The Resilience Mandate
The rise to dominance of resilience thinking and its malcontents
Look at the first few sentences of most academic papers in the environmental sciences over the last decade and I wager you’ll see the word “resilience”. Resilience (and resilient) is the term that researchers reach for when they get to the point where they are trying to express why their work is justified—what their contribution will help society achieve. It is used, most frequently, to say what social, ecological and even individual systems need to become or do, instead of what they are now or are doing— collapsing, broken, in peril, beyond limits, vulnerable, at risk. It is used a lot these days in conversations surrounding food systems and agriculture transformation in searching for the qualities of what farming systems should be rather than what they are now. Reading these sentences with a little scrutiny and it becomes clear that when the author writes resilient, they mean better in some way. It’s one of the tricks of scientific writing that usually demands an effort to remove normative stances, but because values and politics are embedded in everything, it’s not too hard to spot when the suggestions of what is “good” and “bad” come in.
Building a resilient protected area system of the future is likely to be a continuing project, growing and improving as we learn more about species, ecosystems, threats, and the nature of future change through coordinated monitoring programs.
New mindsets, collaborations and technological applications will be needed to ensure a just, sustainable and resilient food system in the long term.
Full disclosure, I’ve just looked at my own papers, and I’ve used resilience in this way at least once in every paper.
What could possibly be wrong with referring to resilience as a normative good? Well, it has become a dominant, even hegemonic concept of policy ideation. When something becomes so ubiquitous and epistemic, it’s worth taking a critical look.
Resilience comes from materials science, a term used to describe the state of something as it responds to perturbation and shock. In this way, resilience can be measured and observed—introduce a shock to some material and see what the response is. Does it spring back to its original state? Does it transform into something else—something disfigured and broken? Or perhaps something hardened and crystalline? What properties make something break or bend when pushed? How much energy is expended to maintain a state?
In this way, resilience has the veneer of objectivity, placing it in the domain of empirical observation and even test-control studies.
Resilience has transitioned somewhat neatly into the natural sciences, as ecologists had already been working for many years on viewing some ecosystems from the perspective of a series of “states” in a process of succession: Given enough time and adequate biological ingredients and the result is something like a Boreal forest, or marine reef. Resilience thinking added onto this, leading to productive dialogue about how ecosystems, when disturbed by things like fire, flood, extreme climate, and habitat destruction respond—changing back into their original structure, but sometimes transforming into something completely different.
We can see how this type of thinking is useful for applied science and policy makers. If humans are drawing some benefit from a forest and we are learning that the next time a strong wind comes along the whole thing will transform into a shrubby mess, forever, we might be spurred into action to keep that forest as a forest even if the strong wind comes along. From this, ecologists confidently recommend things like clear cutting a forest means it won’t come back, but removing isolated trees or a series of patches, and the forest with all that valuable timber can be counted on to return. To be fair, there is a bit of descriptive weight to the term, indicating a set of features and processes that stand up the longevity of any given state. To some extent the processes and parts that make something resilient are evidence-based and has served the science policy interface well.
Given this core of coherent rationale, a more abstract theoretical-ization of resilience thinking starts to emerge, complete with conceptual diagrams that we are now taught in university like the “ball and cup” metaphor and a slew of Panarchy diagrams.
These theories posit that we can view every system as subject to the core concepts of semi-permanent states, processes that encourage stability and response to disturbance. The idea now pervades thinking in business, education, policy making non-profit mission statements —well beyond the study of single ecosystems. Children are being told that they need something called “grit” in order to succeed amongst the challenges of the teetering 21st century educations system. Without it, the discomfort of learning difficult things pushes students into an unproductive state where they can’t learn efficiently. Grit is proposed as something that can be measured and should be installed in curriculum. A company that goes bankrupt did so because it wasn’t resilient. We are told that a resilient mind is one that can fend of psychological trauma. Google “COVID-19 and resilience” and see the reams of government sponsored relief opportunities for disease response and community repair.
Here is where things go off the rails and introduce some hidden dangers for researchers who settle on “resilient” when what they really mean is better.
When it comes to land and food systems, the first question a social scientist should ask is “resilient for whom?” By focusing concern over the ideal state of a system, without debating the values of the ideal, the processes of agricultural function become more important that who farms and through what types of livelihoods.
Let’s assume that some technical debates over a climate resilient production system are somewhat resolved through agronomic investigation. Policy makers create incentives for farmers to implement these evidence-based changes. Where would these changes most likely to occur? Its easy to see how in the name of resilience the landscapes with the most simplified land tenure (single large land owners and land owning institutions) would have the greatest capacity to benefit from the new resilience policy environment and implement changes at a scale relevant to the global climate. Smallholders are excluded from this policy imaginary, leaving them labelled as backwards, heel-dragging and uninformed. A perverse outcome emerges where agricultural resilience is achieved, but in an unjust manner, where owners of capital seize the political support and moral authority.
