Resilience: The Role of Reactive Critical Thinking in Bouncing Back from Disasters and Disruptors


Resilience is a form of political capital and a necessary element for health and wellbeing. A resilient democracy might weather distress, just as a resilient person might, but what are the prerequisites of such resilience? The ability of physical, political, economic, and social structures and people to bounce back from socioeconomic, political, climate-related, or health disasters is crucial. Key elements include common sense, the ability to learn from past mistakes, and operationalizing multiple solutions. It is crucial not to plan exclusively for one scenario only to face a different one. Government resilience is generally steeped in preparedness. But even with the best preparation, unexpected events can be catastrophic. “What if?” can be followed with seemingly far out, unpredictable events (what if a meteor hits New York City right now?) and with likely events (what if low lying coastal land floods again during this hurricane season?). The problems can be sociopolitical: what if the US experiences a civil war? or a sudden economic crisis? Increasing uncertainty as we witness rapidly changing technology, severe climate events, and global sociopolitical flux requires bringing certain constructs together.

Beyond Preparation

We cannot always apply a “what if” strategy – some things will not be predicted, some predictions will not be societally accepted preventing devoting resources to preparing for them, and some things are so unlikely that diverting resources from likely problems would not be ethically justified. Using hindsight, a much more robust program (like the Predict program of USAID) to identify potential viruses that stem from the animal population would have been a good use of funds had it prevented or provided easy correction to the pandemic. Learning from preparation mistakes would lead to better ways of dealing with expected events, whether likely or unlikely, but, importantly, analyzing the best way to think when addressing a disaster could inform a framework for reacting to the unexpected.

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“Emergency preparedness” is not equipped to protect in the best ways, especially when political structures and cultural traits combat the ability to immediately follow a core group of experts. Early action also could falter if the route followed is incorrect, like failing to mask and contact trace early in the pandemic. E. William Colglazier argues that following the “consensus assumptions” has led to high-cost mistakes. I would argue some approaches to unexpected events, disasters, or revolutionary discoveries interfere with resilience: overreacting and then overcorrecting; failing to react in time; and over-planning exclusively for one scenario while failing to plan at all for the less likely but potentially harmful scenarios.

Part of the purpose of this critical thinking bioethics website is to explore ways we think through problems. Many problems are new and complex, like problems arising from social media, facial recognition, unpredictable weather in a predictably changing climate, or conflict and war. Others are longstanding like age-old fights for healthcare autonomy in a system where the vestiges of paternalism endure. In approaching problems in the ethical space, especially those affecting health and the environment, problem-solving techniques must be adaptable, and accessed from and used across many disciplines. Critical thinking skills allow a better framework for analyzing normally unrelated issues that prove to be interwoven.

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For potentially catastrophic weather events, detection systems like those measuring oceanic earthquakes can serve to save populations from tsunamis. Moving to less dangerous living conditions can prevent harm, but has its own costs, both emotional and economic. Protection of the vulnerable is first and foremost. Using the language and philosophy of “no natural disasters” highlights preparedness, but philosophies that extend to resilience must offer more. We were not prepared for X. Now what?

Disruptors, Catastrophes, and Tipping Points

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Disruption is a buzzword in the tech industry. Blockchain technology is a disruptor, as is cryptocurrency. Amazon and Uber are disruptors – they changed how we do business– government entities were unprepared to deal with their ability to upend traditions and as a result, the conveniences and needs they filled came at a cost. A trend of workers becoming independent contractors with little protection, taking loans to buy their own cars or other materials, and getting low pay without benefits has a societal cost.

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Identifying social actions as disruptors is helpful. For example, social media, a known disruptor in tech, had a snowball effect of being a cultural disruptor. As a tech disruptor, it created a new market with billions of customers. As a cultural disruptor, it sowed unrest by allowing news to travel faster, people to find their “tribe” easily, and as a result it plays a role in fracture and polarization. It can hurt young people who feel excluded and is associated with increased depression and it may decrease attention span. But it also connects people with long-lost friends and keeps families in touch.

