Resilient Giant Truths

Resilience: “1. The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy. 2 The property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed; elasticity.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, p 1106

Resilience is the theme for Amendoon Blog. More precisely the topic is about affirming durable truths, those that live on through time and adversity, by the agency of individual and community action.

The Test of Time

If something survives a test of time, it becomes a truth whether that thing is kind or hard, constructive or destructive. Metaphorically, it is base rock which provides the greatest feeling of security when we affix our foundations. The forces of time may crack the base rock and then the paradigm of “durable truths” will shift, maybe a little or possibly profoundly.

Visit to The Sequoia Grove in Southern Sierra

Just a few weeks ago, my family and I visited a grove of Sequoiadendron giganteum in the Southern Sierra. A testimony to the ages is seeing the giants who have been in residence for a millennium or two. They have resisted so much including wildfires, droughts, insects and until this time the depredations of humankind.

The perils thrown their way are daunting, but they continue to overcome these forces. About a hundred giants stand together affirming a compelling durable truth.

Sequoia Are Compelling

Giant Sequoias are profoundly compelling to me. These resilient giants live in a small zone, mostly on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Redwood exist elsewhere, but the giganteum is unique. Many of them grow in Tulare County where I was born, raised and later worked for about a decade.

In a way, I feel an affinity with them because I have shared space and ground.  My body and maybe all humanity will be dust again while they continue to survive in their isolated communities. The New York Times recently featured the return of access to the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite.

Humans Restoring The Mariposa Grove

The Park Service spend around $40 million to restore an area to make it more habitable for the giants and also to permit Homo sapiens to walk among them.

Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove

The NYT article chronicles the human work in support of the giants, and it also builds a case that the Giants are exemplary of resilience.

With bark that can be more than one foot thick and high levels of tannin to repel insects, giant sequoias are regarded by experts as some of the world’s most resilient trees. Close to 130 million trees of other species died in California over the past decade after being weakened by a five-year drought, but no mature giant sequoias perished, according to Sue Beatty, a restoration ecologist who helped lead the project.

Do The Resilient Endure?

Though I admire the giants’ resilient qualities, others may question the observation especially as it relates to human-kind. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article “Resilience is About How You Recharge; Not How You Endure”

The authors Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan make the case about a balance between work activity and recovery. They write about their view common perception is misplaced.

We often take a militaristic, “tough” approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that the longer we rough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. However, this entire conception is scientifically inaccurate.

Is Enduring A Resilient Action?

Is Recovery Necessary for Resilience?

The science Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan presented focused on the importance of recovery for resilience. My impression of resilience is not so much the Marine slogging through the mud as the giganteum rising above the forest floor for millennia.  They make a stand every day.

My relative Ron and I could not look at the records of the rings for the giants, but we did count rings on nearby ponderosa pines that had been cut. Ron’s counting found a tree that had more than 200 rings, and we learned that the ring size varied considerably during successive periods. We found narrow, tight rings followed by wide rings.

The Workaholic As A Resilient Actor

This effort at ring analysis disclosed cycles of improved and deteriorating health for the trees and likely whether the trees were well watered or in drought conditions. The ponderosa endured and recovered until they didn’t and became logs at the feet of the giants.

My own experiences disclose similar cycles. The Anchor/Gielan HBR article appears to discourage workaholism. They conclude, based upon their scientific sources, that “The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again. This conclusion is based on biology.”

In my career field I found that we seldom had the opportunity to choreograph our lives.  Though we planned our work eventually we had to act to address challenges as they rolled towards us.  I must confess I developed a reputation as a workaholic, which brought me more job offers because employers favored their manager rising to the challenge every time.

I found that “staying the course” proved most effective and, in fact, my most significant victories were when I was working hurt or tired.

Staying In The Game

While serving as a city manager I learned that staying in the game is critical to performance. This determination must be intelligent using the most appropriate  resources economically available.  But how does this human vignette relate to our resilient giants?

The giants live on a single site without mobility, except up at a slow pace. To live, they must endure, and they must demonstrate plant-style grit, rising to the challenges as they come. They are gifted with excellent resources.  They have a broad root base to collect available surface water.  Their bark has tannin for insect resistance.  The thick relatively flameproof bark to withstand wildfires.  I believe, the giants relate an awe-inspiring spiritual quality that has abated humanity’s desire massacre them for their excellent softwood.

