Category Archives: Reorganization

Rob Hopkins and Neil Adger on transition towns and resilience

Rob Hopkins founder of the Transition movement has a long interview with Neil Adger on resilience, peak oil, and climate adaptation on Transition CultureNeil Adger is a professor in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a member of the Resilience Alliance (Neil briefly explains social resilience in a video here).

RH: I was reading a piece of yours yesterday where you wrote “some elements of society are inherently vulnerable, and others are inherently resilient.” What is it that determines the degree to which things are vulnerable or resilient?

NA: First of all both vulnerability and resilience need a referent, so we need to be vulnerable to something, or resilient to something. I think the things that parts of society are vulnerable to are environmental change at the large scale, and the changes in the way the world and society works, which you can capture in the idea of globalisation. Some parts of society are, in effect, vulnerable to the large scale structural changes that are happening around the world – the changes in the flows of capital and labour and the restrictions on those, and the impact that that has on their life and livelihoods.

So if you think about the farming sector, it’s vulnerable to large scale price shocks, and we as consumers are vulnerable to large scale price shocks around the world. Some parts of society are vulnerable to environmental change and in combination are vulnerable to the sorts of things that are going on in terms of economic globalisation around the world. Others are more resilient. But being resilient to the forces of globalisation doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts of society are immune to them or even aren’t integrated into them.

I don’t think you can simply isolate yourself from the globalised world and say, “well, that’ll make us more resilient”. It’ll make us more resilient in some senses, but the world is as it is and I think we just need to deal with the fact that it’s more globally integrated and look on the positive side of that and reap the benefits of it.

Would you not have any truck with the idea that a resilient society is one where local economies are stronger?

I don’t disagree with that. What I’m saying is that local economies, for all sorts of reasons, are actually stronger and likely to be more resilient, because if we go back to the definition, they have more autonomy and room for self organisation and adaptability and change. Hence, I think it’s impossible to isolate a community or society from a globalised world.

Simply looking to give more autonomy to a community is a positive thing, but trying to isolate it from the rest of the world and not realise that we’re globalised and all the rest of it isn’t a sensible thing to do. As I say, there are a lot of benefits to globalisation (not necessarily economic globalisation) such as the flow of information around the world, global solidarity with places in other parts of the world. There are all sorts of up sides to globalisation. I’m sure you’re familiar with all those arguments and you know this on the ground.

Continue reading

Chile – destroyed and reorganizing

An earthquake and following tsunamis destroyed great parts of Chile, killing people, ripping apart families, and affecting infrastructure, business, politics, animals and ecological relations. This is my short report on thoughts and fears of the reorganization phase, based on following Chilean television and Swedish news flows.

The proportions of the destruction due to the tsunami that came 30 minutes after the earthquake are beginning to emerge as first journalists (2 days), and later aid workers and military forces are working their way down the southern cost of Chile (3 days) . The area of destruction seems very big, now spanning some 300-500 km. Many, many of the villages and tourist spots along the coast that in many ways define the sense of Chile as a country by the sea, are almost completely destroyed. I have attached a link from the national television of Chile.

A debate is arising criticizing the authorities for responding slowly. In fact, two days after the earthquake journalists were the first to arrive to these devastated villages. There are no proper water sources, food or electricity. Also, there is a debate concerning why there was not a proper warning of the tsunami from the Chilean military navy responsible for this task. People in the destroyed areas, being from a country that has experienced earthquakes and tsunamis before and having been trained in school, immediately ran to the hills, which could explain the low number of dead people; but still mourned every one. However, there are rumors that the Chilean Navy sent a faxed message to the national emergency organization which was not properly interpreted. Thirty minutes after the earthquake, eye witnesses have reported of a set of three tsunami waves, the first being some 4-5 meters in height, others claiming 8 metres, came rolling in, pushing some 2 km in land, moving boats, houses, and washing those humans not in safety with it.