This appears more reality than abstraction. The rise of concepts of rewilding, land sparing, and half earth philosophies are gaining traction, because both policy makers and current land owning interests stand to benefit. For a policy maker concerned with mitigating climate change they want to see more land convert to climate smart agriculture. For a landowner, they want to keep control over their assets and maintain their role of land steward. And of course, the proportion land ownership is heavily skewed by race and gender, suggesting that a drive to achieve resilience may encourage homogenisation and consolidation.
Second, resilience thinkers make the argument that dominant food systems, characterised by input intensive monocultures aligned with global value chains should be changed because they are not resilient. There is some purchase here as scholars observe the many failings of these systems; super weeds defying the most advances herbicides, crop disease that spreads most rapidly in monocultures, export-oriented crops tanking because of pure market volatility etc. But look closely and it is clear these systems follow their own strategies of maintaining the status quo that are consistent and powerful, even if pernicious and unjust.
The systems implicated in the corporate food regime use well tested systems to respond to “shocks.” They exploit labor in new ways to remain in the black, rely on synthetic inputs to keep their declining soil fertility up, and apply cheap pesticides (backed by years of government funded R&D) to maintain high productivity. Each of these flows of inputs and labor are propped up by deep political interests. All the financial, agronomic and political signals are geared toward preserving the state of high yielding monocultures. In this way, food system resilience is a moving target manufactured by political priorities, but interpreted by natural scientists as observable phenomena. If the theories of resilience hold true for agricultural systems, the unstable states should “release” and transform through their own logics. But if the political dimension isn’t accounted for with enough weight, we will be waiting around forever for industrial monocultures to one day change without intervention.
These issues are representative of worrying problems with resilience thinking’s uncritical deployment. A number of scholars from human geography, anthropology and science and technology studies observed the rising dominance of resilience thinking and have written extensively on their collective shock. For any researcher tempted to reach for resilience as part of their scholarly argument, the argument is crucial to grapple with. By way of summary, I break down the critique of resilience thinking into three sections.
First, if the core feature of resilience is the maintenance of a system, doing to work to ensure resilience prevents the capacity for change, which is especially relevant for those who are subject to unjust and constraining systems. Second, the notion of a resilient system sacrifices an entitlement to security in the name of individual responsibility. Third, a global acceptance of resilience as the ideal trait teaches us that we must accept a world in perpetual state of disaster, rather than struggle to be freed from this constant state of preparedness and associated despair.
1) The right to change state
The first critique of resilience challenges the seeming universal good that is one’s capacity to resist stress or a shock. When resilience thinking made its way over from ecological systems to socio-ecological systems, it appears to have failed to understand how humans wield power and intentions to create systems. For some systems, the mandate to resist change is a demand to stay still. While resilience may be a useful metaphor for some systems, it appears to leave out a conversation about which systems are desirable to keep around and which ones are exploitative and unjust. If the only good systems are the ones that resist change, then we give tacit approval to durability, where what might be needed is transformation. Raven Cretney writes:
Resilience as a framework does not provide guidance towards a future that is unquestionably beneficial to society and the environment. In this view, actions taken in the name of resilience have less to do with theoretical socio-ecological resilience and more to do with the values and motivation of those taking action.
The problem here is that resilience abstracts the crucial debate over what systems are desirable by replacing desirability with “ability to resist shocks”. Yet the debate over which systems to keep and which to discard is sorely needed. To have this debate properly requires careful description of who has the power to decide what is good, with what evidence and through what decision-making frameworks.
2) Responsibility without power
The second critique of resilience shows how neatly it aligns with doctrines of personal responsibility in an era of retreating state provisioning of resources. Resilience thinking replaces an entitlement of security with a responsibility to adapt. Brad Evans and Julian Reid, leading critics of resilience thinking write:
Building resilient subjects involves the deliberate disabling of the political habits, tendencies and capacities of peoples and replacing them with adaptive ones. Resilient subjects are subjects that have accepted the imperative not to resist or secure themselves from the difficulties they are faced with but instead adapt to their enabling conditions. (Evans and Reid 2013)
Only doing labor to adapting to conditions of stress means not questioning what caused those conditions to arise. In the name of resiliency an insecure farm tenant is asked to implement practices to improve their margins over the short term, not question the tenant-landlord relationship. The consequence of this feature of resilience thinking is the way resiliency interventions neatly align with ideologies that would see the “roll-back” of the state to engage with the safeguarding of citizen’s well-being. As Cretney writes:
The lack of acknowledgement of politics, power, inequality and agency provides fertile ground for those wishing to perpetuate neoliberal ideology to engage resilience as a tool.