The giants survive as a grove because they endure as a community of individuals. For each lost, it takes hundreds of years to replace them.  Enduring becomes their only option.  In a world where nature often selects the most durable, they demonstrate a kind of profound truth for the ages.

Resilient Action Versus Anticipating Action

Aaron Wildavsky, the late, great academic, has developed this concept of resilience as a risk management strategy. In his writing, he compares anticipation against resilience. He observes that in our quest for safety we often undertake measures anticipating they will protect us.

The difficulty is that anticipating future harms and crafting effective responses is risky business. Usually, the cure has its consequences. Dr. Wildavsky points out that administering medicine may well make people sick in reaction or introduce very dangerous dependence as in the current crisis with opioids.  This contradiction manifests in different situations.

For example, we might enact farms subsidies which encourage overproduction in some crops and artificially raises prices or develop non-economic surpluses. The result combined with government farm debt may well be market reactions driving farmers from their livelihood because of resilient market forces. In this case when it occurs, the purpose for anticipatory action becomes its victim.

Similarly, we may enact broad-based regulatory schemes that increases overhead and discourages effort and investment and harms us by reducing opportunities.  As in the case of smaller community banks with Dodd-Frank regulatory requirements, it becomes much more difficult to complete.  Where we intended to eliminate harm through anticipatory actions, we instead may create it for an important segment of an industry or community.

The Value of Operational Risk Management Efforts

This is not to say that operational risk management efforts, especially those focused on a specific activity over a shorter time-frame are not useful tools to improve safety. When measures are too long terms and not subject to revision and accommodation, they may well stifle entire areas of endeavor. Dr. Wildavsky’s summary encourages folks to dig deeper and to be intelligent about determining which anticipatory measures to apply.

I stress the counter-intuitive implications of anticipation as a strategy for securing safety because this should guard us (and policymakers as well) against the facile conclusion that the best way to protect people is always to reduce in advance whatever hypothetical risk may be imagined, rather than enabling people to cope in a resilient fashion with dangers when, as, and if they manifest themselves. Are we better off doing nothing unless we are absolutely certain it is safety, or are we better off doing as much as we can, ruling out only high probability dangers that we can effectively prevent and relying otherwise on our ability to deal with harms as they arise?  Aaron Wildavsky.  Searching for Safety, Transaction Publishing, 1988, Chapter 4.

Using operational risk management, my training has been to evaluate the severity of risk against the probability of risk and then define mitigations to increase safety for a project or activity. In many cases, this leaves conclusions to resilient coping.  For others,  it suggests immediate anticipatory actions over a specific time-frame.

The Rabies Challenge

A case that was particularly pressing for me was the bat rabies challenge. My wife and I owned a property in the Diablo Mountains of California. We built a cabin and bats inhabited the cabin. I learned that in the county the property was located, there was a recent lethal history from bat rabies.

To transmit rabies, bats do not have to bite you, just emit saliva to vulnerable surfaces such as eyes. I had many close encounters and given the consequences of rabies is nearly always fatal. I felt the rabies vaccination series was a reasonable prophylactic to address one of Wildavsky’s “high probability dangers”.

I completed the series and took several boosters. The results are that it cost some money because my health insurance didn’t help financially, but the shots removed the fear that rabies may develop.  Maybe, just maybe the vaccinations prevented the pathogen from developing.  This was a satisfactory bargain.

Other cases may develop differently. My conclusion was a specific action for a limited time. In cases where anticipatory actions are for the indefinite population, and they affect different people, they may be inappropriate.

The option is resilient copying. The central authorities’ responsibility to support and educate is always present. The individual and communities then have the opportunity for resilient actions. With the calculus of resilient action, they should evaluate and determine if another action would be more appropriate.

Resilient Coping

In a time of many calls to action for comprehensive programs we must consider the implications of our actions.  Anticipatory programs with long regulatory time-frames are often stiffing to human activity and community development.

They introduce inflexibility and unanticipated consequences, especially over longer time-frames.  Often their adverse effects are a burden to specific individuals and communities, commonly unseen by remote rule-makers.  Their results may easily become unjust to many communities.  A better model is to evaluate to determine the probability of harm.  If necessary, define measures for a limited time-frame.

Times’ lesson discloses resilient coping is particularly powerful as a strategy for diverse communities.  We can be comforted when we adopt it, we stand with the giants.  It has worked for them for millennia.