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.

22 thoughts on “Machine Fetishism, Money and Resilience Theory”

  1. If Hornburg’s indeed a human Ecologist, it surprises me he would have an issue with ecologists applying their approaches to social science, in that that’s kind of the point of Human Ecology:

    “Human ecology is the study of relationships between humans and nature, all intimately connected in a web of interactions. In the Human Ecology Programme, we see humans as part of ecosystems – not as actors having an effect on the environment ‘out there’, but each one of us as part of the environment of everyone else, and as part of the environment of every other species.

    ‘Ecology’ in principle covers all of these relationships, but so often ecology studies ecosystems without humans in them. We don’t see ourselves as an unnatural component that should somehow be excluded, to avoid contaminating the study of ‘natural ecosystems’ – but we do see ourselves as distinctive, partly because we are the biggest influence on ecosystem change today, partly because we are in many ways different from all the other species.”

    (above from:

    I also am not sure transforming “money” is necessarily the way to go, but I would say that transforming economics is indeed the way to go, via an Ecological Economics approach. Just as humans are within the realm of animal ecology, economics should be seen as within, and constrained by, ecology.


  2. I also read Hornborg’s article, and I agree with Salaz that resilience theory can produce interesting (and perhaps even useful) insights. Overall, though, I’m not sure that Salaz has addressed the heart of Hornborg’s critique. I don’t think that he was complaining that not enough resilience research was addressing politics or decision-making, and I don’t think that he needed to mention Ostrom’s fine work. Hornborg was criticizing the THEORY of resilience, not its network of practitioners. And the the theory does, as he says, lack ‘power’, at least in the sense of conflict and contradiction at the heart of all social processes.
    In my opinion, resilience theory tends to flatten cultural and historical differences, naturalize some examples of brutality, oppression, and exploitation (as in, ‘was the Atlantic slave trade an aspect of alpha-phase reorganization?’), and promotes a structural-functional view of humanity. What I find particularly striking, however, is how resilience theory has become dogmatic, institutionalized, and somewhat rigid. Hornborg did not instigate a ‘backlash’; he engaged in the standard scholarly process of critique and debate. To speak of ‘backlash’ makes me think that, in its own terms, resilience theory has become a K-phase entity that is highly structured — and therefore fragile. Hornborg’s article is an example of the beginnings of a omega-phase of ‘release’ that will, the theory predicts, lead to phases of re-organization and innovative re-connection of ideas. This is not ‘backlash’ — it is normal scholarship, and probably a very good thing for resilience theory.

  3. Michael Sheridan

    I curious about why you think resilience theory has dogmatic and rigid. I see a lot of resilience researchers disagreeing with one another and using competing definitions of resilience. Brand and Jax’s 2007 paper “Focusing the meaning(s) of resilience: resilience as a descriptive concept and a boundary object” in Ecology and Society shows how resilience researchers use the resilience concept in a variety of ways.

    Did you have any specific examples in mind?

    Also the quote you give, ‘was the Atlantic slave trade an aspect of alpha-phase reorganization?’, sounds really strange. Where is it from?

  4. In a practical sense, some questions raised by Mr. Hornborg are quite familiar. Defining two properties of resilience as (1) the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and (2) the ability to transform ways that become infeasible, numerous questions of distinction arise. Which social norms and/or institutions are adaptable to current and future needs and which require and more fundamental transformation?

  5. I am glad to see that my article in the IJCS is provoking discussion, but I think I have the right to assume that people commenting on it have actually read it. This is very obviously not the case with “The Cascadian” (might we have the true name?), who proposes to instruct me in “the point of Human Ecology” by selectively quoting from an Oxford website. Let me emphasize that the international journal Human Ecology was founded (and is still edited) by anthropologists, who would generally not agree with The Cascadian that “humans are within the realm of animal ecology.” If ecologists know all that needs to be known about global environmental issues, why should any social scientists concern themselves with the topic? To say that there are biophysical constraints that need to be acknowledged by the economists (one of my points) is NOT to say that we don’t need to understand culture, power, and economics in order to address sustainability (another of my points). I would appreciate it if further references to my argument will reflect familiarity with what I have argued.

