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Vinay Gupta on Resilience

Vinay Gupta is considered a leading thinker and expert on global issues surrounding resource scarcity. Often called a “Resilience Guru,” Gupta has become famous for his work and philosophy on how humans should respond to current and future disaster conditions, including disease pandemics and systemic threats to human resources, including things like food, water and energy scarcity.

The philosophy behind Gupta’s work is that we’re living in an incredibly interdependent and highly globalized society that is increasingly using up critical resources necessary for human survival. According to Gupta, we are currently in a human global crisis that most people in developed countries aren’t aware of, because they are on the “winning side.” But social and political collapse are happening now. He cites that, the majority of humans on the planet, are living on the fringes and are subject to crisis conditions brought on by poverty.

Nearly 20 million global deaths – one third of all annual deaths on the planet – are directly or indirectly caused by poverty. Gupta cites a myriad of disaster conditions brought on by poverty in developing and sometimes even developed economies, including food scarcity, malnutrition, disease, and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Living in this state, Gupta believes that social and civil unrest are born out of desperation; this results in aggression, war, and more death.

This crisis situation largely was born out of our planet’s colonial history, Gupta believes. Countries, namely European nations, set out to conquest other nations in search of resources, riches and territorial expansion. As a result, economies built on resource extractions and slave labor were established, which propped up mother countries while indelibly altering the colonies in devastating ways.

The groundwork of Gupta’s path was laid during his worked for the United States government on wide scale disaster relief, where he explored ways to combat things like infectious diseases, nuclear threats, and resource depletion. But most of Gupta’s thinking and work is rooted theory stemming from his education as an economist and historian.

The Hexayurt

The “hexayurt,” perhaps his most famous creation, is a building design aimed at ending chronic housing issues that are prevalent throughout the world, particularly in many underdeveloped economies. Hexayurts are specifically designed to accommodate refugees or people during any time of disaster relief effort, but have also become very popular at the annual Burning Man event where tens of thousands of people gather for a week in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.

The hexayurt’s design uses a simple four by eight foot design that resembles a yurt structure in a hexagon arrangement. This design maximizes the structures load-bearing ability at the most basic level. Sheets are cut in a manner that forms right triangles that can be easily overlaid by sheets to form the roof of the yurt.

What is key about the hexayurt as it relates to the resiliency movement is that it is relatively inexpensive and quick and easy to assemble. Hexayurts can be erected from all types of materials, but are commonly formed by sheet of foam, cardboard and duct tape. The estimated cost per hexayurt is a mere $1,000, but can even be created for a few hundred dollars – this represents huge cost savings compared to Federal Energy Management Association (FEMA) refugee trailers that cost upwards of $30,000.

Hexayurts are also incredibly easy to construct. The design for hexayurts is complete free and readily accessible to the public. Depending on the technique used, construction of hexayurts can be erected within a day or even just a few hours.

Gupta’s Response

Today, Gupta’s work is centered on ways humans can plan for crises and figuring out ways for humans to best respond to a system that he perceives to be very vulnerable to collapse. One of his most famous contributions to the resilience field is known as the “Six Ways to Die” model, which outlines what steps people should take to address six crisis situations. Basically, Gupta describes how people really only die from these six root causes:

  • Being too hot
  • Being too cold
  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Illness
  • Injury

These catalysts of death can be mitigated by three different things.

First, “shelter” protects individuals against extreme heat and cold. Shelter, in this case, goes beyond just having a home and extends to meaning that people need access to appropriate shelter that is habitable year round based on climatic differences and needs – For instance, staying adequately cool in conditions of extreme heat.

Second, “supply” protects people against scarcity conditions, for instance, due to lack of regular food and water. Food and water are considered human essentials. Thus, people need access to clean water used for drinking, washing, cooking, etc. as well as adequate food supplies that provide ample nourishment.

Finally, “safety” is the final component that protects people from illness and injury. This can be provided through public resources, like hospitals, police, fireman and public health and sanitation organizations or, if these public institutions fail, through private initiatives.


Having appropriate societal infrastructure underlies the resiliency movement, because it helps protect societies from being too susceptible for these six ways to die. Infrastructure, in this case, is any societal resource that enables people to tap things that protect them against mortality threats. In the resiliency movement, infrastructure is often broken down into three categories – electricity or energy, drinking water, and sewage. Electricity enables people to heat and cool their homes or tap into electrical devices that improve their quality of life. Having access to a plumbing system is essential for delivering clean drinking water to communities and also relieves communities of potentially harmful sewage that can cause disease.

Infrastructure is difficult to implement, because it’s expensive and often only accessible via some type of organized effort. For example, it would be difficult for one individual to gain access to electrical services – an entire community effort would be needed to generate electricity and service an electrical grid. In economically developed nations, these types of services are financed and deployed on mass scale relatively cheaply.

To replicate this in developing countries would require huge investments of science, technology, engineering, law and finance, as well as having a robust manufacturing industry to deliver the products necessary to build the infrastructure in question. Complex infrastructure systems like an electrical grid system also require sound governance and administrative oversight, another thing that can be hard to come by in developing nations.