Cretney’s review of resilience thinking embedded in large scale policy ideation and development projects shows how the state employs resilience thinking to mandate decentralised responsibility for wellbeing, but without any of the power to do so. Accomplishing this, the sites of impoverishment, disaster and economic failure can now be framed as individual failures:
The danger, for development policy and practice, of errantly interpreting the concept of resilience as a characteristic of individuals or groups is that it could be construed as a justification to blame those who are most vulnerable and least able to marshal the resources necessary for developing resilient trajectories. Such an approach fails to adequately recognize the ways in which the adaptive capacity of individuals and groups is constrained by a variety of structures and organizations, as well as the entrenched dynamics of power. (Walsh-Dilley, Wolford, and McCarthy 2016)
3) The acceptance that we live in a perpetual state of disaster
In Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously Brad Evans and Julian Reid excoriate the oppression that is dominance of resilience as an ideology. What impressed me the most of their argument is how depressing the world becomes if we don’t challenge the hegemony of the resilient life. If the need for self-preservation is an epistemic mandate, then perpetual disaster is an inevitability and without recourse. In this way, resilience is merely a tool of neo-liberalism to strip autonomy from groups who would otherwise demand changes through legitimate appeals to authority. The authors suggest we have abandoned hope of a secure life by making ourselves busy with the work of resilience.
I’m reminded of two aqueous parables with the exact opposite moral conclusion:
In the first, a person is walking the beach at an extreme low tide and is shocked to see a vast number of starfish stranded, soon to be desiccated and killed by the hot sun. Suddenly, they see another passer-by climbing over the rocks, lifting the starfish one by one and tossing them further back into the water. The first person exclaims
“You fool, there are thousands of starfish, you’ll never rescue them all!”
The passer-by responds pointing to the starfish in her hand:
“I’m helping this one.”
In the second, a family is picnicking by a river when suddenly they see a number if distressed swimmers floating downstream calling for help and gasping for air. The family jumps into action, jumping into the water and pulling the swimmers to shore. But more people keep coming from around the river bend in desperate need. The family is reaching their breaking point in their rescue effort. At this moment, one of the sisters abruptly ceases her effort and starts walking away, seemingly exhausted. A brother asks his sister
“Don’t give up! Why would you leave us at this moment of need?” To which the sister replies
“I’m going upstream to find out what has happened to all of these people.”
In the first parable, it is virtuous to not be overwhelmed by a calamity and to do the work of mitigation and amelioration, even if partial. The shocked beach goer is a waste, stunned into non-action.
In the second, the point of saving the distressed swimmers is pointless if the root causes aren’t investigated, even at the expense of a rescue effort.
When I was younger, the first parable moved me more and obviously, now the second. But I think what the dominance of resilience thinking indicates is that it mandates the rescue operation and prevents the sister from going upstream. The logic goes, there will always be a steady stream of victims, so the good work is getting better at saving them. Lifting my head up from this writing and I can’t ignore that the world I see is one of a constant flow of distress and the deployment of countermeasures.
Despite the well-defined critiques of the implications of resilience thinking, the concept is very dominant in contemporary socio-technical research and technocratic policy making. It’s utility has been defended vigorously. Writing in response to critiques of their book, Evans and Reid write:
We are also exhausted by resilience. It nihilism is devastating. Its political language enslaving. Its modes of subjectivity lamenting. And its political imagination notably absent. That is why we have decided after this volume to never write, publicly lecture or debate the problematic again. We will not engage with those who would have us brought into some dialectical orbit in order to validate its reverence by making it some master signifier in order to prove its majoritarian position. Yes, the doctrine of resilience at the level of policy and power is ubiquitous. And yet in terms of emancipating the political, it is already dead.
I’m a few years late in taking in the resilience problematic, but now I can’t stop seeing it everywhere. Reformers claim that social and political considerations can be injected into resilience thinking, aligning it with the power-laden decision making frameworks of actual socio-technical systems. Others search for new terms and concepts that produce the right type of power aware policy action, delicately tip-toeing around the resilience concept.
As a scholar I have two conclusions.
The first is to promise to be more careful when suggesting land and food systems become more resilient without asking “for whom?” Doing so will help reveal the values and positionality behind such claims, doing the work of stirring what I see as a much needed public debate.
Second, observing the uncritical deployment of resilience is an opportunity to invigorate a debate that is political and power aware. This should be a priority for meaningful research to aggressively interrogate sites where new policies, technologies and systems claim the high ground of resilience without examining the embedded power relations within.
Image by Hernán De Angelis is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0