  6. I hate to invoke the shopworn quote from George Box, but I think it has a bit of resonance here: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I don’t think resilience theory – adaptive cycle, panarchy, etc. – is meant to be an airtight framework to describe socio-ecological systems. Indeed, I don’t know of any good scientist, studying natural or social sciences, who thinks that one even exists (this is not theoretical physics, where we are pursing a grand “theory of everything”). But generality is a strength of the theory – that it can (relatively) satisfactorily apply to such a wide assortment of cases. With further development and research, the spectrum of relevant examples will no doubt continue to expand.

    I find Dr. Sheridan’s comment that resilience theory tends to “naturalize some examples of brutality, oppression, and exploitation” somewhat misplaced in the broader sense of things. The very fact that he uses “naturalize” in a negative sense, I think, is emblematic of a kind of anthropocentric ethos that flows through the social sciences. Criticizing resilience for (allegedly) “naturalizing” certain objectionable aspects and events of human society reminds me, to a much smaller extent, of the furor over sociobiology. The controversy over that theory/field’s application in the domain of human society, which infamously resulted in E. O. Wilson getting water dumped on him, is exemplary of the tension between the social and biological sciences. I don’t think resilience has gotten to that point yet, and I don’t think its tenets are nearly as “controversially” explicit. Resilience has potential to grow as an idea in the social sciences, but it’s not going to subsume those disciplines under a reductionist biological umbrella.

    Certainly historical phenomena like the slave trade are deplorable, and should be viewed by society as a whole through a moral lens. The role of scientists and scholars, however, is to ask questions and seek explanations. Resilience is not, from what I can tell, a normative framework. It’s not laden with value judgments, and I haven’t heard any proponent argue it as such. The “danger” it has of “naturalizing” deplorable human behavior (the same charge that was much more forcefully leveled against sociobiology) is not so apparent to me – you’d have to really reach for it. In other words, I don’t see some political demagogue being able to conveniently co-opt resilience theory for his own ideologically-twisted social agenda – something that ideas like phrenology, Darwinism, or even sociobiology were perhaps more susceptible to.

  7. Garry and T. have asked me to expand on my comment that Resilience Theory can be rigid and can ‘naturalize’ brutality and exploitation. On the charge of rigidity — let me illustrate with an anecdote. Several weeks ago I was riding a bus and struck up a conversation with another passenger. He was a campaigner-activist for a major environmental NGO. We got to talking about development policy and then ‘sustainability’. I commented that the term ‘resilience’ seems to be eclipsing ‘sustainability’. He agreed and said, “yes, but the funny thing is that we all debated the meaning of ‘sustainable’ before and after the Brundtland Report. This ‘resilience’ idea is different — it’s like a religious sect, because being critical of it makes its proponents give you a funny look that says, ‘so, you’re not one of us!” Just an anecdote — but it fits into my general sense that resilience is sometimes perceived as a ‘with-us-or-against-us’ matter rather than an open-ended mode of debate and analysis. This is why I reacted to Galaz using the term ‘backlash’ for what I see as good scholarship, and which is good for resilience theory.
    On the naturalization of brutality — I agree that resilience theory isn’t a ‘theory of everything’, and I am not saying that ANYONE has ever argued that various forms of exploitation are part of an adaptive cycle and therefore Good Things. But the principle of uniformitarianism suggests that if adaptive cycles provide a good lens for understanding our world, then resilience theory risks much by downplaying exploitation.
    I would like to see resilience theory be a meeting place for a debate among social scientists (especially those working in political ecology) and natural scientists (especially those working in systems ecology). Some of the key aspects of resilience theory are well-suited for this sort of interdisciplinary bridge-building (e.g., thresholds, stability domains, response diversity), but resilience theory needs a theory of social power to make it more than a lukewarm version of old-fashioned structural functionalism from a social science perspective. To do this, we must subdivide ‘power’ as a master term, because anything that explains everything really explains nothing. Much of the work in resilience studies centers on what I’d call ‘institutional power’, while social science also considers ‘discursive power’, ‘symbolic power’, and so on. The more that resilience theory considers multiple aspects of power, with particular attention to which aspects of power matter at which scales of space and time, the better it will be able to explain the dynamics of socio-ecological systems.

