What is resilience thinking and what is it not

Adaptive cycleVictor Galaz‘s post Machine Fetishism, Money and Resilience Theory reflected on Alf Hornborg‘s recent paper Zero-Sum World: Challenges in Conceptualizing Environmental Load Displacement and Ecologically Unequal Exchange in the World-System, in which, among other things, Hornborg presents a partial critique of what he calls “the gospel of resilence” – resilience theory and adaptive management.

There have been many comments on Victor’s post, including responses from the paper’s author.  To highlight this discussion, I’ve hoisted some points from the comments on that post.

Alf Hornborg writes that he is waiting for a convincing response to his criticism of social-ecological resilience:

At the most general level, the rhetoric on social-ecological resilience is framed in terms of a nomothetic search for the functional principles of socio-ecological systems (SES), as if human ecology was analogous to medicine.  SES are approached like biological systems with processes of adaptation and change that can be studied from a detached, objective position. The recurrent aim is to increase our “understanding” of how SES actually function, as if more data and better models could improve our management of these systems (again, analogous to medical practice).

Rather than try to develop a conspicuously and naively non-political cybernetic etiology of socio-ecological degradation – based on the assumption that such processes, irrespective of capitalist extractivism, are universally patterned, predictable, and potentially manageable – I challenge resilience theorists to address the operation of the global economic system that is the very obvious source of such processes. The attempt to provide an abstract vocabulary for describing SES often cries out for empirical examples that might get the discussion grounded in the real politics of human-environmental relations. For example, when it is argued that we must define on which scales agency is located and how an increase or decrease of scope for agency at one level influences agency on other levels, we need to consider a concrete case in order to assess whether the concept of resilience is really the most useful way of accounting for what actually seems to be a (rather well understood) problem of power.

Is “path dependence” so much better than various understandings of cultural, social, political, and generally structural problems of inertia and conservatism?

What do we gain by rephrasing environmental conflict and armed resistance as “regulation”?

How can we hope to predict and manage the abrupt surprises and discontinuities implied by notions of “critical thresholds” and “flipping”?

Why should concepts such as “non-linear dynamics”, “disturbance”, “opportunities for innovation”, “adaptation”, and “renewal” provide a better way of understanding what Joseph Tainter and many others for decades have recognized as socio-ecological collapse?

What are, quite frankly, the discursive/ideological benefits of subsuming social systems within the vocabulary of natural science?

I find it hard to respond to this critique because I do not recognize my work or that of my colleagues in the Resilience Alliance in Hornborg’s characterization of resilience thinking.

Perhaps this is because his article only shallowly engages the resilience literature, focusing on the Linking book edited by Berkes and Folke (an overview of resilience books and articles is available on the Resilience Alliance website), but I think it may be because Resilience thinking is not a formula for explaining how the world works.  In a recent paper, Steve Carpenter and Buz Brock described resilience as:

Resilience is a broad, multifaceted, and loosely organized cluster of concepts, each one related to some aspect of the interplay of transformation and persistence. Thus, resilience does not come down to a single testable theory or hypothesis. Instead it is a changing constellation of ideas, some of which are testable through the usual practices of natural or social science. Although particular ideas may be rejected or supported, the program of research on resilience itself is evaluated in a different way. As long as resilience thinking produces interesting research ideas, people are likely to pursue it. When it seems empty of ideas, it will be abandoned or transformed into something else.

Below I give some specific response to some aspects of Homborg’s comments:

  • Neither ecosystems nor society are super-organisms – and therefore most resilience researchers do not think that medicine or health are good metaphors for managing, manipulating, or understanding ecosystems.
  • Social-ecological systems are different from ecosystems or social systems.  How they are different was specifically addressed in the 2002 book Panarchy in a chapter by Westley F, Carpenter SR, Brock WA,. Holling CS, and Gunderson LH. called “Why systems of people and nature are not just social and ecological systems”
  • Resilience thinking takes a subjective rather than objective view of systems.  Being founded in systems theory, it aims to articulate the subjective perspective from which a system is analyzed to assist in the mapping and translating between multiple perspectives.
  • I believe that more data can help us  make the world more sustainable.  Data can show where theory is wrong, identify new problems, and suggest new ways of doing things.  Science and society don’t know how to create a sustainable society – consequently I believe we need to experiment, monitor, and observe to build a better world.
  • I don’t think resilience research lacks case studies.  Researchers in the Resilience Alliance has worked on a lot of case studies.   Ellinor Ostrom in particular has done a lot of compartive case studies.
  • Homborg writes that resilience researchers are trying”to develop a conspicuously and naively non-political cybernetic etiology of socio-ecological degradation – based on the assumption that such processes, irrespective of capitalist extractivism, are universally patterned, predictable, and potentially manageable.”
    The goal of my research is to help people make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty.  I want to better understand the dynamics of human dominated ecosystems – or social-ecological systems – not “subsum[e] social systems within the vocabulary of natural science”.   I am very interested in how people interact with ecosystems and I have tried to read and collaborate with a broad set of social and natural scientists to better understand social-ecological dynamics. As far as I know, none of the various social scientists I have worked with want to subsume the social sciences within the natural sciences but rather create new ways of understanding these linked systems, especially how they cope with change and surprise.

