Life is about more than survival and bouncing back
— Courtney White, Grass, Soil Hope (2014)

Why resilience Matters

Everybody these days seem to be talking about resilience, and for good reason -- it is an excellent concept for thinking about how systems experience and respond to change. 

Resilience is a concept with origins in engineering and psychology, though its current uses in the field of ecology and sustainability science are what have so many people talking about the concept. 

The concept of ecological resilience describes a something's ability to absorb and recover from stress. People can be resilient, say to an illness or to loss like a death in the family. Communities can be resilient, say to a hurricane or to a spike in the cost of food and fuel. In any case, a system is considered resilient if it can recover without changing into something fundamentally different. The speed at which a system recovers is also sometimes thought of as a measure of resilience, which illustrates how resilience is not itself a property of a system but a measure of system performance.

What makes systems resilient is still very much an open question (or at least it should be). Diversity and flexibility, concepts that I talk about a lot on this website, are frequently identified as conferring diversity. A classic example is flexibility in social organization, including among bats, non-human primates, and tribal human societies, which has been shown to create resilience in those groups in relation to environmental stresses. Likewise flexibility and diversity in subsistence strategies is a hallmark of resilience in hunter-gatherer societies. If a fisherman has many different options, for example, he is resilient to short-term declines in the availability of one kind of fish. Yet, there are cases where diversity can reduce resilience as well. Small scale commercial fishers often choose not to diversify but to fish for just one species that they sell to a single, large processor because it makes them more resilient to fluctuations in market prices for fish.

The appeal of resilience from the perspective of planning and sustainable development should be clear, given such contemporary, climate-related challenges as drought, floods, and hurricanes. Its appeal is also evidenced by the concept's rapid uptake by not just academicians but policymakers and non-profit organizations world wide. Groups like the Resilience Alliance have assembled entire frameworks for sustainability assessment and planning around the concept of ecological resilience, pairing it with other concepts such as vulnerability and adaptability. 

Necessary, But Not Sufficient

Those who would replace, wholesale, the notion of sustainability with resilience are getting ahead of themselves, however. Resilience leaves may questions unanswered: resilience of what? To what? At what and who's cost? These last questions are especially important because resilience often implies winners and losers--parts of the 'system' that absorb impacts more than others. In human societies, who chooses who will bear the brunt of resilience? Consider the case of Hurricane Katrina, for example. In his book "Grass, Soil, Hope", author Courtney White talks about New Orleans as perfect example of the pros and cons of resilience: "[New Orleans] bounced back…but just barely and only with a great deal of expense and suffering” (p.105).

Photo by Usien

Photo by Usien

There's more to this critique as well. Resilience is fundamentally reactionary, about how to cope with things that are out of our control. It is not, by itself, a vision for a better future. Years ago I tried to make this case using the history of the American Circus as an example, though it was a crude attempt made from inside rather than outside the resilience paradigm. For nearly all of the 20th Century, the American Circus was quite resilient to the changing times, surviving two World Wars and the Great Depression. Yet, it nearly disappeared as television, movies, and videogames became the premier sources of spectacle. All of the diversity, flexibility, and history in the form of names like Ringling Brothers, were not on their own enough to allow Circuses to halt their rapid decline in the 1990s. What was ultimately needed was a new and shared vision for what the 21st Century circus might be; what emerged in circuses such as Cirque du Soleil was a new vision that rejuvenated the circus's roots as a form of artistic expression and athletic excellence. 

Resilience is great if you are being punched in the face, but it does nothing about the fact that you are being punched in the face.

And what about things that are not out of our control? As I like to say, resilience is great if you are being punched in the face, but it does nothing about the fact that you are being punched in the face. Climate change, as an example, is already having a multitude of impacts on people around the world, in many cases people who are not responsible for climate change and often who, like residents of the 9th Ward in New Orleans, who do not have the resources to respond effectively. Surely it is important to help people prepare for the impacts of the Anthropocene that are already "locked in," but how can we expect such injustices to do anything but continue unless we take a hard look at how these impacts have come to be, and who is ultimately responsible? Can a society that allows such injustices ever really be considered sustainable?

Resilience Needs a Plan

Ultimately I am not arguing that we walk away from resilience, but that we recognize that it needs a plan: many undesirable systems are highly resilient, and in social systems, resilience can often come at significant social cost. Likewise, resilience does not ensure sustainability; if not accompanied by a paradigmatic change in societal values (e.g., from a growth-oriented to steady-state economic philosophy), initiatives to increase societal resilience may only serve to fortify unsustainable practices and delay and intensify inevitable crises. In other words, exactly what are we trying to make resilient and why?

My instincts tell me that developing an equitable plan for fitting resilience in with sustainability involves goals such as pluralism and biocultural diversity. The question is how do we adjust our behaviors and institutions such that these are not just promoted but also protected within society?