  8. Michael Sheridan’s response to Gary and T suggests that as with “sustainability” or “sustainable”, “resilience” has become a buzzword that is interpreted quite differently by different people depending on the context in which it is used and how the observer interprets what s/he hears and sees. This is an unfortunate but inevitable outcome in the up-take of new ideas, given the vast quantities of information available through the media and internet, and the limited time that people have to absorb and make sense of it. Differences in interpretation also reflect differences in values and world views.
    Resilience theories (adaptive cycle, panarchy and regime shifts) are relatively new and have the potential to be broadly applicable but their relevance and utility need to be constantly challenged so that we can discover their strengths and weaknesses as tools to help society navigate a complex and often turbulent world. The problems that arise from asymmetrical power relations in human systems and the implication of these for dealing with major issues such as poverty is one area that does require more attention from practitioners, policy makers and resilience scientists. Power in social systems is difficult to manage and of great importance; hence tales of the outcomes of its use and abuse are both legion and ancient. Resilience theory per se provides value neutral models that improve understanding of complex issues but in its application, resilience will inevitably become loaded with the values of those who apply it. Adaptation and transformation for the development of more resilient systems raise questions about “resilience of what to what?”, or “whose resilience are we talking about?” that lead directly to issues of power and equity.
    Application of social science theories about discursive or symbolic power to the concept of “resilience” in creating change in SES would be informative, although difficult as “resilience” has many interpretations beyond those defined by the core models used by resilience scientists. Similarly, Michael’s enigmatic but tantalizing suggestion that Atlantic slavery was part of an alpha-phase reorganization surely demands deeper consideration of the role of slavery (human energy) in economic development and for example, the extent to which this has or has not changed with exploitation of fossil fuel energy for industrialization.

  9. Thanks to everyone for all the thoughtful comments.

    Resilience researchers have attempted to address issues of power and inequality. Below are a few that I am aware of:

    Adger WN 2000
    Social and ecological resilience: are they related?

    Scheffer M, Brock W, Westley F
    Socioeconomic mechanisms preventing optimum use of ecosystem services: An interdisciplinary theoretical analysis
    ECOSYSTEMS 3(5) 451-471.

    Peterson G
    Political ecology and ecological resilience: An integration of human and ecological dynamics
    ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS 35(3) 323-336

    Adger WN, Brown K, Tompkins EL
    The political economy of cross-scale networks in resource co-management

    Lebel L, Anderies JM, Campbell B, et al.
    Governance and the capacity to manage resilience in regional social-ecological systems

    Ernstson H, Sörlin S,
    Weaving protective stories: connective practices to articulate holistic values in the Stockholm National Urban Park”
    Environment and Planning A 41(6) 1460 – 1479

    I’d be interested in any other papers people know.

  10. There is actually one more I wrote a few years ago….

    Galaz, V.
    Social-ecological Resilience and Social Conflict: Institutions and Strategic Adaptation in Swedish Water Management
    AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment
    Volume 34, Issue 7. pp. 567–572

  11. I have a couple more in a pile of papers that I have yet to read:

    Fabricius, C., C. Folke, G. Cundill, and L. Schultz. 2007. Powerless spectators, coping actors, and adaptive
    co-managers: a synthesis of the role of communities in ecosystem management. Ecology and Society 12(1):

    van der Brugge, R., and R. van Raak. 2007. Facing the adaptive management challenge: insights from
    transition management. Ecology and Society 12(2): 33.

    Cash, D. W., W. Adger, F. Berkes, P. Garden, L. Lebel, P. Olsson, L. Pritchard, and O. Young. 2006. Scale
    and cross-scale dynamics: governance and information in a multilevel world. Ecology and Society 11(2): 8.

    Garnett, S. T., J. Sayer, and J. Du Toit. 2007. Improving the effectiveness of interventions to balance
    conservation and development: a conceptual framework. Ecology and Society 12(1): 2.

  12. Still waiting for a convincing response to my criticism. 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?

  13. Alf, you will not get the type of response you are looking for in the blog comments here.

    Frankly, I find many of your criticisms strange, in that they are not address what I feel I or my colleagues do (but of course we are not a monolithic group of researchers and I cannot speak for them). But it seems that you have quite a different idea of what we are trying to do, than I do. It would be much easier to respond to some specific criticisms about some specific publications, for example some from the list of a number of papers that attempt to explore various issues of power from a resilience perspective.