The fall of governments, violence between regimes, and ensuing mass migration can also be viewed through the lens of disruption. Normal processes and systems of government can end in a quick motion—the change in Afghanistan’s rule, where now barbers have been asked not to trim men’s beards, the assassination of the President of Haiti, where turmoil ensued, and the challenges immigrants face in multiple unwelcoming countries like Haitians leaving Chile only to be turned away by the US. Some countries also are failing to maintain their democratic ideals. To shore up the resilience of democracy, the roles of governmental structures that empower people must be explored. To shore up the social fabric and economic sustainability of non-democracies, failed states may need access to humanitarian aid from international organizations.

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While climate change is somewhat steady and predictable, harsh weather events and their fallout are not. Climate migration is in many ways a science—experts predict it. But the impact of Hurricane Ida in New Jersey left social systems strained, disrupted local economies, and caused death. The preparation was lacking and the precursors for resilience were not in place, making bouncing back take longer. At the community level, once the bad thing happens, resilience-minded thinkers can contribute. Sometimes picking up a broom and clearing a roadside drain is the commonsense measure necessary. Attributing all fault to and expecting all solutions to flow from government will not lead to maximum resilience.

The new restrictive abortion laws may be a disruptor in a sense. If permissible, restrictive laws will inevitably disempower women. Resilience will require creating new networks, exploring political avenues, private sector solutions, and non-profits. Women historically tend to be very adept at resilience. To contextualize women’s rights and disruptors, resilience would mean a democratic voice, choice, and possibly compromise. As another example, emergency contraception was a disruptor enabling people to prevent pregnancy after intercourse. As of 2015, over 20 percent of women of age  15 to 44 had used emergency contraception like Plan B. But it has been the topic of debate among those who harbor religious beliefs opposing it, and in some locations, pharmacists have resisted supplying it. Resilience among advocates, women’s groups, and organizations offering medical care can shore up constitutional rights and prevent governments from intruding on personal decisions.

Similarly, to me, District of Columbia v. Heller changed the Second Amendment suddenly and drastically and mass shootings increased after it. The jurisprudence was slow to show resilience, but over time, some new state laws have pushed back, and they aim to improve safe gun storage, use, and oversight. The Second Amendment itself may not return to its former iteration, which was more limited – it is difficult for supporters of sensible gun laws to be resilient when the highest court makes a significant change in jurisprudence. Even with three branches of government, new ideas may be necessary to stop one branch from overreach.

Brexit was a movement that appeared to take the global economic community by surprise, although it corresponded with increasing nationalism and populism in many countries. The literature notes EU resilience and some efforts to improve supply chain resilience in the UK.

The China Roads and Belts initiative is changing a global power structure and may lead to a tipping point. China’s power over regional supply chains will trickle down and could hurt countries edged out of new markets as well as hurt the self-sufficiency goals of developing countries. Countries need to be resilient to counter China’s influence.

The US, state, and local government and agencies need to exhibit resilience after the January 6, 2021 attack on the capital, the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and hurricane Ida with local deaths in areas prone to flooding. A resilient electorate may depend on public trust. Trust in institutions like the CDC, FDA, police forces, OSHA, NOAA, etc. would improve resilience when the US faces rapid change or unrest. Without trust, bouncing back is more difficult.

Thinking Skills, Generalism, and Common Sense

Knee-jerk reactions in crises have problematic consequences. But what about thought-out solutions that fail? Colglazier cites the Afghanistan exit as chaos that was grounded in consensus expert advice. In the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination is the global consensus solution, but the obstacles, both predictable and unexpected, are impeding its use as a strategy for resilience.

