays a unique role in mediating the shortsightedness that is so common among individuals pursuing self-interest and the long term interest of society as a whole. So far we have not explained to people what they have to gain by being resilient. Instead we preached to the converted. Resilience does deliver immediate and long term benefits and that has been observed globally in variety of situation. How much of that was a result of a direct strategy behind it is not completely known. But we can learn from that.
The above article is an excerpt from When We Stopped Eating Bananas, an e-book reflecting on disaster resilience since Tropical Cyclone Larry. It is available now on Amazon.