    But some quick responses to your comments:

    I (and I think most resilience researchers) don’t think ecosystems or society is a super-organism – and therefore the medicine or health are poor metaphors for managing, manipulating, or understanding ecosystems.

    Many times we have written about how systems of people and nature are different from social systems or ecosystems alone!

    I do think more data will help us understand things – if you see no role for measurement and experimentation i don’t think we have much to discuss.

    I like to think I’m not too naive. And I’m sure that my goal is not as you write “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’m interesting in helping people make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty. I want to understand the dynamics of human dominated ecosystems – or social-ecological systems – not “subsuming social systems within the vocabulary of natural science” as you claim. I aim to understand all social processes – but I am very interested in how people interact with ecosystems.

    Furthermore, as far as I know, the various social scientists – political scientists, anthropologists, geographers and economists – who have worked on resilience issues want to subsume the social sciences within the natural sciences.

    Rather we share a belief think understanding how social-ecological systems cope with and reorganize is a fruitful and important area of research.

  14. Garry, I would be intrigued to hear how you or any of your resilience colleagues would describe what is currently happening in northeastern Peru in terms of the vocabulary you are promoting. Following a pattern too common to reiterate, the Peruvian government is selling rights to the hydrocarbon deposits underneath the Peruvian Amazon to international oil companies. Indigenous groups are protesting the loss and destruction of their ancestral rainforest territories by blocking roads and rivers. Dozens of people have been killed in the confrontations. Is the problem best phrased in terms of lack of resilience??

  15. Alf, I somewhat miss the point of your comment. Why should the Peruvian conflicts you mention be best phrased in terms of lack of resilience?

    Above, I wrote how I thought your characterization of what resilience thinking was trying to do was incorrect, maybe you could respond to that comment, and either clarify your statement or explain why I am wrong.

    I, and I doubt my colleagues, claim that resilience theory is useful to explain the entire world. It isn’t so useful for predicting what the outcome of elections, how much sea level rise there will be in fifty years, or what the consequences of biodiversity loss on ecosystem services will be.

    If you are actually interested in the issue of how resilience thinking deals with conflicts, some of the papers mentioned above apply resilience concepts to environmental conflicts, and most of the work in adaptive management involves conflicts between stakeholders.

    While, as far as I know, no resilience researchers are working in that area of the Amazon, a number of resilience researchers, including one of my PhD students, are working with First Nations to improve their land rights and environmental management opportunities using adaptive management and related concepts.

  16. Garry, I think the point of my comment was obvious. The Peruvian situation I mention is a very clear case of a “social-ecological system” (SES) menaced by the unsustainable practices of global extractivism. If “lack of resilience” is NOT an adequate way of accounting for the deterioration of this SES, as you seem to acknowledge, then you have simply agreed with me, a concession for which I thank you. To claim to be able to describe a SES from a combined social-science and natural-science perspective, but without consideration of the power dimensions highlighted e.g. by Political Ecology, is to ignore very significant aspects of social science. With reference to your more extensive response, I must object that the phrase “The Gospel of Resilience” is not mine, but Paul Nadasdy’s, a contributor to a 2007 volume on “Adaptive Co-management” edited by F. Berkes et al. and published by the University of Washington Press. Please read what Nadasdy has to say on how illusory are the claims by resilience theorists to side with First Nations’ land rights and “traditional resource management”…

  17. Alf

    I don’t understand what you object to about me attributing the phrase “gospel of resilience” to you. In your paper in the concluding sentence of your discussion you write:

    “In fact, [culture] is finally also responsible for our modern fascination with ‘traditional ecological knowledge’, which paradoxically has become so central to the ‘gospel of resilience’.”

    It seems pretty clear to me that you are repeating Nasaday’s phrase as your own.

    I’ve read Nasaday’s book chapter, and attended the workshops in which the chapter was presented and discussed, but I am far less impressed with his analysis than you are.

    I don’t see any problem with applying social ecological resilience concepts to Peru – however like any other theoretical framework how useful they would be depends on what questions you are trying to answer.

    I don’t understand why you appear to think that research approaches that incorporate power are inevitably in conflict with a resilience approaches. As pointed out by Victor and in this thread, a number of papers mentioned earlier in this thread that address simultaneously power and resilience various ways.

    In my initial response to your criticism I pointed out that most of your critical comments had little to do with resilience research. It appears that you concede this point as you have not responded or addressed any of these points.

