Tag Archives: Alf Hornborg

Political Ecology and Resilience

posterI will be participating in a public discussion Resilience and Political Ecology at Upssala University April 27th in a moderated discussion with Prof. Alf Hornborg a professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, which will be moderated by Eva Friman from the Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development, Uppsala University

The discussion will be Friday 27 April 2012, 14.15-17.00,  Hambergssalen, Geocentrum, Villavägen 16, Uppsala University. More information is on the DevNet website here and here.

Alf Hornburg and I previously had an online discussion on this blog where I tried to understand and respond to his critique of resilience, based on a review Victor Galaz had of a recent paper of his.  I expect that the discussion will be interesting and I hope that there will be some fruitful discussion.

While the discussion has been framed by the organizers as a debate, I do not see political ecology and resilience as opposed.  Indeed, I wrote a 1999 paper in Ecological Economics -Political ecology and ecological resilience: An integration of human and ecological dynamics - (doi:10.1016/S0921-8009(00)00217-2) that suggested some ways I thought ideas from political ecology could be included in resilience thinking.  While resilience researchers have long argued that issues of power need to be included in resilience thinking there hasn’t been a mass movement towards their integration, but there have been a fair number of researchers how have attempted to explicitly combine aspects of political ecology and resilience thinking.

For people that are interested in thinking I’ve stated a group on Mendeley to share papers that attempt to integrate resilience and political ecological theory and methods.  Right now there are about 30 papers in there, but I expect there are a number that have been missed, and I hope Resilience Science readers can add them to the group.

I haven’t carefully read all the papers in the Mendeley group, but three papers that I found particularly interesting are:

  • Karl S Zimmerer’s 2011 The landscape technology of spate irrigation amid development changes: Assembling the links to resources, livelihoods, and agrobiodiversity-food in the Bolivian Andes.  Global Environmental Change 21(3) 917-934. doi:  10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.04.002,
  • McSweeney and Coomes 2001 Climate-related disaster opens a window of opportunity for rural poor in northeastern Honduras<.  PNAS 108(13)  5203-5208.doi:  10.1073/pnas.1014123108
  • Turner and Robbins 2008 Land-Change Science and Political Ecology: Similarities, Differences, and Implications for Sustainability Science.  Annual Review of Environment and Resources 33(1) 295-316. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.environ.33.022207.104943

Conceptual diagram from Turner and Robbins

Books of the decade in ecocultural theory

Screen shot from the blog “immanence” by Adrian J Ivakhiv

On his blog “immanence“, Adrian J Ivakhiv,  proposes an interesting list of the “books of the decade in ecocultural theory”. Please, check the whole list at his blog.

The three first books are by (1) William E. Connolly on Neuropolitics, (2) Arturo Escobar on social movements and ecological-cultural dynamics, and (3) Graham Harman on Latour and metaphysics.

He also lists several other interesting books that did not make it to the top ten, including books by Bruce Braun, Sarah Whatmore, Alf Hornborg, Donna Haraway, Tim Ingold, Bruno Latour, Doreen Massey, and John Law amongst several others.

Here follows the top three, including Adrian’s personal motivation:

The Immanence ‘Top 10′

1. William E. Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (University of Minnesota Press, 2002) — This was the book that most coherently and provocatively connected together the entire set of interests I had been grappling with at the time — consciousness, neuroscience, affect/emotion, religious experience, the potentials of film and media, and, centrally, the possibilities for political and cultural change in our time. Connolly’s work in political theory has continually pushed far beyond the bounds of that field. While his Pluralism and the forthcoming A World of Becoming may signify a certain fruition of his thinking, his articulation of the thickly entwined interconnections between biology and culture in Neuropolitics, under the rubric of “immanent naturalism,” provocatively set out a range of avenues of exploration, which this blog has been active in pursuing and documenting.

2. Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes (Duke University Press, 2008) — A tremendous synthesis that places social movements — actual people doing things together to change their worlds — at the center of thinking for how the ecological-cultural dynamic is changing in our time. Other books of environmental anthropology (by Anna Tsing, Paige West, and others) and of political ecology (by Paul Robbins, Biersack and Greenberg, and others) could be on this list, but Escobar engages conversations across these fields and others in the most provocative and satisfying ways.

3. Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press, 2009) — While Harman’s Tool-Being and Guerrilla Metaphysics may be his more lasting philosophical contributions, this book, which first brought anthropologist of science Bruno Latour firmly into the ambit of philosophy, introduced me — and judging by internet activity, many others — to the growing movement of post-Continental-philosophical “speculative realism.” As a movement that tries to theorize the make-up of the world in ways that completely avoid traditional dualisms (culture/nature, society/ecology, etc.), it’s a breath of fresh philosophical air, and one that has influenced the development of this blog much more than I could have known when I started it.

