Hello RC24 members and friends, and welcome to our first ever blog entry! My thoughts today began with a simple query: what is the verb associated with the concept of “resilience”? Sustainability, after all is at least as frequently discussed in relation to verbs, which imply the form of action needed to pursue or maintain a state of sustainability—i.e. to sustain, to develop sustainably. But how often do we discuss “resiling”? It turns out this is in fact a verb. To resile, according to the Oxford Dictionary, refers to “abandoning a position or course of action.” By extension, resilience refers to bouncing back, in other words abandoning a particular trajectory that presumably leads to collapse or transformation. So to achieve resilience in effect would seem to require the exact opposite type of action as does sustainability. In some ways, this little query has offered me renewed enthusiasm for continuing to play with the concept of resilience in environmental sociology. The scale of ecological crises we currently face, after all, certainly do call for abandoning our current courses of action, and indeed abandoning positions as well, of the paradigmatic sort.
Critiques of the concept of resilience abound, however, and many warrant concerted acknowledgement. I have spoken in the past of the rather simplistic notions of human agency embedded in contemporary accounts of resilience (Davidson 2010), simplifications that lead implicitly to supporting rather rationalist and functionalist assertions of the actions of both individuals and institutions. As well, it is uncomfortably lacking in any ethical sensitivity to the difference between the various types of upheavals and adjustments celebrated as ‘resilience-inducing’ among animal and plant populations (depopulation, fire, migration, etc.), and the requisite ‘adjusting’ of human communities. I am not particularly happy about the prospect of my neighbourhood undergoing a cycle of development, collapse and renewal, thank you very much.
More recently, MacKinnon and Derickson (2013) provide a compelling, and scathing, analysis of the term. Among the most notable critiques, observing that resilience is often ascribed to human settlements of various sizes, MacKinnon and Derickson (p. 261) note: “viewing cities and regions as self- organizing units is fundamentally misplaced, serving to divorce them from wider processes of capital accumulation and state regulation.” Indeed!
MacKinnon and Derickson attribute the lion’s share of their critique, however, not to the utility of the term as a conceptual framework to guide research, but rather its uptake beyond academia, where, in short, the authors catalogue the many ways in which the term has served to download responsibility for crisis response, at times onto vulnerable populations; to de-politicize processes that cause ecological and financial crises in the first place; and in general, serve the interests of neoliberalism. I definitely agree, and we in the environmental social sciences ought to critique such applications, particularly given the relative lack of critique in public discourse currently. This is certainly not the first time a concept that emerged in academia has been co-opted to serve the purposes of political actors, in many cases to validate or otherwise reinforce the pursuit of a pre-existing paradigm that serves privileged interests, in this case neo-liberalism. Ecological Modernization immediately comes to mind, and before it, Sustainable Development and Limits to Growth were both creatively employed by various privileged actors.
However, I am concerned we might be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. We need to separate constructive critical evaluation of the concept of resilience as a framework guiding scholarship, and our critiques of the mean by which the concept has been taken up politically. I think tossing resilience into the dustbin of outmoded academic concepts would be premature. There are very real concerns about the scale of hazards looming on the horizon, and just how livable this planet is going to be in 2100, or even 2050. We do need to start taking the notions of ‘system’, ‘adaptation,’ and ‘transformation’ more seriously, and here resilience seems to have some tools on offer. Is resilience a useful framework? I think we cannot do justice to this question until environmental sociologists take up the concept far more enthusiastically than we have to date, and seek ways to contribute our own insights to continued, inter-disciplinary conceptual development of the framework itself. More to the point, do we even need a single, agreed-upon framework in order for environmental sociology to offer meaningful contributions to constructive social change? My answer is no, and in the end, perhaps we spend too much time seeking that perfect one-size-fits-all model, a pursuit that Kuhn pointed out long ago is not an especially fruitful use of our collective energy.