  18. In line with Alf’s critique of resilience theory and with a specific focus on how resilience thinking is developed by the Resilience Alliance (RA), I challenge resilience researcher to discuss some issues I present below. Anyway, it would be interesting to see more comments on Alf’s article and not only to focus on this blog exchange of opinions. Firstly, a short comment: As the RA is open to suggestions for words to the resilience glossary I e-mailed them once (03-03-2008) suggesting six words/terms for the RA glossary. Those words/terms were the following: power, politics, conflict/conflicts, system/systems, crisis/crises and capitalism. I never got response. Nor the words have appeared in the glossary. To be honest, it does not surprise me, but: Is not it a little bit strange for people that say they are interested in social theory not to have those words/terms in mind in the glossary they offer to explain what resilience thinking is? (Capital, when is defined there simply is used in relation to natural capital). Having the problem of capital/capitalism in mind I find nothing more appropriated than remember some assumptions guiding resilience research, as for example the deep connection between resilience theory and the idea of capitalist creative destruction.

    1) Resilience theory and Capitalism. The idea of resilience is deeply based on what Holling and others call adaptive cycles. In his article ‘Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems´ (Ecosystems 2001) Holling identifies one phase of the adaptive cycle with Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction. (This idea is also contained in for example Garry´s article named in this blog). In Schumpeter’s work creative destruction is indissoluble associated with capitalism. However, capitalism is not a problem in Holling’s article. It is quite strange that though Holling bases one key-aspect of “adaptive cycles” on an implicit awareness of capitalism, any concern about capitalism as such simply disappears from the text. Besides, the question of capitalism either have not place in almost all the resilience-related literature or it is a taken for granted “condition” (For capitalism as taken for granted condition see: Gunderson et al. 2002:320 ´surprises and sustainability: cycles of renewal in the everglades´, In Panarchy). (Comments on other articles that with a basis on resilience thinking deal with capitalism are not made here because shortage of space). In Holling’s article we read: “The phase from Ω to α is a period of rapid reorganization during which novel recombinations can unexpectedly seed experiments that lead to innovations in the next cycle. The economist J. A. Schumpeter (1950) appropriately called this phase “creative destruction” ( p.395). Hollings goes on and affirms: “As potential increases, slow changes gradually expose an increasing vulnerability (decreased resilience) to such threats as fire, insect outbreak, competitors, or opposition groups. The system becomes an accident waiting to happen. A break can trigger the release of accumulated potential in what the economist Schumpeter called “creative destruction” (1950). The trajectory then moves abruptly into a back loop from K to Ω”. Is it necessary to remember again that what Schumpeter is talking about is capitalism’s creative destruction?. We have here the ideological origins of this basic assumption and taken for granted idea within a large number of resilience literature on adaptive capacity and adaptive cycles. Now we are getting into the important issue here: From Holling standpoint the idea of the adaptive cycle is clearly a way of legitimizing capitalism in its relation to inevitable “adaptive cycles”. Therefore I argue that resilience theory is bounded to a normative idea of capitalism and within this theory it is impossible to go beyond the limits of capitalism. In fact, following Holling’s idea of creative destruction (capitalist destruction) and resilience, adaptation takes place along with capitalism as an essential part of the adaptive cycle (see for example Walker&Salt 2006: 73-95). As resilience is conceived as a property of social-ecological systems that could be managed, the message of resilience theory vis-à-vis the capitalist system is that we should manage capitalism’s resilience. (for resilience as a property see: ´Panarchy: Discontinuities Reveal Similarities in the Dynamic System Structure of Ecological and Social Systems´, Garmestani et al.,2009 But being resilience theory an incoherent combination of concepts, we are also told about transformability. Yet, in this case the problem of transforming capitalism is absent as well and policy approaches based on resilience thinking should fit with the taken for granted foundational concepts and logics of the capitalist system. One of such logics is rooted is the use of money and within this context it is not surprising to hear that the idea of criticizing the role of money in regard to environmental crises sounds as something out of the agenda for resilience people. Right, Victor? Moreover, the door resilience research has opened to business resilience is just what business leaders want to hear from the academy: that they are parts of normative and ideological adaptive cycles and so they are legitimate actors in the efforts to get any kind of sustainability. Should I remember here that the book “Resilience Thinking” by Walker & Salt starts by saying that “resilience thinking should appeal to anyone interested in dealing with risk in a complex world. This includes business leaders, policy makers…” and others. Interesting piece for anyone concerned with discourse analysis. “Business leaders”, right, are the first ones in this order. It is not surprise then the fact that a branch of resilience thinking makes a lot of sense to companies and firms. See for example:
    In relation to this point, I think that the key issue here has to do with the fact that capitalism is a system that a big part of resilience research simply tries to avoid as such. And this has a direct consequence on their notions of social power. If I am wrong on this point about capitalism and resilience, I ask resilience people to say something about the place that capitalism have in their thoughts then. I argue that through ideologically avoiding the critique of capitalism as a system, even the idea of ecosystem resilience is lost in its utility for transforming the world and creating sustainable relations with ecosystems.

