Our healthcare system in this country is not well. At the very least it is not affordable, but at most it seems more suited to diagnosing and treating sicknesses than to recognizing and enhancing wellness. It is at its best when we are feeling our worst—during acute care interventions when our life needs saving and as the long-term management of symptoms becomes a lifetime prescription for medications.
As it turns out, if we are not well before we get sick, then the course of our illness can be prolonged and the treatment we receive can be less effective, not to mention more expensive. Deliberately attending to our health before disease strikes allows us to feel better overall and also gives us the reserve we need to recover more quickly.
A common-sense shift in focus back to the basics of prevention—getting adequate sleep, exercising, eating well, avoiding toxins, reducing stress, having strong social bonds—strengthens our immune response and promotes individual resilience.
Because our world’s ecological system is also suffering from multiple maladies and imbalances, not to mention a high fever—our global immunity too could also use some support and enhancement. In the midst of the climate crisis we find ourselves and our cities dealing with one acute, life-threatening emergency after another and, in between, managing the long-term symptoms of world-wide disease.
But there is a shift happening within institutions and municipalities around the country and around the globe—one that proactively and collectively builds our capacity to avoid total catastrophe and lessen the impact of disasters when they occur. Community resilience is a collaborative, holistic approach that seeks to improve the wellbeing of residents and boost the immune system of whole neighborhoods and towns.
Unlike sustainability initiatives, which tend to focus on carbon emission reductions to maintain equilibrium, resilience intentionally expands the conversation into broader strategies that promote both a thriving populace and regenerative ecosystems. Just as a sensible and effective approach to health should be integrative in order to address all systems in our bodies, a “both/and” approach to global wellbeing should combine multiple perspectives for maximum benefit.
We cannot ignore that our choices and lifestyles, as individuals and as communities, factor heavily into the disease that we are experiencing on a personal and a global scale. We can continue to treat the disasters and emergencies that arise but, unless we dig down and focus on finding the cause and a cure, we are going to keep having the same expensive and heart-wrenching problems again and again. Prevention is almost always cheaper than emergent treatment, and it takes longer to recover from a major illness (or disaster) than it does from a minor one.
No two communities are alike, so the path to resilience will be different for each. We can nurture social cohesion, support greater equity, and engage our neighbors in the solutions. We can design redundancies and diversity into our energy supplies and food systems. We can conserve resources, financial and otherwise, to save money and reduce waste. And, as we develop innovative, responsible, and future-minded policies we increase the overall health and happiness of our communities and help lessen the impact of shocks to those systems and increase our ability to respond.
Health-enhancing strategies implemented at an organizational and regional scale lead to personal wellbeing, social justice, economic stability, and ecological balance. As we become more aware of the integration between our mind and body, and ourselves and the planet, we can mindfully leverage those connections for our own wellbeing, as well as the greater good. In addition to giving us more energy to enjoy our lives, the development of individual and community resilience, might actually be able to save it someday.
Jennifer White is the director of sustainability and innovation at Colby-Sawyer College where she collaborates with stakeholders to implement policies, initiatives, and curricula that promote sustainability and resilience on campus and within the greater community.