To response to specific questions:

  • Is “path dependence” so much better than various understandings of cultural, social, political, and generally structural problems of inertia and conservatism?
    Path dependence is a shorthand way of describing these things.   The term is general and not a term produced by resilience researchers.
  • What do we gain by rephrasing environmental conflict and armed resistance as “regulation”?
    Who does that?
  • How can we hope to predict and manage the abrupt surprises and discontinuities implied by notions of “critical thresholds” and “flipping”?
    That’s what resilience research is all about. There is a lot of active research on predicting “flips” (one recent example), with lots of papers being published on it in the last few years.
  • Why should concepts such as “non-linear dynamics”, “disturbance”, “opportunities for innovation”, “adaptation”, and “renewal” provide a better way of understanding what Joseph Tainter and many others for decades have recognized as socio-ecological collapse?
    While non-linear dynamics and disturbance and general terms from math and ecology, the other concepts are exactly what some resilience researchers have added to Tainter’s analysis.  Many resilience researchers are interested in how to avoid collapse and actively transform systems to new better states.  These concepts are new additions to our exploration of social-ecological systems.

Resilience researchers believe that because living in a human dominated biosphere, in which our way of life is destabilizing the ecological systems that stabilize our life support systems, learning how to be resilient to shocks and surprise are useful and important research goals.

I do this type of research because, I want to contribute to making human impacts on the biosphere positive rather than negative, and doing this requires a better, richer, understanding how social-ecological systems actually work.

2 thoughts on “What is resilience thinking and what is it not”

  1. The models produced by resilience scientists are intended to help us understand complexity, to somehow make the emergent properties of living systems more knowable and more manageable, but the models are in themselves complex and open to many kinds of interpretation that will largely depend on the worldview of the observer. As a natural resource manager, I see resilience models as being less about the slippery concepts of resilience, capital and connectedness, and being more about descriptors of change processes. To me, the adaptive cycle, how it relates to poverty and rigidity and how interactions between nested systems operating at multiple levels of scale to create novelty and surprise, are simple tools for understanding change processes. Whether society can apply these models to develop our capacity for adaptation or transformation, and the purpose of such adaptations or transformation will depend on what people want to achieve and how they translate complex concepts into action for change.

    I would be interested to know how other people view resilience models and their potential uses.

  2. I agree with Mike that Resilience involves some slippery concepts that may mean different things to different people. However, I find that Resilient Assessment techniques are a useful way of engaging stakeholders with systems rather than elaborately defined outputs. As a natural scientist, I find the extension of the ecosystem model to include those who manipulate the ecosystem a very helpful move. The ecosystem metaphor shares all the problems of boundaries and scale intrinsic to Social Ecological Systems but nevertheless it is an invaluable tool. As someone involved with groups who are in negotiation with policy makers, I find that encouraging thinking about SES in the context of Upland Cultural Landscapes provides useful insights.
    If anyone reading this is planning to attend the 15th International Symposium on Society and Resource Management, in Vienna (5 –8 July 2009), you will have the opportunity to debate these issues in an Open Space workshop on the role of Social Ecological Systems in Upland Cultural Landscapes “Resilience or transformation? Who should decide?” This Workshop will also hear Keynotes from our guest speaker Prof Astier Almedom and also Alessandro Gretter of FEM and myself. Please come and join us on 8 July 2009, from 15.20 to 17.00.
    Whether you can attend or not, please contact us if you are interested in the subject matter of either this event or one in Italy on 10 July. This is a meeting on “Studies in Alpine communities in a time of change. Methods to identify resilient outcomes of high social, economic and ecological value” and will be held at the IASMA Research and Innovation Centre – Fondazione Edmund Mach (FEM) in San Michele all’Adige, Trento, Italy, from 9.00 to 14.00.

    FEM is engaged on research in which we wish to apply some resilience principles, so we will be very interested to hear from those with experience of upland cultural landscapes.

    Ian Soane

    Hon Research Fellow
    University of Lancaster

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