What is interesting here is not resilience in itself. For sure, the Chilean society will reconstruct and start working in some way the weeks, months and years to come. In contrast to Haiti, the state is not destroyed, but fully functioning and with more resources and capacities; and with the crucial capacity to capture and steer international capital and aid organizations. Instead, what is interesting is the trajectory of resilience.

After this type of crisis, old habitats and common-days of so many people are ripped apart, and so many forged relations between both humans, species and machines are lost or loosened, speeding the whole of society – and in fact ecologies – into what ecological theorist like Buzz Holling would refer to as re-organization where different scales of dynamic processes (political, social, ecological) would structure re-organization. Social theorists, for instance Anthony Giddens would perhaps rather highlight how “the normal” has vanished, and how novel structuration processes are in play.

What type of new social relations will be forged, which old ones will be lost and what type of social structure will emerge in the wake of this crisis? Will the social system be less or more inequitable? What chances are there that many of these villages will not return but that people, in face of no jobs or a house to live in in the coming months, will move to Santiago where certainly many already have family and friends? And how will the crisis rearrange the relations between social and ecological systems?

What will for instance happen to local fishermen resource rights now in the hands of the local “sindicatos” and “las caletas”? What seems to be a strenght in this respect is of course that these sindicatos are organized on a greater scale (nation wide) which should grant some greater possibility for sustained collective action to secure these rights for returning fishermen collectives, as would be argued by social movement theorists like Melucci, Diani, and Tarrow.

I would appreciate anyone with more information on emergent initiatives outside the state and business sectors that are mobilizing for a progressive and equitable reorganization phase, to let me know.

Shift in state powers. One worry – or at least important factor – to understand what could come to structure the “reorganization phase” is a coincidence in the transition of state power (all complexity fans will see “punctuated equilibrium” lights blinking). In a few days Chile is shifting from a 20-year long rule by the left-centre coalition of Michelle Bachelet (since the defeat of dictator Augusto Pinochet), to the right-wing rule of Sebastian Pinera, the latter having promised in elections less interference of the state in societal development. What relevance has the (panarchy-inspired-/-marxist) “shock doctrine” hypothesis of Naomi Klein to do with this shift of political rule at the same time as an external shock? Will Pinera seize the opportunity and blame the earthquake so as to pull back some of the social and state-led reforms like education and large-scale social security systems that were put in place by the centre-left coalition under its rule? What framings of reality will Pinera support and actively strive to construct? Will it be one where business “should” play a leading role in reconstruction? One where deregulation of state health insurance and health care will “need to go” or at least not be expanded? Initial response is that he has decided to remake his whole 4-year plan and focus on the reconstruction of Chile, by some estimated to take between 20-30 years, but it is difficult to interpret what his plan means (or what the time period of 20-30 years means for that matter).

What social movements and sustained collective action processes can put enough pressure so as for the most marginalized of Chilean society to access state resources for the reconstruction of their communities, shools and economic outcomes? Surely the self-organizing capability of local groups will be important to access control of resources (the fishermen caletas are crucial), but if these are not linked across time and space, it will be difficult to sustain pressure and hopes for a better future, as the (new) common-day and normalization starts socializing the lifes of Chileans. As above, if anyone has information of such emergent social movements (including the role of unions, fishing sindicatos, NGO’s and similar), I would be most interested to hear.

I see a parallel here (post-crisis social movements) with how Manuel Castells conceptualized urban social movements – as struggles over public consumption (not production, which was the struggle over the means of production).

Something good coming out… Of course research has demonstrated that these crises “could lead to something better”, but I am very reluctant to frame what is happening in Chile or Haiti, or any region thrown into sudden crisis in those terms. Of course something good could come out; everything is possible right? But to frame this as an opportunity for anything is a slap in the face for all those that have lost family members, their home and community; and a disrespect to the dead. As belonging to a world elite as we academics do, I find it very important to reflect upon how we participate in shaping how things are viewed. If something good comes out, that something “good” will always be contested, and it will always have come out out of some kind of social struggle; i.e. persons forming collectives that can win power to reorganize into more equal – by some rationale – communities and societies. That something good is consequently not something that is just happening, with equal opportunities of turning good or bad, but a contested outcome forged out of social and political struggle. A multitude of actors are now grouping in Chile forging novel relations to carry out intended actions, which nonetheless will produce unintended consequences. To frame this as something good or bad is simplistic and could just come to play in the hands of some.

