After reading a bunch of books about the political and economic issues facing the U.S., I wanted to read something that focused on more than just a tick list of discrete symptoms & solutions that might get us back on track. While the term 'resilience' is not exactly a common concept compared to others like 'sustainment,' this book promised to look at how components and people function within systems. Zolli and Healey describe how seemingly innocent decisions made early in varied ecosystems (e.g., fishing coral reefs, sinking wells to find clean water in Bangladesh) have led to eventual disasters and that solutions typically need to interact in unexpected ways to bounce back (or ahead) to a future state that might get individual people, groups, countries, organizations, or our planet functioning again. "Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back" absolutely addresses those issues, but you have to "work for it" to follow the authors' logic and observations that will help to address the disruptions that increasingly confront us.
Given that resilience is not generally discussed, the Introduction goes through a challenging baseline discussion to position the concept. By listing some sample disruptions -- Katrina, Haiti, BP, Fukushima, the Crash, the Great Recession, the London Mob, the Arab Spring -- they help to set the stakes. As they point out near the end of the book, some of these ecological or socioeconomic time bombs may be difficult for Americans to understand because we've been fortunate enough to be largely insulated from fragilities and disruptions that others in the world have had to deal with. "In a world temporarily devoid of consequences, the slow erosion and increasing inelasticity of our political, financial, socioeconomic and ecological systems scarcely seemed to matter." But now our systems are breaking down and we see ourselves as losing our dominance.
As you get into the book, at first it feels reminiscent of a Malcolm Gladwell book in that Zolli and Healy look at 2-4 seemingly isolated stories in each chapter ... then show how they come together to demonstrate resilience. Criticism of Gladwell's very popular books is that he is a journalist more than a scientist and that he doesn't get too deeply into any issue or its consequence. That is not the case here as Zolli has researched in greater depth and Healy has a way of presenting the material in a dramatic way. And so, these chapters and stories are deep and require concentration to connect the learnings. Perhaps a better comparison of this book is to the books of Edward Tufte. Tufte's "Visual Explanations" has my favorite chapter ever where he compares how John Snow uncovered the real cause of cholera in 1854 London by looking at data honestly to NASA's decision to launch the 1986 shuttle Challenger when the data showed it would explode at lower temperatures. Similarly, the authors here juxtapose different stories and synthesize important ideas that must be understood and complied with if we are to recover from the political and environmental crises that now threaten us.
Their treatment also reminds me of the kinds of presentations that can be seen at TED conferences. I was fortunate enough to attend one in 2000 where many of the then unknown experts have gone on to become important leaders and voices. Zolli and Healy share stories and describe a collection of experts in a way that you are intrigued by how they came to their interest and areas of expertise. As other reviewers have noted, these stories go in to some detail and, again, one has to concentrate to see how these all fit together. My favorite such stories were 1) the Haiti response and how responders used their strong ties, their weak ties and adapted technology to save people fast, 2) Red Team U and how our military is encouraging front-line commanders to consider different options that align better with the strategies and tactics of our enemies, and 3) how Opower and Robert Cialdini are using data to persuade electricity users to conserve by comparing their usage to that of their neighbors.
This book and writing technique seems quite different from many of the books written by pundits and personalities we see in the media. Since we "know" those people better, we tend to flock to those books, but the end result is that we see simplistic recommendations and more issues than solutions. And thus, in comments to news stories different camps line up against each other and sling insults back and forth. "Resilience" probably won't sell as many books as those more-recognized authors, but the sense I got from reading it is more hopeful and realistic in what we'll need to consider to address coming issues. The stories describe some pretty dreadful scenarios that we will definitely have to address -- perhaps as a planet -- but Zolli and Healy give us hope that there are experts out there who can help lead the way to solutions but that at the same time we'll all have to participate.