From efficiency to resilience

Contributor: Deborah Frieze

The following is adapted from Walk Out Walk OnA Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now, by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.

Efficiency has long been the holy grail of the industrial age. Ever since Adam Smith advised us to break down our labour into its component parts, we have doggedly pursued growth through ever-smarter strategies of specialization, optimization and maximization. We streamline processes, eliminate redundancies, standardize products, automate labour, wring out higher yields and manage inventories just-in-time—both inside and outside the factory. The Green Revolution, in fact, was an exercise in bringing industrial thinking to the food system. A technology-intensive form of agriculture, the Green Revolution’s purpose was to maximize the efficiency of the land by taking control of nature and wringing out of her every last drop of productivity. Nobel Prize-winning scientists bred new varieties of nitrogen-gobbling wheat, rice and maize that resulted in increased crop yields. Vast commercial fields of monoculture that could be rapidly harvested by machine replaced the slow family-farm-scale cultivation of a variety of crops. All this was done in the name of good intentions: the desire to defeat hunger. In fact, the Green Revolution is often credited with having averted a global famine in the second half of the 20th century that might otherwise have taken millions of lives.

Imagine the faith in technology the world must have had when that Nobel Prize was awarded—a faith so strong that we would be blinded to its unintended consequences. The Green Revolution did save lives—in the short-term. It is only now that the long-term effects are becoming visible, and they’re causing increasing harm. For as the agricultural output of the Green Revolution rose, so, too, did the cost of its energy inputs—and these rose even faster, resulting in what is today a highly brittle system, one that is likely to fracture when subjected to stress. As in Cuba.

Cuba had been touted as another miracle of the Green Revolution—until the Soviet Union fell apart. Almost overnight, Cuba lost its supply of oil, the essential resource that fuels industrial agriculture. Within a year, over 80 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade disappeared. Suddenly, there were no chemical fertilizers, no seeds, no fuel for tractors and irrigation systems, no way to obtain spare parts. Between 1989 and 1993, the average Cuban lost 20 pounds. (Learn more by watching the film Power of Community.)

So Cubans started to work with what they had. In the absence of fertilizer and pesticides, they began farming organically. The older folks who used to plough their fields with oxen were invited to offer their wisdom while fuel-dependent machinery sat idly by. Industrial-scale state farms were broken up into small farms and thousands of gardens. In the cities, vacant lots, schoolyards and patios were transformed into urban gardens where families could grow their own food and sell their surplus locally. By 1999, Cuba had become agriculturally self-sufficient once again—and demonstrated a historic transformation to local and sustainable agriculture.

Resilience is the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure. In 1989, Cuba did not have a resilient food system. When oil was withdrawn from the structure, the entire system collapsed like a Jenga tower. That is because the Cuban food system wasn’t designed for resilience; rather, it was designed to be maximally efficient.

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Brian Walker is an ecologist who has studied the relationship between efficiency and resilience. In his book, Resilience Thinking, co-authored with David Salt, Walker reflects on the risks of our efficiency addiction. “The more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal,” he writes, “the more you diminish that system’s resilience. A drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.” The goal of optimization, he argues, is based on the illusion that there exists in a system some sustainable “optimal” state around which we can model the world.

This illusion has some powerful and compelling champions. One of the world’s most revered economists is Jeffrey Sachs, father of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Sachs has been a staunch advocate of the belief that with the right amount of foreign aid, poor countries can climb up the ladder of economic development rung by rung. It’s a virtuous cycle: Throw in the foreign aid, and the rest will take care of itself. This will happen, he describes in his book The End of Poverty, as poor countries leverage technology and specialize in the production of goods and services that can be traded in the global marketplace. This trade will increase household savings and public investment—at which point the economic development engine will kick back into gear. But this whole process can only happen if the rich countries relieve the poor countries of their debt burdens and throw in sufficient capital to get the machine underway.

In 2002, the United Nations commissioned Sachs and an independent advisory group to develop an action plan for rolling back extreme poverty, hunger and disease. The eight Millennium Development Goals set poverty-reduction targets for countries around the world to achieve by 2015. In his book, Sachs recalls that despite persistent failures among the international community to eradicate disease and debt over decades of foreign aid, that when it came to the MDGs, “there was a palpable sense that this time—yes, this time—they just might be fulfilled.” But then, he explains, a series of events occurred—the paralyzing Bush-Gore presidential election, corporate scandals, the end of the stock market boom and September 11th—resulting in a string of broken promises.

Sachs’ explanation seems to imply that the MDGs would be on track if only these disruptions hadn’t occurred. That’s the illusion of the “optimal state”—a future in which things like oil shocks, failed governments and terrorist attacks don’t happen. The illusion may work well in the short-term, but in the long-term, life unfolds unpredictably and chaotically. And yet we persist in making plans and setting targets as if we were able to control their outcomes. When we aim to produce the efficient optimal state, we are designing systems whose fate may hang in the balance of a single variable. Cuba’s food system depended on oil. The Millennium Development Goals—and every participating poor country—depend on foreign aid. When those variables are withdrawn, these systems lose the capacity to absorb disruption and maintain their basic function.

Unsurprisingly, things aren’t exactly on track for the MDGs. It looks like as many as one billion people will still be living in extreme poverty by 2015. Hunger seems to be working its way back up to pre-1990 levels. The volume of water withdrawn for agricultural purposes has grown rather than decreased (although fortunately, there have been great strides taken in improving access to drinking water). Nonetheless, in his 2009 mid-term report on the MDGs, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged world leaders to stay the course. “This report shows that the right policies and actions, backed by adequate funding and strong political commitment, can yield results,” he writes. “Rather than retreat, now is the time to accelerate progress towards the MDGs.” We must “redouble our efforts.”

As with the Green Revolution’s intent to eradicate hunger, our efforts to defeat poverty arise out of the most noble and compassionate of human intentions. We want to help, we want to end the suffering of others. But our strong commitment to wanting to help blinds us to the potential destructiveness of our assumptions and practices. We treat failure as a call to redouble our efforts—to do the same, only better and faster. We never stop to question whether these are the right methods, and we fail to notice the negative consequences. Consider Haiti: The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) policy in the 1970s and 1980s encouraged Haiti to replace its agricultural economy with an export-oriented manufacturing sector that would boost GDP. Large numbers of Haitians migrated from the countryside to the city, resulting in dangerous overcrowding in Port-au-Prince. When the earthquake struck in January 2010, overcrowded conditions and hastily constructed homes led to devastating tragedies. A few months later, former President Bill Clinton publicly apologized for policies during his term that destroyed Haiti’s rice production, leaving the country unable to feed itself. The consequences of those policies only became visible more than a decade later.

It is time to walk out of the illusion of stability, to walk out of the addiction to the efficient optimal state. Life always bursts through the door—why not expect it? A resilience approach knows that uncertainty and surprise are inevitable. Writes Walker, “Resilience thinking is about understanding and engaging with a changing world. By understanding how and why the system as a whole is changing, we are better placed to build a capacity to work with change, as opposed to being a victim of it.”

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