Like many, I am siding with the masses and the marginalized, and I try to understand the factors that will tend to structure reorganization towards a more unequal society.

As a final remark in relation to Haiti, which did not spur this activity in me. I have family in Chile (whom are all safe) and I feel therefore more emotionally affected, although what is going down in Haiti is in ways similar.


PS. A lot of events are currently structuring the reorganization phase at different scales. From my biased media view, here are some:

1. A Swedish reporter reported that in Curico a local radio-station became the nucleus of self-organization just after the earthquake coordination initial aid work and monitoring the situation. This later lead to that soup-kitchens was established at the radio-station gathering the city in mutual relationships of aid and solidarity.

2. In Concepcion the opposite seemed to have occurred. There bands of people robbed shops of food, TV-sets and refrigerators and were stealing from evacuated houses. This made others to arm themselves to protect property and family, leading to the shooting of several. Things calmed down when the army arrived and enforced a 18 hour curfew (for the first time after Pinoche the army was used for this bringing (in me and probably many Chileans) old haunted memories.

3. A 24 hour national TV show “Chile auyda Chile” was held to gather money for the reconstruction, following an old tradition in Chilean society to redistribute money through having the rich donating money to the poor administrated through the state. This was en event that gathered the nation, with the flag, the hymn, celebrities, president and soon-to-be president and with interviews of fishers and villages mourning their dead but with the strong belief to continue (“seguimos adelante”), and displaying help-workers, fire fighters and the army helping people. Just a few days after the big catastrophe, people – even in the most destroyed areas – had a party, quite amazing; and probably a general spirit-boosting event.

The event managed to gather a lot of money (30.1 billion pesos or $59.2 million), and the day after some of those that had robbed the stores in Concepcion, came voluntarily and returned some of the goods; some even making an excuse to the owner, some in public television.

Arctic Futures ReOrient

In Nature Reports Climate Change, Keith Kloor reviews Cleo Paskal‘s new book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.  He writes:

Paskal convincingly argues that short-sighted domestic and foreign policies are already eroding “the West’s position in the global balance of power”. Exhibit A is the Arctic, where the US and EU are pushing for ‘global governance’ of the still-frozen Northwest Passage, a route expected to become a prized shipping channel to Asia and Europe with continued warming.
As melting Arctic sea ice opens a shipping channel through the Northwest Passage, China and Russia could forge economic ties to Canada and win major gains in trade.
Canada currently claims the Northwest Passage as part of its territorial waters, but this assertion is being contested by the US and European Union, which want it recognized as an international strait so that they can have unfettered access for their own commercial interests, such as oil and gas exploration. This standoff, Paskal suggests, could prod Canada to explore a strategic relationship with Russia, which has its own designs on the Arctic. Meanwhile, China is knocking at Canada’s door, eager to purchase a slice of the country’s abundant natural resources. In a ‘stateless’ Northwest Passage, Russia and China could end up being the big players, especially if they forge stronger economic ties to Canada. This potential development, Paskal argues, poses a long-term security risk to the EU and US.

To understand why the Northwest Passage looms large in global geopolitics, one need only look to China, which has built up a trading and shipping network through state-controlled companies that now manage such chokepoints as the Panama Canal. As Paskal explains, these chokepoints, where a wide flow of traffic is forced through a narrow alley, “are the sorts of things empires go to war over”. The Strait of Hormuz, which leads to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, is a natural chokepoint. Others, such as the Panama Canal, are man-made. “The melting Arctic sea ice creates new chokepoints of global strategic importance,” asserts Paskal, cautioning those who minimize the Northwest Passage as a Canadian issue, “It is about as much of a Canadian issue as the Suez Canal is simply an Egyptian issue.”

