Resilience versus resonance

Before me, as I write this, is a copy of yesterday’s Inquirer. On the front page are two photos of Real Street in downtown Tacloban shot from the same angle. One was taken just days after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” swept through the Visayas, and the other exactly a year after. The two scenes portray resilience, for which Filipinos have been singled out for praise by the rest of the world.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “resilience” as: “a) the ability to bounce or spring back into shape, position, etc., b) the ability to recover strength, spirits, good humor, etc. quickly.” On this definition, I find the “before” picture of Real Street to be a more graphic representation of resilience than the one shot a year later. It shows people on motorcycles picking their way through hastily cleared streets bordered by hedges of debris—at a time when none of the local residents who had poured into the streets had any idea of the magnitude of the devastation.

Indeed, Nature is resilient. We see this in the plants that spring back to life on flood plains almost as soon as the water has receded and the sun’s life-giving rays touch the fertile sediment. The wild grass forces its way through the soft earth anchored on frayed roots that one imagines had been drained of all life. Then one realizes how all agriculture is preceded by decay or destruction.

Because we are a part of Nature, we are, like everything else, subject to its cycles and catastrophic changes. But, we are also capable of differentiating ourselves from Nature, and, by an act of self-creation, the societies we build are able to free themselves from blind determination by natural forces. This we achieve in many ways.

In places swept by powerful seasonal winds, like Batanes, people learn to build sturdy homes with thick stone walls capped with light roofs made of cogon. Where communities must live in the vicinity of an active volcano, like Mayon, people mark the path and the range of its past explosions. Where their memory serves them right, they do not build on danger zones. It is the same with human settlements that live along the coast, as in Tacloban. They know where the water line is, and how far the waves go when, propelled by strong winds, the sea surges inland. Historians remind us that Tacloban might have taken its name from past storm surges akin to those triggered by Yolanda.

It is not that we forget the past so easily. It is just that, in time, we also learn to push the limits of what we can do or how far we can go. We become selective in our observation of Nature’s ways. We no longer feel threatened or paralyzed by every storm or flood that comes our way. But, in this way, we also lose our sensitivity to changes in the natural environment, reacting to environmental events only in accordance with our society’s accustomed frequency range. The term that one sociologist uses to refer to this capacity is “resonance.”

In general, says Niklas Luhmann, the transition to modern society brings with it a curious blend of high resonance and low resonance to environmental phenomena. A major ecological disturbance like Yolanda creates a series of events that reverberate across the entire spectrum of our institutional system. At once, the nation finds itself engulfed by a rhetoric of anxiety, unable to mount an all-encompassing and coordinated response to the calamity. The high resonance of panic is accompanied by a low resonance of what needs to be done at the level of institutions.

When information about the scale of the destruction and loss of life caused by Yolanda started to trickle in, the increasing realization of the seriousness of the catastrophe sent a wave of recrimination across the country. This was picked up and dramatized by the international media and fed back into the local media. This information loop fueled a sense of helplessness that in turn was processed in differing ways by government, politicians, aid agencies, civil society organizations, churches, the science community, and business. This amazing episode brought out the best and the worst in people and institutions.

But perhaps what is most remarkable is how every issue, big and small, found an enduring resonance in every nook and corner of the political system. Choosing to focus on the inadequacy of government response to the devastation, CNN’s host and chief correspondent Christiane Amanpour summed it up as a “defining moment” for the presidency of Benigno S. Aquino III. But, wasn’t it equally a defining moment for the global debate on climate change? Wasn’t Yolanda also a defining moment for local governments, for faith communities, civil society, climate scientists, and the business community?

The suspicion that political motives have shaped initial response and rehabilitation efforts puts everyone on the defensive. “At the end of the day, this is not politics,” President Aquino told his audience in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, during a gathering commemorating the first anniversary of Yolanda, almost as if he was making a plea to mute the political noise so the rationality of government decisions could be assessed on their merits.

I’m afraid the President’s plea will fall on deaf ears precisely because he cannot avoid being heard as a politician. The only way to modulate excessive political resonance is by amplifying the voices coming from the other institutional spheres of society—science, the economy, education, for example—allowing them every chance to communicate their own distinctive takes about the nature of environmental dangers and the societal responses they require.

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