In presenting his blog, Adrian’s writes:

[The blog is an] online space for environmental cultural theory, this weblog has two primary objectives: (1) To communicate about issues at the intersection of ecological, political, and cultural thought and practice [... and] (2) To contribute to the development of a non-dualist understanding of nature/culture, mind/body, spirit/matter, structure/agency, and worldly relations in general.

Machine Fetishism, Money and Resilience Theory

Here comes the “resilience backlash”. After some considerable praising of resilience theory the last years – for example by Fast Company, Foreign Policy, and the Volvo Environment Award – human ecologist Alf Hornborg from Lund (Sweden), elaborates some harsh criticism in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Comparative Sociology. Although the article is almost impossible to summarize in a brief way – as it includes topics ranging from unequal exchange in the world system, “machine fetishism”, to the limitations of organizational learning – this quote captures the main criticism:

“In order to remain within acceptable discursive territory, politicians and researchers alike are expected to assume a profoundly critical stance vis-à-vis current patterns of consumption, transports, and energy use, yet continue to offer pathways to sustainability that do not seem too uncomfortable or provocative. This explains why the rallying-cry of the early 21st century is not ‘revolution’ (as in the early 20th century), but ‘resilience’.”

The key argument running throughout the paper is related to one of the weak spots of resilience theory: asymmetrical distribution of resources and power in social systems.

As a social scientist, I share Hornborg’s concern that resilience theory has been poor in elaborating the power dynamics of social-ecological change. On the other hand, Hornborg misses a range of issues that provide a much more balanced picture of what resilience is intended – and not intended – to do. Here are four quick points:

1. We know it

Yes Alf, “power” – however we choose to define it – has been problematic to integrate within the framework of social-ecological systems. On the other hand, resilience scholars are well aware of the problem, and some attempts have been made already. Elinor Ostrom – one of the most influential social science thinkers in the resilience community, but not at all mentioned in Hornborg’s article – has written extensively on the role of local collective action, institutions, and good governance. Her work does not explicitly deal with “power” as I assume that Hornborg would define it, but it does unpack the features of collective decision-making, how centralized policies often fail to deliver sustainable results, as well as the need for multilevel, nested institutions to deal with rapid market change and stresses. The wording might be different, but the main message is the same: communities and ecosystems are under severe pressure from globalized markets, and the impacts tend to affect the poorest the most. So, no disagreement there I assume.

2. We are getting there

There is a wide spread notion that resilience theory is advanced by ecologists trying to apply ecological theory on social systems (e.g. Hornborg pp. 253). This is not the case. In fact, there are a range of interesting attempts to integrate insights from complex systems theory, with social theory and ecology. Stephan Barthel’s work on social-ecological memory, as well as Henrik Ernstson’s work on the dynamics of power in social networks in urban ecology, are two great examples of how social theory is being integrated with resilience insights. Personally, I’m coordinating the collaboration with the Earth System Governance Project – an international research network that explores the role of agency, accountability, access, allocation, and adaptiveness in global environmental governance. Topics here include the possible creation of a “World Environment Organization”; the severe “trust-gap” between developed and developing countries in climate negotiations: and the international systems inability to create a legal framework to strengthen the security of environmentally induced migrants (e.g. “climate refugees”). It doesn’t get more political than this.

3. Resilience is not a theory about everything…

But sure, resilience scholars could maybe do more. On the other hand, there is a trade-off here. “Resilience” is – just like any other scientific theory – not a theory about everything. In my view, it is a theory of change in complex social-ecological systems, and a way to understand a range of novel institutional and political challenges.

4. … but it provides a range of interesting insights

And to wrap up: I’m not sure whether the suggestion that “the only way of achieving ‘sustainability’ would be by transforming the very idea and institution of money itself” (Hornborg pp. 257), is the way to go. It might be a matter of problem framings and political taste really, but I prefer the combination of practical, but disruptive social-ecological innovations that enhance human security in an ecological literate way. Might sound like an impossibility, but Chris Reij’s work in Niger and Burkina Faso, Elin Enfors’ and Line Gordon’s work on small-scale water innovations in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the World Resources Institute  report “Roots of Resilience”, comes to mind.

The social sciences doubtlessly have a critical role to play for resilience thinking. But I’m not sure whether Hornborg really elaborates this role in an interesting, constructive and creative way.