New programs link cities with science experts to tackle resiliency challenges

Two new programs aim to get subject-matter experts linked up with local and regional governments to take on their most pressing resiliency challenges.  Andy Revkin offers up his typically link-infused overview of these efforts, centered on Thriving Earth Exchange, which is networking to bring in experts to help cities with specific issues such as flood risks to food distribution systems, adapting to extreme heat, responding to drought, and many others.  Meanwhile, the Obama White House rolled out a similar program dubbed The Resilience Dialogues, an “online consultative service will help communities find, use, and understand information, tools, and programs to support their climate-resilience needs.”

Both of these programs are actively soliciting requests from cities for expert guidance, and subject-matter experts willing to share their insights.  If you’re active in your local community’s transition, resiliency, or climate response programs, check them out!  Start with Revkin’s introduction, then dig in.

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Permaculture Transition Manual: a new guide for smallholders

Acclaimed permaculture teacher Ross Mars has just released a new book that will be a valuable resource for the burgeoning crop of small farmers working on modest landholdings, as well as for people moving toward increased self-reliance on their property while maintaining their jobs away from home.  As Mars notes, “Today in North America, the fastest growing forms of agriculture are small peri-urban farms of less than 20 acres growing vegetables for market.”

The Permaculture Transition Manual: A Comprehensive Guide to Resilient Living is a hefty (450 page) resource that features in-depth guidance on all elements of permaculture design and personal homestead resilience—land, labor, wildlife, energy, and your own mindset—as well as case studies of four diverse projects.  We fully support Ross’s underlying respect for the value of permaculture’s insights:

Permaculture connected many streams of the world’s traditional knowledge with modern forms of science and urged ordinary people everywhere to continue that lineage of empirical investigation. The books were a prospectus for a worldwide distributed experiment in ecological subsistence agriculture for the post-industrial world.

That experiment is now over 30 years old, and I will argue that its fruits are abundant and that results have validated the original thesis well enough that we should expect it to meet the needs of a new generation of garden farmers whether they be former pastoralists settled into towns in Botswana or industrial workers made redundant by energy descent in Boston.

Check out the Table of Contents and Introduction. Then go get some dirt under your fingernails!

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Catch the bug: rooftop solar is highly contagious!

We’ve been hearing about the rapid expansion of solar power, and most of us have probably noticed more rooftop panels and small community solar projects in fields.  But it turns out that solar’s spread is not simply due to climate concerns or enticing economics: there’s a strong “contagion” factor, as new solar owners encourage their friends and neighbors to get on board.  Check out this animation, from northern Colorado:

According to SolarCity, the largest solar installer and leasing outfit in the US:

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Predicting the resiliency “tipping points” of complex natural and social systems

A central underpinning of The Resilient Investor is the recognition that in our increasingly complex world, it’s nearly impossible to predict how the future will unfold.  That remains true, but a team of researchers at Northeastern University is using complex non-linear math to try to shed some light on a key modern problem: predicting when a natural or social system will hit a “tipping point” that triggers rapid breakdowns in its natural resiliency:

Using sta­tis­tical physics, North­eastern net­work sci­en­tist Albert-​​László Barabási and his col­leagues Jianxi Gao and Baruch Barzel have devel­oped a tool to iden­tify that tip­ping point—for every­thing from eco­log­ical sys­tems such as bees and plants to tech­no­log­ical sys­tems such as power grids. It opens the door to plan­ning and imple­menting pre­ven­tive mea­sures before it’s too late, as well as preparing for recovery after a disaster.

Then, says Jianxi Gao, one of the researchers who developed the method, “you can begin to tackle how to manip­u­late that resilience—how to enhance resilience or restore resilience. These are not easy ques­tions, but our theory, by giving us a pic­ture of the entire system, paves the way to the answers.”  A video about their work (embedded below) is especially evocative.

While this is only a start, it’s just the sort of previously unimaginable leap of understanding that will likely come more and more frequently as computing power increases, taps into the distributed data now gathering in the cloud, and moves inexorably, though at a still-uncertain pace, into increasingly functional artificial intelligences.  Along the way, say resilient investors who favor the Breakthrough/Driver perspective, we’ll find that these kinds of complexity models will become more common, and offer practical insights that have been beyond our grasp.

