Critical Reflections on resilience thinking in the Transition Movement

The Resilience Alliance website has pointed to an interesting working paper from Alex Haxeltine, and Gill Seyfang from the Tyndall Centre in the UK Transitions for the People: Theory and Practice of ‘Transition’ and ‘Resilience’ in the UK’s Transition Movement, whose focus on developing transition towns to respond to the challenges of climate change and peak oil we have covered before on this blog.

Haxeltine and Seyfang state they write as ‘critical friends’ of the transition movement and address the transition movements equation of localism with resilience (which I believe is incorrect, and likely counterproductive).  It is wonderful to see resilience researchers engaging with they dynamic transition movement.  They write:

The specific language used is of “rebuilding resilience” – drawing on historical descriptions of towns in the UK around 100 years ago, the handbook argues that resilience has been decreased in recent decades. The narrative describes how localised patterns of production and consumption (and the associated skill sets and community cohesion) were eroded in a relentless shift to ever larger scale industrialized systems of production and consumption, made possible by the use of fossil fuel energy sources. Hopkins argues that there is now a great urgency to the need to rebuild resilience because of imminent disturbances (or shocks) in the form of peak-oil, climate change, and the associated impacts on economic systems and trading patterns (Hopkins, 2008). He links this urgency directly to our current oil dependency: “it is about looking at the Achilles heel of globalization, one from which there is no protection other than resilience: its degree of oil dependency” (Hopkins, 2008).

The framing of the Transition model provided in the handbook does explicitly draw upon the academic literature on resilience in socio-ecological systems (citing a 2006 introductory text by Brian Walker and David Salt for example), but what ideas are being taken from this literature, and to what extent is the resulting framework consistent with the interpretation of resilience quoted in section 2 of this paper? The Transition Handbook (Hopkins, 2008) cites studies of what makes ecosystems resilient, identifying: diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks:

These initial resilience indicators rely heavily on equating resilience with the re-localisation of systems of production and consumption. So the Transition Handbook could be said to provide a starting point for talking about resilience in a Transition Town, but it is still a long way from being clear about what is needed in practice. Furthermore the evidence from observation of the local Transition groups (during 2008-2009) is that they are in an equivalent situation of trying to frame multiple actions in terms of the building of resilience but relying heavily on equating resilience with a re-localisation of production-consumption patterns.

Resilience theory highlights the fact that building resilience to a specified disturbance (such as Peak Oil) does not necessarily provide the same resilience to all possible disturbances. Some properties of a Transitioning community, such as strong community networks and diverse skill sets, may help provide resilience to most disturbances, while other properties may be very specific to one disturbance. If one were to take the position that the greatest shocks in the coming years may, in the end, turn out not to be the ones that we expected, then successfully building a specific resilience to an expected threat (such as Peak Oil) may not provide resilience against realized disturbances. So what may be required is to build resilience to specific threats in a way that also builds system properties that help in coping with diverse possible threats – implying, for example, a need for a capacity to innovate.

The current framing of resilience equates resilience with localisation in a rather unquestioning way, as demonstrated by the resilience indicators given in the Transition Handbook. We would argue that increasing any one of these indicators could actually either increase or decrease resilience to a specific disturbance, depending the exact nature of the disturbance and on the exact systemic changes used to enhance the indicator. We also argue that the desirable goal is not to simply increase such indicators as much as possible, but to find the right balance between resilience and other goals, such as quality of life and well being.

5 thoughts on “Critical Reflections on resilience thinking in the Transition Movement”

  1. All interesting stuff. Another worrying thing that strikes me about the transition movement (which I’m supportive of, just so’s you know!) is a dismissal of a lot of economics. One of the most prominent geographical economics frameworks, Krugman’s, actually shows that localisation comes about through *decreasing* transport costs. That finding is based on a particular use of economies of scale and a population’s desire for variety of goods – lower transport costs = cheaper to export to other regions = makes it viable to produce locally and export, rather than always make goods where the market is. This is a particular simple dynamic that may not translate to reality in all cases. But it does at least make clear that, as this article says, likely outcomes from changes in energy prices can go many ways.

  2. Dan,

    A basic ‘new economic geography’ model of Krugaman predicts that location decisions are made on the basis of the interaction between economies of scale and transport costs.

    If transport costs go down, there is centralisation, because it is cheaper to build one big factory and export goods, due to economies of scale.

    If transport costs go up, this leads to decentralisation. I predicts what Hopkins recommends.

  3. I don’t think it is so simple with respect to transport costs or new econ. geography.

    1) Transport is a tiny part of cost of most things and fossil fuel is not a huge part of transport costs. Lots of reduction of transport costs is due to improved logistics which does not require large fossil fuel inputs. Consequently, substantial increases in costs of fossil fuel will have much smaller impacts on the costs of transporting goods.

    2) New economic geography suggests that the forces driving manufacturing clusters may be decreasing – see previous post on Krugman’s Nobel lecture. And the forces driving concentration industrial clusters and trade are complex, but its hard to see cities and trade going away.

    Neither of these points invalidates what transition towns are doing. And I think building local resilience is worthy goal. I think there needs to be more thinking (and solutions) in the transition movement and sustainability science to building cross-scale resilience, but doing that is not easy.

  4. “Resilience theory highlights the fact that building resilience to a specified disturbance (such as Peak Oil) does not necessarily provide the same resilience to all possible disturbances.” Truly it does not. If you have now constructed a society based upon ‘Peak Oil’ you would be in a very bad place indeed.

    The strongest attribute of Resilience theory is it’s ability to prepare for potential disturbances. That of course, is also it’s weakness. Should those disturbances fail to materialise your community will have failed and been surpassed by all around. You end up with a community frozen in time in a state of perpetual paranoia.

    Peak oil did not happen because we have a capitalist system that will adapt supply to demand. Hence shale gas and tar sands becoming profitable. So what are the resiliences that a future community should be developing? Clearly we need to think about population consumption from a global perspective. Yet how should the local community prepare a resilient approach? Hoarding baked beans might be an option. Food will clearly be a global issue. But the faster you prepare for it in Europe, the worse the famine gets in Africa and Asia. So it becomes a question of morals and ethics, not resilience. Resilience theory is clearly that. A question of theory. Underlying it all is the theory of the ethial and moral approach.

    PS: Good luck with the BAked Beans, Tesco has a special this week.

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