Everybody’s getting resilient – but what does that really mean?

These days everything is getting referred to as resilient.

Canada’s food system is being described as being “resilient” for having faced the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and failing to break, although it seemed like it might buckle for a while. After initially running short on flour, toilet paper and a range of products, there are no signs that Canadians are going to run out of food any time soon.

Canada’s healthcare system has been called “resilient” for having handled the rush of COVID-19 cases.

In the freakiest case, the world’s stock markets have been amazingly “resilient” in the face of appalling and shocking real-world news. Most have hit all-time highs during these mid-point days of the pandemic. That’s some kind of crazy resiliency.

On Tuesday I even heard two different English football teams described as being “resilient” for having not lost their matches that day.

“Resiliency” is clearly the buzzword, the crucial concept and the most lauded quality of the pandemic.

But what does that really mean? It’s a term that has an amazing diversity of applications (“diversity” is another modern buzzword that means many different things to different people), and some very good ones, I have discovered. As I am wont to do, I ventured out onto Twitter to see what my followers think “resiliency” means. I received some amazingly good responses, ranging from ones focused on mental health to ones fixed on environmental “sustainability” (another buzzword of huge use) to ones looking at financial and operational risk management. It’s clearly a powerful concept in being able to find applications to a broad swath of human endeavours. (See the Twitter thread here. Make sure to look at the responses.)

In the little pocket of risk management my column is about, I rummaged around to find  what I think “resiliency” means these days when people are applying it to our farming, food, industrial and economic systems. You can read the column here. To cut through my blather, it seems to me to be about building spare capacity into our systems and to simplify production. Those are very sane-sounding concepts, no doubt.

But as you can tell from my column, I’m skeptical that we’ll actually attempt much resiliency-building post-pandemic. The reason: its very costly. In a business of razor-thin margins, building excess capacity for exceptional times probably means eliminating that thin line of profits in “good” times, so it’s not just difficult to do, but might actually be economically impossible. (Farmers all know this, because the design of our grain elevator, port and marketing system forces farmers to carry the cost of a huge amount of costly on-farm grain storage, as well as having to buy millions of dollars of equipment that is used a few weeks or a couple of months per year. That’s resilient, but brutally costly for farmers.)

All sorts of prognosticators are talking about COVID-19 making “everything different,” and about a “great reset,” and about “building back better.” Maybe they’ll be right. But I suspect that once we’re through with COVID-19, or it’s through with us, we’ll return to something pretty close to the way things were before. The most resiliency we’re likely to build is that of wisdom: We’ve seen what a pandemic can do and next time we’ll try to make fewer mistakes. Until then, let’s all just try to do the best we can with what we can afford.

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