Resilience, sustainability, and social justice

A Thought Leader Piece

Eisenman, David - For SPH Magazine - 120529

By David Eisenman

Note: February 20, 2014, is the United Nations’ World Day of Social Justice. The goal of the observance is to remove barriers people face due to gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, or disability. Dr. David Eisenman’s expertise is in public health and disasters.

In their book, “Resilience – Why Things Bounce Back,” authors Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy argue that it’s time for sustainability to move over and make room for resilience.

Suddenly it seems to me that the whole world is talking about sustainability and resilience. In the field of disasters – my field – both are important concepts, complementary to each other and worthy of action and resources.

But frequently missing from the discussion is one of the most important determinants of sustainability and resilience – social justice. Social justice is central to both.

Disasters Discriminate
Disasters typically occur when events exceed the capacity of a community to recover without assistance. Social injustice – or the inequitable access to resources and allocation of risks, benefits, and burdens – accounts for much of the suffering after disasters.

While disasters may seem like they are equal-opportunity destroyers, they are not. Because of inequities in social conditions – education, employment, housing, transportation – the poor and disenfranchised are disproportionately affected by disasters.

Where we locate our homes is strongly correlated with vulnerability to disaster. The most vulnerable often live where they do because of structural discrimination, made worse by poverty and inattention to cultural norms.

Hurricane Katrina brought to the national spotlight the structural discrimination and injustices lived daily in the Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans neighborhoods that suffered the greatest losses were disproportionately poor, African American, and below sea level.

So when we see newspaper headlines like “Hurricane Leaves Thousands Homeless,” we cannot lay the blame on the physical event. It is the socio-environmental factors that caused the event to have disastrous effects.

A Sustainability Approach
While there is a convincing moral argument for addressing social justice and disaster resilience, there is a practical argument too. In a typical disaster, much of the public expenditure of labor, money, and other resources is spent dealing with the marginalized and disenfranchised segments of society, who suffer greatly and lack the personal resources for response and recovery.

Recovery from a disaster can take years. People who are recovering from a disaster are putting their physical, emotional, intellectual, and economic resources into recovery and rebuilding, rather than into advancing themselves, their families, and their communities.

A sustainability approach recognizes the social, economic, and environmental benefits of planning for, rather than recovering from, a disaster. A community that is resilient to disaster will be better able to provide its residents with the resources that support their ongoing health, jobs, and quality of life.

And if disasters are social – not natural – phenomena, then any sustainable solution to disasters must address the social along with the physical. Plans for sustainable development must consider the social variability, cultural specificity, and resource inequities that are intrinsic to society.

Building Resilience
My work focuses on creating the means for society’s marginalized and most vulnerable individuals to be resilient in disasters. To accomplish this, I prioritize community engagement. Within these marginalized groups is vital social capital – local knowledge, skills, trust, and connections – that are resources in building and maintaining resilience.

I work to network community- and faith-based organizations to government agencies, so that trusted relationships are in place when a disaster strikes. I try to identify the resources people use on a daily basis and how they can be used to prepare for and respond to a disaster.

I reduce barriers to available resources, for instance making sure that risk-preparedness communications are available and accessible to low-literacy or non-English speaking adults or teaching them how to stockpile a week’s worth of their heart pills despite not having health insurance.

But how do I know that the work I do to build a community’s resilience will be sustained after I and my team depart? This falls into the arena of policy and sustainable development.

Resilience and Sustainability
Discussions of sustainability must include plans for resilience. Resilient communities, like resilient individuals, can harness the resources they need to sustain well-being. For community development to be sustainable, it must be able to maintain healthy social, economic, and environmental systems.

As global climate change marches on and the human footprint on the planet increases, it is resilient communities that will sustain. The vogue for resilience is not a passing thing; we need to understand how to wed it with sustainability. Social justice is at the core of both.

About the author: David Eisenman is an associate natural scientist at RAND and an associate professor in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Fielding UCLA School of Public Health, where he directs the Center for Public Health and Disasters.  He and his team at UCLA are collaborating with ASU on a research project led by ASU assistant professor Mikhail Chester. They are modeling how variations in the built environment and the provision of energy can reduce deaths and hospitalizations from heat waves.

Dr. Eisenman’s research focuses on community resilience and he is particularly interested in fielding and evaluating community-based programs to improve resilience.  He has served on committees for the National Academies of Science, the Health Protection Agency of the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention and is on the Editorial Board of several academic journals.