Chinese chess

The melding of realpolitik and international relations with climate change is what makes Global Warring deserving of attention. Paskal spends much of the book walking the reader through the projected impacts of climate change — but in the context of countries manoeuvring for advantage in a world where imminent and drastic environmental change is taken for granted.

At the same time the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the prospect of a navigable Arctic has lead the Chinese government to fund more polar research.  The Financial Times writes in Exploring the openings created by Arctic melting.

“Because China’s economy is reliant on foreign trade, there are substantial commercial implications if shipping routes are shortened during the summer months each year,” the report said. It added that taking the northern route through an ice-free Arctic could shorten the trip from Shanghai to Hamburg by 6,400km compared with sailing through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. In addition, piracy-induced high insurance costs could be avoided.

Cyber-Environmental Politics?

Google and renewable energy? Hackers, deforestation and carbon emission rights? This might sound like an odd mix of events, but something is definitely in pipeline. Global environmental change and rapid information technological change have for a long time been viewed as parallel, and decoupled global phenomena. A number of events in the last month indicate that this is likely to change. Just consider the following events:

GoodMorning! Full Render #2 from blprnt on Vimeo.

Internet giant Google recently got an approval in the US, to buy and sell energy. This happens after the company’s explicit ambition to become one of the major players in renewable energy. According to the New York Times: “The company’s Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl said the company was fully committed to accelerating the development of renewable energy technologies that can prove more cost-effective than coal power, as a means of both curbing carbon emissions and trimming its own giant energy bill”.

In addition, computer hackers seem to have found a new pool of resources to steal from – emissions trading. As reported by Wired recently, hackers have been successful in stealing millions of dollars by launching “a targeted phishing attack against employees of numerous companies in Europe, New Zealand and Japan, which appeared to come from the German Emissions Trading Authority”. A similar attack was assumed in Brazil in December 2008 when hackers managed to get in to the government logging databases. The impacts? Illegal harvest of 1.7 million cubic meters of timber, according to Wired.

One final example is of course the ongoing bashing of the IPCC, and the now infamous e-mail hack of UK climate scientists. An interesting follow up is this op-ed in The Australian, arguing that the Internet is allowing climate change skeptics to gain traction. One of the more thought-provoking quotes from the article states:

The `climate consensus’ may hold the establishment — the universities, the media, big business, government — but it is losing the jungles of the web. After all, getting research grants, doing pieces to camera and advising boards takes time. The very ostracism the sceptics suffered has left them free to do their digging untroubled by grant applications and invitations to Stockholm.

See also John Bruno of, who asks “Who is orchestrating the cyber-bullying?”.

Are moving into an era of cyber-environmental politics? I’m pretty sure that we are.

China from the air and China from the ground

In Time magazine, China historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom discusses new writing about China in Big China Books: Enough of the Big Picture.  He praises Peter Hessler‘s new book Country Driving, as an example of grounded scholarly reporting.  Hessler’s previous book,  Oracle Bones, was one of my favourite books of the past few years, so I am looking forward to his new book.  Wasserstrom writes:

Big China Books vary greatly in quality, but even the best leave me cold due to their bird’s-eye view of the P.R.C. Adopting an Olympian perspective, their authors tend to use broad strokes to portray things that actually require a fine-grained touch. …

Fortunately, Big China Books are not the only option for general readers curious about the P.R.C., since many significant works that take a ground-level view of the country, rather than a bird’s-eye one, have also been appearing. I am thinking, for example, of Fast Boat to China (2007). This is a lively account of the human side of Shanghai-based outsourcing by Andrew Ross, who usefully dubs his study a foray into “scholarly reporting” — a term for books that, as he puts it, have “mined the overlap between ethnography and journalism.”