Vikram Mansharamani asserts “seemingly unrelated developments may impact each other,” arguing in favor of generalists and malleable skill sets. Mansharamani favors “breadth” over “depth.” Taking his advice and applying it to reacting to unpredicted events, dynamic viewpoints and open-mindedness will allow for new strategies to face problems and successfully achieve ethical solutions. Generalism is needed to link specialists—those who study many areas can be helpful to combat the focus that often leads to experts overemphasizing their field’s role in disaster relief, preventing resilience. Specialization may be tied to the consensus view failures Colglazier refers to where disasters are approached by going all in on one solution.

If many people trained the same way devise the proposed solution, there can be a funnel effect where they validate each other, as seen in US public health. If different fields participate, there can be a broadening of solutions to try. For example, resilience or the ability to bounce back from the pandemic to some degree depends on vaccination rates and achieving herd immunity. Many articles in public health discussed scientific misunderstanding alone, depicting people as gullible, possibly inflaming them rather than winning them over. The social sciences more broadly exhibited understanding and approaches to hesitancy.

In addressing the many impending potential tipping points and uncertainty, we need common sense and critical thinking. Rather than preparing for every possible contingency (and in addition to preparing for those for which that makes good sense) that can happen whether to do with war, health, immigration, or climate, a thinking skill set and a coalition of strong thinkers in positions of power is needed.

Personal Resilience & Critical Thinking

Resilience is the ability to manage stress, adapt to change, and “return to a state of mental wellbeing.” Resilience can be physical, emotional, mental, and social. There are tools in psychology to help people develop more resilience. While we may see that as toughening up, it is also the ability to take time to be creative, think, and become comfortable with change.

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Personal resilience also requires making sense of things—I argue that critical thinkers accept the unorganizable and organize and influence what they can. They avoid failed strategies and have a willingness to try unproven strategies yet the common sense to try multiple solutions at once rather than put every resource into one solution. They are aware of many choices, pros, and cons, but are also decisive, even if the decision is to employ more than one strategy.

Personal resilience informs societal, governmental, and global resilience. Large societal and even global structures need to toughen up; and they need to include creative ideas and apply old ideas that work and new ones that might work.

Societal Resilience

Include the Spectrum of Ideas

Partisanship interferes with resilience, yet so does complacency and a failure to challenge the assumptions of those in power. Polarization hurts the open roundtable discussions. A climate change denier and a tree-hugging environmentalist who will not touch disposable paper products at all and uses only a solar panel for electricity each will have more trouble appreciating the views of the other side if they are the only two in the room. Centrism, or even the consideration of all viewpoints along a spectrum, is a frustrating listening task but appears to be the only route to positive debate and common sense. If twenty subtly different views along a political continuum are voiced and respected, it is unlikely a polar view or a stalemate will prevail.

Look to Local, Federal, and International Components

Resilience often includes strong communities. In a flood, communities are never sure whether and when FEMA will come (and FEMA is crucial in emergencies) but a few neighbors and bags of sand help. Communities shore up local infrastructure and are the place where neighbors react together. That initial coming together after an emergency is itself an act of resilience. New York City after September 11 exemplified every type of resilience: community, buildings and structures, businesses, transportation, real estate, and education all eventually bounced back. Resilience is about clean up, building back better, strengthening infrastructure, and rising above.

Eliminate conflicts of interest

Government would be more resilient if people had public trust and confidence in government and corporations. The COVID-19 vaccine arguably would have been accepted by more people sooner if they had confidence in the CDC, FDA, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, and the media.  

Think Big, Link Specialties, Generalize

Nonspecialized critical thinking and common sense may be effective tools to foster resilience after unexpected events. Individual and societal resilience may rely on the same characteristics making individual thinkers an important part of collective solutions. Looking outside specialties would allow different frameworks to contribute to solutions. Many minds would bring creativity and perspectives that may better identify risks of linear strategies produced by those educated in the same field. Bioethics can have an important role in ethical responsible outcomes by applying critical thinking across relevant disciplines like environmental science, immigration, law, technology, political science, economics, social work, and policies affecting the social determinants of health.

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