Sustainability and Community Resilience: The Importance of Perceived Self-Interest

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Sustainability and Community Resilience

II. The Importance of Perceived Self-Interest

By Dr. John Plodinec, Firestorm Expert Council Member.  John is the Associate Director for the Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In this role, he is responsible for identifying and evaluating technologies useful for enhancing community resilience. He also is playing a leading role in development of CARRI’s Community Resilience System. He has been heavily involved with CARRI’s engagement with the Charleston, SC, region. Read more about Dr. Plodinec here

In the last post, I talked about the importance of time in trying to understand the relationship between sustainability and community resilience. Another definition is useful in this discussion – community.

We can define a community as a group of individuals and organizations bound together by geography and perceived self-interest to efficiently carry out common functions needed by the group. “Perceived self-interest” is meant to imply more than simply financial self-interest, it may – and often does – extend to an altruistic love of place.

Let me focus for a moment on “perceived self-interest.” From the last post, community sustainability means a wise use of resources,

  • Discriminating between wants and needs so that needs are met first, and
  • Using resources efficiently – the least necessary to meet the maximal amount of needs.

Self-interest can alter the flight of both these bullets.

First, the self-interests of its citizens will determine what the community’s perceived needs are. While some might posit an a priori set

of needs (e.g., Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) that a community must meet, experience indicates that a community’s needs will depend on what the community actually perceives its needs to be. In general, that is more like a greatest common multiplier than a least common denominator; and probably will vary depending on the vitality of the community. Richer communities are likely to have more things they see as needs than poorer communities.

The time frame for meeting a community’s needs will also be set by the citizens’ expectations shaped by self-interest. Thus, while in a vacuum a community might be able to use its resources efficiently, in reality expectations about how soon its needs will be met will introduce waste and inefficiency. As implied by the definition, if there is a perception that needs are not being met – or they’re not being met quickly enough – then people or organizations may leave. This is a very simple way to explain the gradual disappearance of many rural communities – they simply were unable to satisfy the perceived needs of many of their citizens (most often, the young).

Thus, in a very real sense the community’s perceived self-interests will determine just how sustainable a community can be. Resources that are used to fill wants that are perceived as needs are essentially inefficiencies and a type of waste (at least in terms of sustainability).

Citizens’ self-interests will also impact a community’s resilience, especially in terms of the temporal dimension. After a crisis, citizens will judge the speed of recovery (and to a large extent the effectiveness of response) in terms of their expectations colored by their self-interest. A community will tend to anticipate and reduce the impacts of possible crises only as far as they perceive that to be in their self-interest. Anticipation of the unexpected seldom rises to the level of a need until the unexpected happens. Immediately after a crisis, communities usually put a higher premium on prevention and mitigation, but that fades with the memories of the crisis.

Thus, “perceived self-interest” illuminates another aspect of the relationship between sustainability and resilience. Citizens’ self-interests tend to make communities less sustainable, because they perceive wants as needs. On the other hand, self-interest has a more complex impact on a community’s resilience – it may be supportive or not depending on the time since the last crisis.

In the next in this series, I will continue by looking at the evolution of communities, and see what that might tell us about the relationship between sustainability and resilience.

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