Noteworthy examples have appeared throughout the past decade, but the richest year for them was probably 2008. Two of the most illuminating works published then were Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls, which provided a moving account of migrant workers that was wonderfully sensitive to divides rooted in location, gender and generation, and Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing, which offered a poignant look at breakneck development. (See portraits of Chinese workers.)

… Will admirable works of scholarly reporting also keep coming out? I’m even more confident answering this question affirmatively. One such work, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, is being published in February, and it’s the best yet from Peter Hessler, whose two earlier books, River Town (2001) and Oracle Bones (2006), were exemplary forays into the genre. Country Driving begins with the author recounting his quixotic efforts to follow the Great Wall by car, depending on flawed maps that sometimes left large sections blank (for political reasons) and often seemed hopelessly out of date right after being issued (due to how fast new thoroughfares are being built). The next section describes Hessler’s experiences living in a north China village that is transformed by the construction of a new road that links it to Beijing. The book concludes with a look at the economic dynamics of “instant cities” that keep springing up along a highway south of the Yangtze River. (Read “China Takes on the World.”)I haven’t been to the places Hessler describes in Country Driving or met the people whose stories he tells with his characteristic blend of empathy, insight and self-deprecating humor. Yet I never doubt for a second that he’s writing about the richly hued and socially variegated country that I know, as opposed to one of the imaginary lands conjured up in Big China Books.

Country Driving won’t satisfy those who like answers to Big Questions that can fit on dust jackets. Still, it captures beautifully the rhythms of life in a nation that is being turned inside out so quickly that it is not just lone American writers, but also Chinese from varied walks of life, who often find themselves struggling to traverse uncharted territory, armed only with their wits and with maps that become obsolete as soon as they are printed.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom follows up his article on the China Beat blog.  There he follows up his Time article with Six takes on Martin Jacques, which points to 6 contrasting reviews of Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World, a recent book that looks at global rise of China:

My goal in this spin-off to the Time piece is not to offer an expanded version of my own thoughts on [When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques], but rather to direct the attention of interested readers to six recent essays by other people that engaged with the thesis of When China Rules the World. Between them, this sextet of reviews and opinion pieces provides, I think, a good sense of both the range of positions staked out in the debate generated by 2009’s most talked about Big China Book, and a sense of some of the ways that writers, including Jacques himself, have taken to claiming that each new event can be used to either prove or undermine its claims. …

Ecological Imperialism during the Cold War

During the Cold War there was a a faint reprise of the Columbian Exchange.  Science Now reports on a study by François Chiron and others in Biological Conservation (doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2009.10.021) in Cold War Split Birds, Too in ScienceNOW:

The Cold War divided the people of Europe for nearly half a century, and it turns out humans weren’t the only ones stuck behind the Iron Curtain. Trade blockades led to vastly different numbers and types of invasive birds in Western and Eastern Europe, new research reveals. The findings, say experts, highlight the dramatic impact human activity can have on the success of alien species.

… Western Europe saw the introduction of 96 species of birds during the Cold War, while Eastern Europe only saw 24. The relative freedom of movement and high levels of global trade in the West account for the difference, says co-author Susan Shirley, a wildlife ecologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis. “Trade is an important factor in the movement and establishment of alien species across the world.”

The way the Cold War carved up the globe also impacted the type of birds that were introduced. There was a rise in North American bird species, such as the ruddy duck, intentionally introduced to Western Europe many times between 1945 and 1989, but not much of a rise in the East. At the same time, people from former French and British colonies immigrated to Western Europe, toting along 23 African bird species. “They brought their caged pet birds with them–if not physically, then they brought the demand,” Shirley says.

While connections between Western Europe, the Americas, and Africa boomed, trade across the Iron Curtain withered: Exports from Western Europe to the East represented less than 5% of Western European’s total trade volume. The few invasive species that established themselves in Eastern Europe during the Cold War tended to come from other parts of Eastern Europe, or from Asia.

