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.