Environmental Integrity

Moving Beyond Industrialism

Bouncing Forward to a Resilient Food Future - Part One

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TITLE: Moving Beyond Industrialism: Bouncing Forward to a Resilient Food Future – Part One

AUTHOR: Laura Lengnick

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An excerpt from Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, 2nd edition, New Society Publishers, 2022.  

There is a growing sense in government, business and civil society worldwide that business as usual is no longer an option when it comes to food. It is widely acknowledged that the global industrial food system fuels the wicked challenges of our times —concentration of wealth, dependence on fossil fuels, biodiversity loss, and climate change — that have put us on a path to planetary collapse. At the same time, more people are waking up to the potential of food and farming as a powerful climate solution. The question is not whether we change, but how we will change the way we eat.

Although it may be comforting to imagine, it is pretty clear that simply changing the brand we buy is not going to get the job done. The soil will not save us, we do not live on a vegan planet, and many that sell the regenerative agriculture solution seem to have forgotten that the people who feed us and the communities they call home are in as much need of healing as the soil.  Some see the answer in carbon markets, others by eating less meat, some advocate growing food in city skyscrapers and others imagine a world in which food is printed on demand. So many different solutions are bubbling up all around us — how do we choose among them? Resilience thinking can help.

These days, everybody is talking about resilience, but what do they really mean?  Most people have in mind the idea of personal resilience developed by psychologists, but the ideas that I share in this book were developed by ecologists that specialize in understanding the behavior of ecosystems dominated by humans — either intentionally, for the purpose of producing goods or services, or unintentionally, through the collateral damage caused by human activity.  For more than 50 years, these ecologists have been hard at work studying a special kind of resilience, called social-ecological resilience.  This is a kind of resilience that is only possible when people work together to promote the health and well-being of land and community by following the three rules of resilience to cultivate: 1) equitable social and ecological relationships, 2) regional self-reliance (few imports or exports of energy, materials or wastes), and 3) a wealthy, diverse portfolio of community-based resources - natural, human, social, financial and physical/technological.  

One important lesson that I learned from the work of these ecologists is that resilience is about a whole lot more than just bouncing back. We can use social-ecological resilience thinking to cultivate in any kind of system — a family, farm, community or region — the ability to respond to changing conditions, disturbances and shocks in ways that avoid or reduce potential damage. In other words, we can use resilience thinking to design and manage systems so that they never need to bounce back in the first place.  As an additional plus, we can use resilience thinking to design systems that can bounce back swiftly and at low cost when they are damaged.

Resilience thinking offers us another gift, one that is especially important in this age of climate change: the option to bounce forward.  Every time a system sustains damage — and there is no doubt that we will experience more and more damaging events in the future — we will have to make decisions about how to repair the damage. In these moments, resilience thinking offers us a structured way to answer the question: “Do we bounce back, or do we bounce forward?”

This is not a trivial question. Strategies focused on rebuilding to twentieth century standards (often called “bouncing back,” and lately called “building back better”) suffer from the same kind of industrial thinking1 that has created the wicked problems we are struggling to overcome today. Investments made to bounce back use up resources while leaving us stuck in the twentieth century, despite the growing evidence that twentieth century thinking is what got us into this mess in the first place. Instead, we can use resilience thinking to bounce forward to a new way of living that draws on a fundamental truth of life on this planet: our own well-being is rooted in the well-being of the land, people, and communities that sustain us.


1.   I use the term “industrial thinking” to refer to the beliefs, values and attitudes associated with European colonialism and imperialism which justified the exploitation of land, people and community to acquire the raw materials and labor needed for the production of goods and services. Industrial thinking seeks to extract wealth from nature through the use of efficiency, specialization, standardization, consolidation and control without regard for ecological health or social equity and rests on the foundational assumption that economic growth is the best measure of community well-being.

Laura Lengnick is an award-winning soil scientist who has worked to put sustainability values into action in U.S. food and farming as a researcher, policy maker, educator, activist and farmer.  Laura served as a lead author of the first USDA report on adapting U.S. agriculture to climate change and led the development of the agriculture action plan in North Carolina’s 2020 Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan.  She is the founder of Cultivating Resilience, LLC, an Asheville-based consulting firm that works with organizations of all kinds to integrate resilience thinking into operations and strategic planning, and serves as the Director of Agriculture at the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming. She resides in Asheville, NC. You can learn more about Laura and her work at www.cultivatingresilience.com.