Since the Cold War ended in 1991, the pace of bird introduction events has picked up. Looking at records from 1989 to 2000, the study’s authors found more than 600 instances of alien species released into the wild in Eastern and Western Europe, versus almost 900 for the roughly 40 years of the Cold War. Trade and movement across the former Iron Curtain and rising prosperity in Eastern Europe has made the problem of invasive species worse, they say. “It’s speeding up exponentially, not just for birds but for many other groups, like plants, mammals, insects and fish,” says team leader Francois Chiron, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when this research was conducted.

Fire, climate change, and the reorganization of Arctic ecosystems

Alaskan nature writer Bill Sherwonit reports on Yale Environment 360 about the complex response of Arctic ecosystems to climate change in how Arctic Tundra is Being Lost As Far North Quickly Warms:

Researchers have known for years that the Arctic landscape is being transformed by rising temperatures. Now, scientists are amassing growing evidence that major events precipitated by warming — such as fires and the collapse of slopes caused by melting permafrost — are leading to the loss of tundra in the Arctic. The cold, dry, and treeless ecosystem — characterized by an extremely short growing season; underlying layers of frozen soil, or permafrost; and grasses, sedges, mosses, lichens, and berry plants — will eventually be replaced by shrub lands and even boreal forest, scientists forecast.

Much of the Arctic has experienced temperature increases of 3 to 5 degrees F in the past half-century and could see temperatures soar 10 degrees F above pre-industrial levels by 2100. University of Vermont professor Breck Bowden, a watershed specialist participating in a long-term study of the Alaskan tundra, said that such rapidly rising temperatures will mean that the “tundra as we imagine it today will largely be gone throughout the Arctic. It may take longer than 50 or even 100 years, but the inevitable direction is toward boreal forest or something like it.”

… In the course of studying caribou, Joly has also learned a great deal about the role of fire in “low,” or sub-Arctic, tundra, where for several decades at least it has been a much more significant factor than on the North Slope’s “high Arctic” landscape. About 9 percent of Alaska’s lower latitude tundra burned between 1950 and 2007, whereas only 7 percent of the North Slope caught fire during that period. That could change as the region warms and fires become more frequent farther north.

Continue reading

Transition Towns and Resilience Thinking

straplineThe concept of resilience appears to be really spreading.  One interesting group of people attempting to build resilience in specific communities is the Transition town movement. A global network of communities each of which is attempting to build their resilience to climate change and peak oil while addressing the question:

“for all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?”

Rob Hopkins is co-founder of the Transition Network, which connects together the Transition Town movement.  He recently wrote an article about Resilience Thinking and transition for Resurgence magazine.  The definition of resilience from the RA’s wesbsite  starts his article Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability

Resilience; “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks”

In July 2009, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband unveiled the government’s UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, a bold and powerful statement of intent for a low-carbon economy in the UK. It stated that by 2020 there would be a five-fold increase in wind generation, feed-in tariffs for domestic energy generation, and an unprecedented scheme to retrofit every house in the country for energy efficiency. In view of the extraordinary scale of the challenge presented by climate change, I hesitate to criticise steps in the right direction taken by government. There is, though, a key flaw in the document, which also appears in much of the wider societal thinking about climate change. This flaw is the attempt to address the issue of climate change without also addressing a second, equally important issue: that of resilience.

The term ‘resilience’ is appearing more frequently in discussions about environmental concerns, and it has a strong claim to actually being a more useful concept than that of sustainability. Sustainability and its oxymoronic offspring sustainable development are commonly held to be a sufficient response to the scale of the climate challenge we face: to reduce the inputs at one end of the globalised economic growth model (energy, resources, and so on) while reducing the outputs at the other end (pollution, carbon emissions, etc.). However, responses to climate change that do not also address the imminent, or quite possibly already passed, peak in world oil production do not adequately address the nature of the challenge we face.

