Building Resilience in Ontario – more than metaphor or arcane concept

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s latest annual report entitled “Building Resilience”. This was a pleasant surprise. Off the top, the Commissioner’s report credits Buzz Holling and the ecological origins of resilience and offers the example of forest fire regimes in Northern Ontario and the systems’ inherent capacity for renewal. Further on the report applies resilience thinking to specific issues including biodiversity conservation and implications of a new MNR (Ministry of Natural Resources) biofibre policy to burn forestry “wastes” for fuel:

“Transforming waste to energy and revenue certainly is attractive from a short-term efficiency standpoint. But there are long-term cycles in play too. An appreciation of resilience dynamics would encourage managers to think hard about the long-term ecosystem functions of these “wastes,” including their role as reserve capital, held in store for the next generation. If nutrient-rich branches, needles and leaves are increasingly harvested rather than left on the forest floor to decompose, what will be the consequences for nutrient cycling? What increased stresses may this place on forest soil fertility, on communities of soil micro-organisms and on future forests?”

Inadvertently, the report also amused with its initial introduction of resilience as an “arcane concept that has lurked in the dank halls of ecological academia for almost four decades”. I’d prefer to think of it as a concept that has been simmering. At any rate, resilience thinking appears to be finding a place in Ontario.

The spring issue of Alternatives journal, Canada’s national environmental magazine, echoes the title “Building Resilience” and offers both a “Hardcore Guide to Resilience” and an interview with Buzz Holling. In addition a piece by Andrew McMurry on “The Rhetoric of Resilience” offers some insight from a linguistic perspective on why perhaps the term itself might be resonating so strongly at this particular point in time:

“Resilience answers nicely to the real and rhetorical exigence. To be sure, resilience is in one sense merely the capacity of systems to absorb stress and maintain or even repair themselves. But resilience is also metaphor that embodies a number of characteristics that Aristotle required of all good figures of speech: it is active, primordial, concise and appropriate.

Resilience implies action, as in “building resilience”. To be resilient suggests an inner toughness: the strength, as its etymology tells us, to “jump back” to a previous state. Sustainability, by contrast, suggests a defensive posture: a desire to stay the same, to resist change, without the attractive ability to push back against change and win out. Resilience also connotes a measure of risk, while sustainability suggests that systems are set: they simply need to be cared for and so carried forward. Resilience acknowledges that risk is a constant, and that systems are always in a struggle against dissipation. If the seas are always calm and the weather mild, you don’t need to be resilient. But in this world, you must be resilient to survive.”

One thought on “Building Resilience in Ontario – more than metaphor or arcane concept”

  1. This is a fascinating and thought-provoking consideration of the trade-offs between a frame of resilience and one of sustainability. Respecfully, I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions however.

    I don’t think sustainability connotes stasis, rather I think it implies a sense of being constantly renewed or replenished and of being “self-reliant” (what Gary Snyder might call self-organizing) in that it implies that it can sustain itself. Resilience is certainly a fundamentally admirable and a critical capacity (in individuals and social systems) but it implies that there is some irritant that must be bounced back from. So, yes, perhaps resilience implies being more embattled…maybe it’s a feistier term but I think it is not more inherently change-tolerant than sustainability. If the question in sustainability is whether a system can, in fact, be sustained, that doesn’t seem categorically different than whether a system can resile, or maintain resilience. In fact, resilient usually implies that one has weathered a storm–meaning not moved from one’s original place despite hardship. In this way resilience connotes exceptional hardiness but not change. Many of the modifiers we use with resilience imply stasis–remaining resilient, maintaining resilience.

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