Point being, developing the right infrastructure is one of the most difficult challenges for the resiliency movement, because it involves the coming together of many stakeholders who often have conflicting priorities or sordid relationships. There are seven layers of ownership that must occur in order for appropriate infrastructure investments to be made. These layers of infrastructure ownership include:

  1. Individuals
  2. Households
  3. Neighborhoods / Villages
  4. Municipalities / Towns / Cities
  5. Regions
  6. Countries
  7. International Organizations

There are essentially three different ways to think about improving infrastructure. First, you can improve the “provision” of infrastructure. This means that the goal is to make a certain type of infrastructure available where it previously had been absent. Second, you can aim to reduce the cost of infrastructure. Many countries may have adequate infrastructure, but it is cost prohibitive to the majority of people. Finally, the third way to think about providing infrastructure is by improving the quality of existing infrastructure. For instance, communities may have access to river water, but this isn’t necessarily a safe, reliable or easy resource to come by. Improving infrastructure usually means making it more reliable, cheap and safe.

Centralized Versus Decentralized Infrastructure

Due to the inherent challenges with building infrastructure, many in the resiliency community are big advocates for decentralized infrastructure. Centralized infrastructure – i.e. erection of a central power plant that serves a massive grid – comes at a huge expense that can be a non-starter in many parts of the world. Thus, looking at a form of decentralized power systems – like using renewable energy sources such as solar or wind – may make more sense for addressing infrastructure deficiencies in many parts of the world. The costs to erect, repair and maintain a decentralized system simply becomes much more manageable and within reach. Other examples of decentralized infrastructure include things like local purification systems instead of a central water agency or local composting system instead of a system-wide sanitation department.

Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps (SCIM)

By breaking down the direct causes of mortality via these six ways to die, Gupta devised a way for stakeholders at all levels – individuals, groups, organizations, and states – to combat these disaster conditions. The practice of mapping out how to address personal and social resilience is called “Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps.” In most western societies, people are protected from these six ways to die without even realizing it.

Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps help stakeholders figure out where critical gaps are apparent in their systems so that they can begin to course correct via various channels. Figure 1 illustrates how Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps work:

Applying SCIM to your own life

Let’s take a closer look at the six ways to die, and what you can do to boost your resilience in each of the six areas.

Being too hot

If you live in an area where heatwaves are a real risk during the summer, you should take appropriate action to make sure all bases are covered in case of a disruption to your main cooling method or in case of water scarcity.

For cooling chances are that you rely on an AC unit, but what if there’s a prolonged power outage? Then your options are either a backup generator or alternative passive cooling methods such as evaporative cooling or earth tubes.

Earth tubes are tubes buried in the ground deep enough to take advantage of the more even year round temperature at depth. Air from outside the house is run through the earth tubes to heat or cool it before it is introduced into the house. In the summer, the earth is cooler that the outside air temperature and the air will be cooled as it goes through the tubes, and the opposite in the winter. This is a simple, energy efficient means of pre-heating or pre-cooling air.

Being too cold

For most people in developed parts of the world this is mainly a matter of electricity. As long as the electricity grid is up and running it’s unlikely that we’ll freeze to death, but if it breaks down in the middle of winter it won’t take long for the freezing cold to penetrate every corner of your house.

For short-term backup heating both in rural and urban areas the simplest and cheapest way to improve your resilience is to get a propane heater such as the Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Propane Heater (

Although if you live in a place where firewood is cheap and easy to get then the ultimate resilient heating method is installing a wood-fired stove that you can both heat and cook with.

Illness & Injury

Protection from illness and injury is provided by health care, public health, hospitals, sanitation infrastructure, police, security services and the military. It does not take the end of the world for any of these systems to break down. Any serious natural disaster will temporarily take out one or several of these systems.

As Vinay says, “In most crises in the developed world the short term pressures on infrastructure systems do not threaten lives. However, in more severe times of crisis, or in developing world disasters, infrastructure failures can be even more dangerous than the original disaster. Water and sanitation issues are particularly problematic.”

Hopefully you’ll never live to experience such a serious crisis that the lack of water and sanitation becomes a life threatening issue. But if it does, self-reliance is the only realistic solution. If you follow the steps in the next section you will be covered in terms of water. Now, making sure you don’t get injured is another matter. One very unpleasant threat of injury after crisis, especially in urban areas, are violent crimes. When police can’t come to the rescue, your only alternative if you happen to end up in such situation is to tak responsibility for your own safety and that of your family. This means knowing how to protect yourself physically, whether it’s by having a safe room installed in your house or getting a gun and taking firearms training.


There are three parts to quenching your thirst when the tap water stops running. Collection, storage and purification. If you live near a fresh water lake or river then collection is a breeze. If you don’t have that option then collecting rainwater is another alternative. You’ll be amazed how much rainwater you can collect off of a regular size roof even in more arid areas. A cistern is perfect for capturing rain water, but any type of food grade container also works.

Once we’ve secured water, it needs to be purified from harmful bacteria and potential viruses (and make it taste better). An expensive and fancy filter is not required, the cheapest way to purify your water is by boiling it. This will kill any bacteria and viruses, but it won’t remove chemicals or bad taste. If you can afford it then a water filter is well worth the investment though. You can get a very competent water filter called the Lifestraw for only $20, and higher priced filters will generally have a larger capacity.


The first step of boosting your short term resilience is to buy in bulk and learn to preserve your food. This will give you a buffer for surviving short term disruptions in the supply chain.

If you live somewhere urban, rather than getting all your food from the supermarket you can boost your resilience by going closer to the source. Join a CSA or make friends with the farmers from your farmers’ markets.

If you happen to have a lawn, rip it up and learn how to plant and grow your own food, and how to save the seeds from year to year. This is the ultimate in food resilience. Planting fruit trees and other perennials is an investment that will pay itself in multiples over its lifetime.

You can also consider, if you have a yard and live in a location that doesn’t zone you to death, acquiring a small goat for milk and cheese. Or chickens.

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