Resilience thinking can inspire a degree of creative thinking that might actually take us closer to solutions that will succeed in the longer term. Resilient solutions to climate change might include community-owned energy companies that install renewable energy systems in such a way as to generate revenue to resource the wider relocalisation process; the building of highly energy-efficient homes that use mainly local materials (clay, straw, hemp), thereby stimulating a range of potential local businesses and industries; the installation of a range of urban food production models; and the re-linking of farmers with their local markets. By seeing resilience as a key ingredient of the economic strategies that will enable communities to thrive beyond the current economic turmoil the world is seeing, huge creativity, reskilling and entrepreneurship are unleashed.

The Transition Movement is a rapidly growing, ‘viral’ movement, which began in Ireland and is now under way in thousands of communities around the world. Its fundamental premise is that a response to climate change and peak oil will require action globally, nationally, and at the scale of local government, but it also needs vibrant communities driving the process, making unelectable policies electable, creating the groundswell for practical change at the local level.

It explores the practicalities of building resilience across all aspects of daily life. It catalyses communities to ask, “How are we going to significantly rebuild resilience in response to peak oil and drastically reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change?”

By putting resilience alongside the need to reduce carbon emissions, it is catalysing a broad range of initiatives, from Community Supported Agriculture and garden-share schemes to local food directories and new Farmers’ Markets. Some places, such as Lewes and Totnes, have set up their own energy companies, in order to resource the installation of renewable energy. The Lewes Pound, the local currency that can only be spent in Lewes, recently expanded with the issuing of new £5, £10 and £20 notes. Stroud and Brixton are set to do the same soon.

Resilience as an operating system for sustainability in the anthropocene

Chris Turner, author of Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, writing in the Walrus about the Anthropocene and the coral reef crisis in his long article Age of Breathing Underwater:

I first heard tell of “resilience” — not as a simple descriptive term but as the cornerstone of an entire ecological philosophy — just a couple of days before I met Charlie Veron on the pages of Melbourne’s most respected newspaper. I was onstage for the opening session of the Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures in an auditorium at the University of Ballarat at the time. The evening had begun with a literal lament — a grieving folk song performed by an aboriginal musician. I’d then presented a slide show of what I considered to be the rough contours of an Anthropocene map of hope, after which a gentleman I’d just met, a research fellow at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation named Brian Walker, placed my work in the broader context of resilience theory.

I had to follow Veron all the way to the edge of the abyss his research had uncovered before I could come back around to resilience. The concept, it turns out, emerged from the research of a Canadian-born academic named Buzz Holling at the University of Florida, and has since been expanded by a global research network called the Resilience Alliance. “Ecosystem resilience” — this in the Resilience Alliance website’s definition — “is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary.” It’s a concept I encountered repeatedly in my conversations with reef researchers.

…This points to the broader implications of the resilience concept — the stuff Brian Walker likes to talk about. He and his colleagues in the Resilience Alliance often refer to their field of study as “social-ecological resilience,” suggesting that people are as essential to the process as reefs or any other ecosystem, and that real resilience is created in the complex, unpredictable interplay between systems. “With resilience,” Walker told me, “not only do we acknowledge uncertainty, but we kind of embrace uncertainty. And we try to say that the minute you get too certain, as if you know what the answer is, you’re likely to come unstuck. You need slack in the system. You need to have the messiness that enables self-organization in the system in ways that are not predictable. The best goal is to try to build a general resilience. Things like having strong connectivity, but also some modularity in the system so it’s not all highly connected everywhere. And lots of diversity.”

Resilience, then, embraces change as the natural state of being on earth. It values adaptation over stasis, diffuse systems over centralized ones, loosely interconnected webs over strict hierarchies. If the Anthropocene is the ecological base condition of twenty-first-century life and sustainability is the goal, or bottom line, of a human society within that chaotic ecology, then resilience might be best understood as the operating system Paul Hawken was on about — one with an architecture that encourages sustainability in this rapidly changing epoch.

This new operating system will, by necessity, be comfortable with loss. There is, after all, much to be gained from epochal, transformative change. In the midst of chaos and devastation on the scale of a world war, for example, we might discover how to breathe underwater.