    2) Which is the concept of resilience we are talking about? One of the things that most surprise me is that for defending resilience theory some argue that they do not recognize Alf’s critique in the work they are doing and Garry offers a “description” of what is understood as resilience. This is not only a very weird argument but also it seems to hide the very strong, normative and very well-defined meaning of resilience in resilience theory. I recognize there are some small differences between those definitions but they aim at the same goal: to manage resilience as a property of so called social-ecological systems. Such standard and normative aspects of resilience thinking to manage social-ecological systems are the ones proposed by the resilience alliance, elaborated as a research and policy strategy in the resilience center and ultra repeated in a large number of articles published in Ecology and Society (of course there are exceptions and critical voices can be found). As we have to remember, the resilience alliance defines resilience as follows: “Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” ( Another definition is: “Resilience – the ability of a system to absorb shocks, to avoid crossing a threshold into an alternate and possibly irreversible new state, and to regenerate after disturbance” (Assessing and managing resilience in social-ecological systems: A practitioners workbook Version 1.0 June 2007, Resilience Alliance). Nonetheless the standard definitions I have referred to above, it has been argued that there are many ways of understanding resilience. Well, that statement results at least paradoxical since in other places resilience is just a formula and a standard normative concept to be applied. And this is not just a matter of academic interests since it is aimed at reaching from practitioner to policy makers (see the workbook previously quoted) towards the goal of “managing resilience”. Interestingly, such workbook “…is structured to help guide a process of inquiry and action for those who are interested in applying the concept of resilience to complex resource problems within a region”.

    Finally I have two questions. It would be quite interesting to know what Victor, as one social scientist working with resilience theory, could say abut this post by Mike Jones: “Resilience theory per se provides value neutral models that improve understanding of complex issues but in its application, resilience will inevitably become loaded with the values of those who apply it”. Do you people really think that Resilience theory per se provides value neutral models? .Just curiosity. And Garry: what would be your critique to Nadasdy´s paper? Again, just curiosity.
    Some comments on the articles offered in defense of resilience theory are coming soon.

  19. I’m from Brasil and I started my readings about resilience a short time ago to identify principles and concepts that constructs instruments which formulate and integrate environmental management models that considers the complexity in their framework. From 80s to until recently eco-effcicency, ISO 14000 were the base to formulate environmental indicators to guide plans and policies both for public and private setor mainly due to external forces represented by the power relations that underlie our foreign debt and the demands of the market. It is impossible not evaluate the environmental management models and how it deals with the capitalist model. Especially nowadays with emergent factors arise from climate change and global economic crisis.Our realm is another from developed countries not only in economic aspects but because our historical formation as a nation, our model of development and our socio environmental features. Resilience drew my attention to allow address the socio environmental vulnerabilities from the perspective of complexity and uncertainty that underlies the interactions of ecological and social systems.

    A read the “Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems” and although the concept integrates the economic, social, cultural, political, institutional and economic aspects of the sustainability and make a parallel between the creative destruction of Schumpeter and the environmental innovation I think that this topic, resilience versus economic model, needs to be further explored and this question is not clear in the resilience concept because denotes an ideological feature that don’t combines with a neutral science if this is an objective of the resilience approach, but, despite this, resilience allows structural ruptures when compared with the concept of eco-efficiency that also permeates issues related to well-being and socio environmental innovation, but don1t include poverty, livelyhoods,path dependecy, threshold and regime shifts.

    I’d appreciate to receive your considerations about it.

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