The Double-Edged Sword of Resilience
Capital Institute's work on financial system reform is very much driven by the concept of system resilience.
In an email exchange last week Bill Rees, co-creator of the "ecological footprint," fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, and professor at the University of British Columbia, invited us to look at resilience from a perspective we often fail to consider. As he explains below, while resilience is critical for systems’ survival, in times of great instability, that same resilience can be problematic for the larger system(s) in which a resilient subsystem is housed. This idea, which is also a critical argument advanced by Donella Meadows in her seminal book Thinking in Systems
Bill Rees: Resilience has become mainstream over the past few years but... I [have come to realize] that resilience can be a double-edged sword. For example, the remarkable resilience (persistent in retaining their essential structure and functions in the face of external perturbations) shown by various pathogenic bacteria as they evolve resistance to various antibiotics has imposed enormous costs on society and threatens to set disease control back by a century. Similarly, by capturing the regulatory system, the finance sector has proved markedly resilient from a self-interested perspective, but at great real and potential cost to society at large (the common good). Ditto the North American automobile sector.
Donella Meadows: If a team member is more interested in personal glory than in the team winning, he or she can cause the team to lose. If a body cell breaks free from its hierarchical function and starts multiplying wildly, we call it a cancer. If students think their purpose is to maximize personal grades instead of seeking knowledge, cheating and other counterproductive behaviors break out. If a single corporation bribes the government to favor that corporation, the advantages of the competitive market and the good of the whole society are eroded.