OOSKAnews Voices: Fighting the Language of Resilience: Godzilla vs The Blob

CORVALLIS, OR, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a new series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

In this piece, John H. Matthews, co-founder and secretariat coordinator for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank, discusses the difficulty with defining “resilience” in the context of climate change adaptation.

Matthews’ work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. John has worked globally on these issues since 2007 and has authored many publications on adaptive management for water infrastructure and ecosystems. He has a PhD in ecology from the University of Texas and is based in the United States.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of John Matthews, and are not endorsed by OOSKAnews Inc.

Are you resilient to climate change? As someone who has worked globally on climate adaptation issues professionally since 2007, I choose to reply “no comment.” Asking a group of climate change practitioners to define “resilience” should only be hazarded if sharp objects have been removed from the room.

From hard-earned experience, I try to avoid the word, mostly because I fear it confuses and divides rather than informs and reveals. It has never been easy to explain to my family, for instance, why they need to be worried about how climate change impacts big dams or water treatment utilities. Much of the work of addressing climate impacts from water threats is neither sexy nor easy to communicate.

However, in December and January, I was asked to give several major talks to largely non-technical audiences about how climate change and water management interact and what effective (“resilient”) approaches to climate adaptation we should be pursuing. By late November, I knew I needed to find some way to define the word that did not feel like an intellectual compromise or emotional pandering. I began by caucusing the ambient resources around me for how people are using “resilience” today.

For many quantitative and technically oriented practitioners, resilience is rarely used. Engineers prefer “robust” adaptation, which means approaches that encompass the largest number of an explicitly defined set of future scenarios. A more robust solution spans more possible scenarios. However, for policy and non-technical audiences, the word “resilience” is almost impossible to avoid.

The natural and social science literature had little insight. A small industry seems devoted to (re)defining resilience (or to tracking and classifying emerging definitions), suggesting that the lack of consistency is pervasive and global.

Indeed, the term has developed a strong life of its own. At the Paris COP21 talks, I was struck in session after session by how references to resilience dominated both high speeches and low interventions. Perhaps the most common definition I could infer was that resilience functions as an elegant variation for sustainable development -- economic development with a side of climate adaptation. Resilience also normally appeared in the same sentence or paragraph with “droughts and floods.” For most people, resilience means disasters.

Personally, I love disasters -- at least in films. And I particularly love disasters instigated by movie monsters. Realizing that the resilience and disasters were linked for most non-technical specialists gave me a clue about how to talk about the ways climate change and water are connected without resorting to the often over-labored language of science, capacity-building, and development.

A few days later, I stood before several hundred people in Paris who were expecting me to define “water resilience.” The massive screen flashed an image of movie posters from Godzilla and The Blob, both released in the 1950s.

Gesturing to Godzilla towering over skyscrapers, I said, “Most people view climate change as a series of epic disasters -- droughts, floods, extreme temperatures, super-cyclones -- with the scope and intensity of these disasters increasing over time. Like a giant reptile arising from the sea, these disasters appear suddenly to wreak havoc, but then end, leaving Tokyo in ruins. Resilience for disasters is pretty easy: clean up and rebuild, or get out of the way in the first place. Resilience is preparing for the Godzilla we know is coming and then rebuilding in the monster’s wake.”

A movie poster of a huge orange bubble covering a restaurant with screaming people inside appeared on the screen.

“For water and climate issues,” I continued, “we have to worry about slow onset and difficult-to-predict impacts. The Blob is a movie about an alien predator that starts small but stalks human prey, growing larger and more voracious and harder to anticipate and control with each new victim. For rigid, long-lived infrastructure and for ecosystems, the blob is a threat most of us have not thought about. And resilience against the blob is different than for Godzilla: How do we track change? Can we stay flexible? Are we prepared for profound but difficult-to-predict impacts as familiar places become strange? Do we rebuild, or do we prepare for a transformed world?”

The audience’s reaction was hard to gauge. There was a man near the front who laughed openly when he saw my slide and looked at me incredulously. I imagined him wondering where I got my science PhD.

I used the same slide last week in Washington, DC, the evening before an unprecedented blizzard struck the city and trapped residents in their homes for days. I certainly felt Godzilla’s presence nearby while I was speaking; moments after the talk, I purchased an expensive new ticket so I could return home before the airports closed. Yet DC is a city that has experienced what journalist Thomas Friedman has called “climate weirding,” with strange new patterns emerging in local weather. The Blob was there too.

Do movie monsters provide any more insight into “resilience?” If I have to use two quite different definitions of resilience to make my point, then probably not. But I hope we can find a new language that can capture attention and motivate better policies and more effective actions. The monsters are already here.