In 2009 I wrote my Master thesis at the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC), based on field work in the Western African Republic of Niger. Being at the SRC, basically the ‘hub’ of current resilience research, it was quite impossible not to deal with this concept. Back then, resilience theory seemed quite complex to me, and having a human geography background, I wasn’t sure about its applicability to the ‘human dimension’. The adaptive cycle, panarchy, basins of attraction – how should these terms be of any use for a non-scientist?
Now, a few years later, I went to my first resilience conference, taking place every three years. Not sure on what to expect I must admit that I was seriously overwhelmed, in a very positive way. Spending a couple of days among a vast array of people (~900!) from all kinds of academic and NGO backgrounds made me feel like a bee in a massive beehive. Everybody was dealing with the concept in some way, working on a small piece in the multi-dimensional systems theory puzzle, all together pursuing the same goal: trying to make the world a slightly better place.
I don’t want to sound too pathetic, but I wish to share my insights with you on the notions of resilience I found most intriguing, and on the aspects that to my mind should be considered more meaningfully.
1. Planetary boundaries and the social floor
The planetary boundary session with Johan Rockström and Melissa Leach was summarized here, so I won’t repeat it. But I’d like to highlight the metaphors the speakers used. On the one hand, we have enough evidence that due to our unsustainable lifestyles, food and agricultural systems, and economic performance we are about to “hit the ceiling” of the Earth’s “safe operating space”, which to transgress will very likely lead us into an undesirable Earth system state or basin of attraction with self-accelerating, negative feedbacks in terms of global warming, biodiversity loss etc. (see graph). On the other hand, our institutions by now have failed to adequately tackle this global challenge. The reasons are manifold – be it different goals of each national government, different perceptions of urgency, or massive power differentials. According to Leach, we need to reinvent the “social floor” away from “environmental authoritarianism” and “Green Market fixes” towards Earth stewardship. Governance should be multi-scale, adaptive, networked, deliberative, and engaged with Science. But how can this governance transformation be achieved?
2. Reinventing governance
This leads us to the session entitled “reinventing governance” and headed by Victor Galaz (SRC). Several simulation tools such as the “Governance Futures Lab” were presented that tackle the question of how bottom-up innovations, adaptive learning and participation among the broad public can be improved, and how citizens can engage more powerfully in governance. As one speaker put it: “Politics is the one sport where the amateur is better for the nation than the professional” (Lawrence Lessig). Often, these simulations/ experiments rely on case studies, interviews and tests with various groups. The questions then are: How can we improve/ renew our governance mechanisms rapidly enough to get out of currently destructive pathways? And how can issues such as social justice, equity, and power differentials adequately be tackled?
3. Linking rights and resilience
The session “linking rights and resilience” focused on how to (better) incorporate the notions of power and agency into resilience thinking. Explicitly, the problem of different speeds was mentioned, which is one of the fundaments of resilience thinking (fast vs. slow variables). On the one hand, we have extremely powerful ‘players’ such as the media, multi-national corporations, governments or pressure groups. At the same time, political decisions often need to be made rapidly, and tend to focus on short-term impacts, for instance regarding extreme weather events. On the other hand there are millions of powerless, vulnerable people lacking access to financial and human capitals, among others. They have to make livelihood decisions spontaneously, but improving their livelihoods and making them more resilient against shocks and crises requires long-term, adaptive planning and a holistic governance approach. To this end, various speakers suggested that principles of associative, deliberative democracy should be incorporated into policy-making, and that governance innovations should have a ‘human rights-lens’. Graphically speaking, the mental planetary boundary vs. social floor model should be underpinned by a human rights foundation (see graphic).
4. Resilience and development
As it was pointed out elsewhere, resilience theory has not only been taken up by EU institutions, but also by various international development agencies. During the session “resilience and development” various speakers highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of incorporating resilience thinking into development cooperation. Resilience theory is a useful way to foster holistic/ systems thinking and to underline the interdependence and multi-scalar nature of human-environment interactions. Besides, it is a normative, intuitive concept to policy brokers. There is a growing recognition that improving the resilience of social-ecological systems is more effective and sustainable than providing humanitarian aid once a crisis has already hit a region. However, issues of power, agency and equity are hardly paid attention to. At the same time, resilience has no automatic link to poverty alleviation and can be good and bad. Some systems (such as dictatorships or the global food system) are remarkably resilient, with resilience being commonly understood as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize…so as to still retain essentially the same functions” (Folke et al. 2010). More exchange between development practitioners, resilience theorists and policy makers is needed to improve the applicability of the concept in the development discourse.
5. Resilience at the margin
One of the main questions then is: resilience for whom to what?, as Melissa Leach had prominently reiterated (see Lebel et al. 2006). Resilience has different meanings according to the context, and according to the actor (policy maker, businessman, smallholder, etc.). Besides, the notion of development must be critically reflected as some people(s) ‘at the margin’ (of dominant societies) might opt against a different living standard (e.g. moving from rural to urban areas) because of positive place attachment, sense of community, or landscape aesthetics. This was shown by various case studies in the session “resilience at the margin”. Moreover, traditional social institutions can be sources of innovation, adaptive learning, and of resilience where scientists/ practitioners can learn from.
6. The role of scientists
So, after all, what should be the role of scientists in the light of resilience theory? Firstly, we should communicate our research and inform (development) practitioners and policy makers. At the same time, as a lot of research is still conducted place-based, it should be our task to ‘upscale’ (indigenous/ social) innovation capacity, for instance by setting up knowledge-sharing platforms or exchange mechanisms among communities. By cooperating with local groups and local policy makers, we can contribute to capacity building and community empowerment. We should not forget that there is a massive ‘middle class’ of well-educated, social media users, which to address should be of prior concern. Changing their behavior towards more sustainable lifestyles would help empower the most vulnerable, and curb ‘extreme power’ at the same time (see graph). Scientists need to be cautious not to be ‘coopted’ by the powerful. On the contrary, we should contribute to fostering transformative pathways (e.g. involving alliances with bottom-up initiatives and citizen groups) to challenge the current, unfortunately quite resilient socio-economic structures.
Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art20/
Lebel, L., J. M. Anderies, B. Campbell, C. Folke, S. Hatfield-Dodds, T. P. Hughes. and J. Wilson. 2006. Governance and the capacity to manage resilience in regional social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 11(1): 19. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art19/