Op-ed: Let’s build resilient communities, not just sea walls

As we cope with the latest gloomy news about climate change — from flooding in Serbia to Antarctica’s irreversible melting to Congress’s continued inaction and denial that climate change is even happening — a new buzz word is popping up in the halls of environmental organizations and The White House alike: resilience. In the context of managing the risks and impacts of climate change, “resilience” implies that cities and communities must develop strategies to cope with the increasingly detrimental effects of drought, natural disasters, shifting climate zones, and rising sea levels.  In short, resilience is the ability to bounce back from catastrophe.

The White House’s new Climate Adaptation and Resilience Task Force recommended a number of actions that cities and states could take to adapt to a changing climate, from building sea walls to creating resilient hospitals. While necessary, many of these strategies are top-down and expensive approaches that will take years to implement.

Furthermore, this narrow interpretation of resilience indicates a shift in resources and political will away from mitigating climate change toward simply adapting to its adverse effects. While we know that many impacts of climate change are inevitable – in fact, we’re already feeling them – every effort must be made to continue reducing our carbon footprint. “Bouncing back” to the business-as-usual approach that got us into this mess into the first place is irresponsible, a “band-aid” solution to a much deeper systemic crisis.

The missing piece in this conversation is what citizens can do immediately to make our lives and communities more resilient. Many politicians do not recognize the power of individuals who both understand the implications of a climate disruptive future and are empowered to take action into our own hands. But a growing number of empowered citizens are rising to what is arguably humanity’s greatest challenge by getting their hands dirty and taking practical action to simultaneously reduce their carbon footprint and create a buffer against the harsh realities of daily life in a climate-changed world.  The Community Resilience Challenge is one indication of the power of this sort of small scale action.

Throughout the month of May, the Community Resilience Challenge has been mobilizing thousands of individuals and groups across the East Bay and beyond to build a more resilient region through coordinated local action. Founded by Petaluma-based Daily Acts five years ago and brought to the  East Bay by a collaboration of local non-profits, the Challenge engages individuals, schools, organizations, municipalities and businesses to implement  practical solutions  that will create a more healthy, just and resilient future. It is organized under four themes (Save Water, Grow Food, Conserve Energy, and Build Community), and participants commit to undertaking specific actions or participating in group projects that fall under each theme.

Suggested actions range from the simple and free – think unplugging electronics and installing a clothesline – to the more complex, like installing a greywater system or planting a community garden. We are already halfway to our goal of collecting 3,000 individual pledges in the East Bay, and in Sonoma County Daily Acts has already collected 4,500 pledges.

The Challenge is an extraordinary community effort, reflecting the immense potential of grassroots groups, municipalities and businesses alike to tackle climate change. The City of Berkeley and Transition Berkeley collaborated to plant 120 drought tolerant plants with the help of 40 volunteers on a Saturday. Urban agriculture pioneers Urban Tilth promoted its Saturday Work Party as an opportunity for community members to help build a local food system. Emergency preparedness neighborhood volunteers discussed the nexus between their efforts and building neighborhood resilience through climate action. In East Oakland, community members will get together with DIG Cooperative to help an elderly neighbor with her garden. Up north, Daily Acts is transforming the lawn surrounding Sebastopol’s City Hall into an edible garden for the public to enjoy – and eat from. And through Transition US, a national network of community resilience groups, many more actions are catalyzing communities from Arizona to Wisconsin to Washington, DC.

Such small, low-tech community projects might not hold the sexy allure of massive renewable energy or high-tech infrastructure projects. Consequently, community efforts are severely underfunded and undervalued by municipalities and larger environmental organizations alike. This is a mistake that must be addressed. Grassroots citizen-led projects provide a plethora of personal and community benefits that go far beyond the project itself. Improving neighborhood safety by engaging community members in positive projects? Check. Addressing the obesity crisis and income disparity by providing easy access to fruits and vegetables in public spaces? Check. Saving water as California’s drought becomes more severe? Check.

So as we turn our attention to building resilience in our communities, let us not forget the power of these grassroots community projects.  Please join me in supporting the Community Resilience Challenge.  Plant a garden – in your yard, your neighbor’s yard, or in a public space. Install a compost bin. Help a school plant fruit trees. Together these small actions can make our communities truly resilient.

There are two Community Resilience Challenge events on May 31: A California Hotel Garden Work Day from 10-3pm, and Greywater Action will host a workshop on how to build a Laundry to Landscape greywater system at a residential home. For full information on the Challenge and its events, visit East Bay Resilience Challenge online.

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Susan Silber is the co-coordinator for the Community Resilience Challenge-East Bay, working alongside Daily Acts Sustainable Contra Costa, the Victory Garden Foundation and Bay Localize to promote community resilience. She is a long-time environmental educator and community organizer, and also works with the Green Schools Initiative, working to reduce waste and promote sustainability with Berkeley Unified schools.