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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Real Resilience

When Wendell published "The Work of Local Culture" in 1991, resilience wasn't really a thing. The first International Panel on Climate Change Report had only been out for a year, and the word shows up a grand total of once -- in an appendix on page 137. The UN had convened a couple of conferences on environmental issues in 1972 and 1982, but the birth of global commitments to sustainable development would come at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit a year later. It would be another decade before Al Gore would run the first US presidential campaign to lay out specific proposals on climate change -- and 15 years before the release of his splashdown documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."

That was so many fires and floods ago. Resilience is now part and parcel of the climate conversation because awful weather events are the new normal. No longer are we figuring out just how to prepare; we're learning how to withstand and recover. In Oregon, we have Resilence Plans for the fearsome earthquake that's overdue, for public health, for floodplains. We have a lot of plans, and we're also woefully unprepared. Such is the misery of reslience work: nothing is more important and nothing feels more impossible.

Systems can be more or less brittle, that's certainly true, and to the extent we can, we should fortify. The New Orleans levees and Cuban electrical grid both failed calamitously when Hurricanes Katrina and Irma barrelled through. We can and must do better, and planning is a necessary first step.

The trouble is, I don't think we can plan our way to resilience.

Real resilience is a function of social systems -- the systems that determine if, where and how people can live together in community. Our resilience is inseparable from big systemic things like economic opportunity, housing availability, clean air and water, affordable transportation, healthy food. Social systems protect people from poverty and places from pollution -- or they don't. The people and places that don't come back from hurricanes or heat events are not those who experience the wildest weather. They are the those who face the weather with the lousiest social contracts.

That we don't think about resilience this way is probably because we're not accustomed to thinking about people and places as primary. We're trained to think about problems and solutions as technological -- "techne" is the Greek word for skill or craft. The question is always "what can be done?" Never, "how should we live?" And for sure not "who's already here and might know what to do?"

We're further detached from the problem when we assume, as we're trained to, that problems are best solved by the most powerful giants in our midst -- corporations, governments, professional experts. None of whom, of course, are ever nearby.

Real resilience is also local, and the very opposite of helplessness. It's what we do for ourselves, always with others, to continue in place. Displacement and real resilience are antithetical.

To think more carefully about resilience, now that we must, having surpassed a one-day 2.0 degree celsius planetary temperature rise just last week, we ought to study Wendell. His many commentaries on the plight of our rural communities, decimated by the loss of family farming, is the story of resilience lost. It's the story of a nationally sanctioned displacement of rural people by a country now calling out for equitable adaptation to climate change. But to talk about resilience without considering how this country has worked so diligently against it, is about as logical as working for peace through threats and intimidation.

In the climate space, there is a growing appreciation for indiginous lifeways that have much to teach about keeping forests healthy and salmon stocks plentiful. We might also want to consider that some nonindiginous ways of living together in place once enabled a resilience we can now only imagine.


Strolling and reminiscing about the oldtime ways of farm families in their neck of the woods, an older friend remarked to Wendell "they had everything but money." He was referring to the generations who preceded theirs, who would visit each other in the evenings, especially in the long dark winter hours to "sit til bedtime," as the custom was known. By lantern light, the old folks would tell each other well-worn stories about themselves and each other, "living again in their own memories and thus keeping their memories alive."

They were poor, as country people often have been, but they had each other, and they had their local economy in which they helped each other, they had each other's comfort when they needed it, and they had their stories, their history together in that place. To have everything but money is to have much.

In a neoliberal context, this remembrance reeks of nostalgia and nothing more. But neoliberalism isn't our context here -- resilience is. And if money is the currency of neoliberalism, then stories are the currency of resilience. It is our stories that make us strong. A community, if it wishes to last, preserves its memories in story, just as it preserves its soil in fertility. In this way, a community becomes resilient -- capable of knowing itself, and healing itself when harmed.

Today's climate literature reports the depletion of water, of soil, of habitats and flood buffers; but good luck finding the chapter on the depletion of local memory and story.

Social isolation is already making us less resilient as individuals. When the climate shocks pile on, as they inevitably will, what then? As we're beginning to learn, our detachment from one another, combined with an over-reliance on centralized systems, makes us far less resilient than those Kentucky ridgetop porch-sitters of yesteryear. Were we to lose power for forty-eight hours, Wendell imagined in this essay 30 years ago, we should expect to be hungry and cold. Our essential work will not get done. The gaping distance between ourselves and our sources of security will be revealed.

It would show us how far we have strayed from the locally centered life of such neighborhoods as the one my friend described -- a life based to a considerable extent on what we now call solar energy, which is decentralized, democratic, clean and free.

The essay, should you wish to read it, explains how we've come to such precarity. One of the principal reasons, Wendell argues, is the seismic and unremarked on shift in our culture regarding generational succession. For most of human history, the norm was for children to return to where they were raised, participating in the circularity that characterizes all of nature. But succession has given way to supersession, whereby our children's destiny is not to join or replace their parents, but to outmode them. Our education system prepares children not for cultural inheritance, but for career, educating them not to stay home, but to leave home. "And as children depart, generation after generation, the place loses its memory of itself, which is its history and its culture."

On the whole, we're quite bad at the law of return. If we weren't, we wouldn't need to do resilience planning in the first place. But as far as I know, Wendell Berry is the only writer to suggest that our blindness to this law harms us by normalizing our childrens' leavetaking. We cannot know how a place is best settled, or used, or repaired, if the memory of what's been tried is washed downriver with departing generations. What's left behind, furthermore, is a community left open to exploitation and ultimately destruction from centralized powers.

The resilience that Wendell was describing in 1991 was not in response to a climate catastrophe. Nor was a story of success. The losses of young people, of topsoil and other natural resources, of local memory -- had already been going on for decades. It was instead a trenchant take on the colonization of rural America by the national government and its abetting corporations, and an admonition to be wary about the loss of all things local.

Which is why I say, when reading up on any current discussion of resilence, remember your Wendell. Real resilience is local; the local is preserved in stories; stories help us remember who we are, where we are, and what to do. It is the ability to do what needs doing, after all, that is the final arbiter of resilience. We didn't see fit to preserve that in rural America; we may not be able to preserve it the rest of America either.

No one who hopes for improvement should fail to see and respect the signs that we may be approaching some historical waterfall, past which we will not, by changing our minds, be able to change anything else. We know that at any time, an ecological or technological or political event that we have allowed may remove from us the power to make change and leave us with the mere necessity to submit to it.

With typically uncanny prescience, Wendell Berry reminds us that many things, once lost, do not return -- no matter how much resilience planning you've done.

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