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Deep retrofits redux: crunching the numbers

Last quarter my article on “Deep Retrofits, Broad Paybacks” generated several questions about how these types of retrofit add value to a house over time. How does a deep energy retrofit compare to something like a kitchen remodel? Is it worth the cost of doing the retrofit? If I spend $50,000 on a deep retrofit will it add $50,000 to the value of my house? Probably not. Or, it depends. Maybe. Possibly. It’s a tricky question, with some complex answers.

Let’s start with whether you plan to sell your house soon or not. If you are planning to sell in the next few years, or are forced to sell, the ROI picture is probably pretty bleak. We can draw some clues from other big remodel projects. Looking at the numbers might scare you. At mid-range national averages for 2015, adding a steel door is the only remodel project that adds value. That is, you’ll recoup a little more than you spent to buy and install it. (Move quickly before a toddler dings up that new door!) All of the other remodel projects are a losing proposition. It’s even worse for upscale projects, where the best ROI is upgrading to fiber-cement siding, and it doesn’t recoup even 85% of the $15,000 average cost of the project.

But anyone spending $100,000 on a deluxe kitchen upgrade isn’t doing it to make money when they sell – they’re doing it to improve their quality of life while living in the house. A temporary reduction in full value because of a quick sale isn’t anyone’s best financial plan. I think this will be true for deep retrofits as well.

Some remodels do add value even when a house is sold soon after,

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Is your life ready for VUCA?

We live in a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous.  Are you poised to adjust nimbly to changing circumstances as they arise?  Because while we may not know quite how or when changes will crop up, it’s clear they’re coming—who foresaw oil prices dropping so precipitously, or US political polarization devolving so rapidly and dangerously?

A recent piece by Eric McNulty in Strategy+Business, Leading in an Increasingly VUCA World, offers the best concise overview of VUCA and how to respond that we’ve seen (well, other than in our book!).  McNulty stresses:

VUCA isn’t something to be solved; it simply is. Attempts to simplify complexity, or to break volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity down into smaller and smaller parts in hopes that each can be decoded and countered will not make them go away — there are too many elements beyond the control of traditional centers of power and authority. It is a network phenomenon and can’t be mastered through industrial age structures and practices.

We absolutely agree.  That’s why we formulated the integrated planning tools laid out in The Resilient Investor, centered on a “map” of our lives that provides a foundation for making clear and responsive choices within this VUCA landscape.  Personal and social resilience is enhanced when we cultivate all our assets (personal, tangible, financial), each of these engaging with our communities, the global financial system, and evolutionary initiatives that are making things better.

McNulty offers three tips for personal VUCA preparedness.  The first two will be familiar to our readers.

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Preparedness tips for non-preppers

OK, so you’re totally on board with The Resilient Investor‘s goal of being “ready for anything”—you’ve clarified your own idea of where the world seems to be headed, while also realizing that you don’t really know when or how one of the countless wild cards in play might change the game in fundamental ways.  You get that focusing significant energy Close to Home will pay off no matter how the future unfolds; perhaps you’re also committed to pushing our society in those enticing Evolutionary directions.

And yes, you recognize that there is a chance of painful disruptions to life here on American Easy Street.  Maybe you think any hiccups are unlikely to be severe . . . or you harbor a secret dread that’s too nebulous to really figure out how to address.  You certainly aren’t into being a serious Prepper, stockpiling supplies, fine-tuning a “go-bag,” and overlaying that kind of dire filter onto your day to day life.  If it comes to that, you figure we’re all toast, or we’ll all be in it together, and there are better ways to spend your time in the here and now.  But you also have a niggling sense that you could be a little more prepared for a  societal speed bump: it’s not so hard to imagine some sort of grid snafu (cyber-attack or solar flare) or regional weather or terror event that could make things rough for a week, or maybe even a few.  Just-in-time supply chains, vulnerable water supplies, our reliance on fuels and electricity. . . yeah, there are a few weak links out there.

While we’ve pointed to writers and resources that aim to help you prepare for various Breakdown scenarios, if you don’t really identify as a “Doomer,” you’ve probably held off on digging into all that very deeply.  Well, here’s a less-scary entry point for those of you that have been thinking you really consider doing something: a well-curated collection of The Best Emergency Preparedness Supplies from the good folks at Sweethome/Wirecutter.  

