Thursday, November 14, 2013

If there ever was a case for community resilience... would be the movie The Purge with Ethan Hawk. Have you seen it? My husband and I rented it last night and it got me thinking about this idea of personal resilience and how it falls short when you need it most.

The premise of this film is a dystopic America where crime and poverty are minimal because everyone is given a free pass one night a year to commit any crime they want, including murder, to purge themselves of pent up aggression and hostility they feel during the rest of the year. 

There are two types of people in this society - those that commit the acts of aggression and murder and those that hole themselves up indoors waiting for the night to be over. Most of us would put ourselves firmly in the second camp - we'd stockpile food and water, build the best security systems to protect ourselves and our property, and hold our families close as we ride out the night and hope to survive. This is the premise that interested me about this arguably flawed movie (at the end of the film, my husband and I were laughing at it's implausibility that fundamentally misunderstands humanity, but this is a spoiler free zone so I will save that discussion for those of you who have seen it). 

To me, this movie illustrates that the focus on survivalism and personal resilience at the cost of everyone else deprives us of our humanity and is fundamentally impossible to achieve.

How does survivalism deprive us of our humanity?

In The Purge, a man was wounded and calling out for help in the street but no one would help him because that would mean sacrificing their personal safety for the sake of another. They would rather watch someone else die to save themselves. Of course, self-preservation is a natural base instinct, and watching the movie we were yelling out - "don't open the door!!!" But what would I have felt like the next morning to open up my safe home and see a man lying in the street knowing I could have helped him if I hadn't been so cowardly? I'm not sure I could have lived with myself. 

This example is far fetched, of course, but when our societal structures break down to such an extent that this is the only way to survive is in lieu of someone else, this indicates a loss of our higher nature that we call our "humanity." When we focus on our own survival and those of our immediate family at the cost of everyone in our community, we risk living in a society that will sacrifice us to save themselves. In short, when a community is comprised solely of survivalists, there will not be anyone around to save you when your survival measures fall short.

How is individual resilience impossible to achieve?

The other thing this movie illustrates to me is that individual survivalism and resilience is an illusion and impossible to achieve. We can construct steel doors to cover our windows, video surveillance to anticipate threats, and guns to shoot to kill anyone who crosses the line, but these are artifices of safety - they are illusions. If we hole ourselves up in a perceived fortress, what happens when those illusions fall away - the steel doors are ripped off their hinges, the building starts on fire, or a natural disaster floods or blows the structure away? In every system, there are points of weakness, and those points of weakness will lead to the failure of the system if there is no backup. In short, a system without redundancies is weak system that is doomed to failure. 

And our communities are our backup resilience system - the people and societal structures we can rely on when our individual measures fail. I can prepare my family and my home to weather disturbances, both natural and man-made, but without a community to support me in this effort, I will never be truly resilient. 

Systems need redundancies in function at different scales in order to be resilient. 

For example, access to safe food and clean water is a necessary human need and a critical function that must be maintained through disturbance. I can stockpile food and water, but my neighbors need to do the same. Community pantries, municipalities, and religious institutions should also do the same, as should statewide and federal governments. Food and water should be stored in different areas - from the flatlands to the hillsides, in concrete structures and in mobile ones, dry goods as well as frozen. By ensuring that this vital function for survival is performed by multiple parties, in different ways, at multiple scales, the resilience of that function is ensured. And the safe exchange of these resources between parties at different scales is critical to the resilience of our human systems. 

The movie The Purge is a fun romp and despite its terrible ending, I did enjoy it. And it made me want to form strong connections with my neighbors, so that's a good thing!

To learn more about resilience as applied to human systems, check out our "BEND, Don't Break" Naturally Inspired Resilience Workshop at

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