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Best of 2015 from Stockholm Resilience Centre

Scandinavians have grappled with social challenges more diligently than most of the rest of the world, and it’s no different in the realm of resilience.  The Stockholm Resilience Centre has long been the global leader in researching and teaching about the nuts and bolts of what resilience is and what it can offer to communities, planners, and the world.  They’ve just compiled their most-requested new papers of 2015, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better syllabus for getting up to speed with the most current municipal experiments and global thinking in resilience.  Topics range far and wide, with a special emphasis on recent practical attempts to implement resilience, along with the important question of how we can or should assess or measure resilience.  If you’re active in local or regional resilience planning or Transition Town programs, you really do need to jump on over to the SRC website and peruse this collection.

Here’s a taste of the topics covered; their site includes a full-page summary of each one, some with video and most with a sidebar of related papers and links:

  • Learning to apply resilience: First in-depth analysis of a resilience assessment put into practice
  • Don’t fence me in: Managing ecosystems for predictable outcomes may backfire, new study warns
  • Beyond measure?: Reducing resilience to a few measurements can block deeper understanding
  • Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet
  • Five factors for successful management of natural capital: Strategies for successful governance, for both people and ecosystems

Kudos to the Centre both for funding this important work, and for offering such complete summaries of each paper to help guide visitors to the ones that are most relevant for them.  Great work!

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Root Capital: “Investing in Resilience” for world’s farmers

Root Capital is a well-established nonprofit social investment fund that focuses on small farm businesses in the developing world.  They lend capital, provide training, and build the local market ecosystems that can help these small and growing businesses thrive. Like many others, Root Capital is rallying around the idea of resilience as a practical and powerful way to respond to the uncertainties of our changing climate.  Their new Issue Brief addresses this head-on; it’s called Investing in Resilience: A Shared Value Approach to Agricultural Extension.  As they note in the Executive Summary:

The science is clear: climate change is coming. What is less clear is how climate change will impact specific farmers, supply chains, or countries over different time horizons, and how stakeholders should prepare for these impacts. . .  . This issue brief focuses on scaling the use of climate-smart practices among smallholder farmers by working through local agricultural enterprises, such as farmer cooperatives or processors. Aggregating hundreds or often thousands of dispersed smallholder farmers, these enterprises represent a significant, but often overlooked, channel for delivering “last mile” agricultural extension – that is, services that provide farmers with the information and skills they need to improve their farming practices.

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A solid look at the (crucial)(freaky) topic of geoengineering

Hovering around the edges of the ongoing global conversation about climate change is the (specter)(promise) of geoengineering.  Many of us are (cautiously hopeful)(deeply unsettled) by the whole idea.  How about you?

2016.01.28 Remaking the Planet

This is one of those topics that every (informed)(caring) human will want to stay in touch with over the coming decade or so.  It’s hard to imagine a 2025 scenario short of total breakdown in which the need to compensate for our decades of feet-dragging hasn’t pushed geoengineering into the center of public discourse.

In the spirit of staying informed, this recent interview with Oliver Morton of The Economist is one of the best quick overviews that I’ve seen in the past year or so.  For starters, he reminds us that climate is not the first global system that we’ve purposefully engineered:

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Deep retrofits offer wide-reaching returns

I have long advocated for deep energy retrofits; as we developed the resilient investing system, this became an obvious Zone 4 activity (tangible assets, close to home). “Remodel your house so that it uses dramatically less energy,” I’d proclaim, “It’ll be more comfortable, and you can save money and the planet at the same time!” Experts like McKinsey assured me that insulation and heating systems pay off very quickly. After two years of actually tackling it at our house, the practicalities are—surprise!—a bit more complicated.

When you take a closer look at an older house you don’t see just outdated insulation; you also see drafty windows (and possibly mold), and a

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Climate resilience can enhance social cohesion, reduce inequity

At a conference this summer, Building Climate Resilience for Equitable Communities, Shaun Donovan, Director of the Office of Management and the Budget, announced a slew of new White House climate resilience initiatives that are targeted to helping communities at risk and reduce the inequity that has become a major source of social instability.  He asked:

“Why are some children less likely to go to college, find good-paying jobs, and stay out of the criminal justice system? Why do those who have the least stand to lose the most when the storm comes through?”

Donovan went on to outline several programs that address these questions, through the lens of federal efforts to increase resilience in the face of climate challenges, including

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