Resilience - Discussion

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Discussion 1

Towards a politics of resilience

Alex Evans and David Steven:

"The politics of resilience, then, presents a challenging agenda – one that takes us far beyond how well we respond to localised natural disasters.

In a complex and unstable world, it helps join up our thinking about a series of disparate challenges and provides a clear rationale for collective action. As Robert Cooper has argued: ‘If states are to retain control, the first condition is that they should make peace with each other so that they can face the common threat of disorder together’ (Cooper, 2003).

Facing common threats will require much more than goodwill, however. At present, all arms of international relations are in crisis. Military forces are struggling to understand a world where war is usually ‘amongst the people’, to use Rupert Smith’s phrase (Smith, 2005). Development agencies are having to accept that poverty reduction cannot simply be accomplished by the transfer of resources. Many diplomatic services, meanwhile, badly need to renew their ‘theory of influence’ in a world where issues trump geography, and non-state actors are an increasingly powerful force. Fundamental reform cannot happen in one country alone.

Instead governments need to work together to develop approaches that are integrated and interoperable. The starting point is greater ‘shared awareness’ of the nature of the threats that accompany globalisation, and an honest admission of the limits to government power (Evans and Steven, 2008). This should then encourage governments to reach out in two directions – upwards towards the international system, and downwards towards the world’s citizens.

But this is not simply a neutral question of governance; it is also a fundamentally political agenda. The politics of resilience holds both good and bad news for all major streams of political thinking: conservative, liberal and social democratic.

For conservatives, resilience’s appeal to tradition and identity is a strong one. However, the conservative instinct to resist change of all kinds is a clear threat to a system’s ability to adapt. Two quotes from the conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, capture this dichotomy well. On the one hand, he writes that: In place of a preconceived purpose … such a society will find its guide in a principle of continuity (which is a diffusion of power between past, present and future) and in a principle of consensus (which is a diffusion of power between the different legitimate interests of the present).

On the other:

Change is a threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction … Changes, then, have to be suffered, and a man of conservative temperament (that is, one strongly disposed to preserve his identity) cannot be indifferent to them. (Oakeshott, 1991)

Liberals, meanwhile, have long argued for the diffusion of power. As Hayek argued, centralised control is not possible over systems ‘which no brain has designed but which [have] grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals’ (Hayek, 1974). He, after all, was awarded a Nobel prize over thirty years ago for his ‘penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena’. Classical liberalism, however, has consistently been troubled by government attempts to create public goods. The result is an instinctive opposition to regulation, which leaves little room for attempts to manage unstable global systems.

Social democrats, finally, understand the importance of public goods and are prepared to act forcefully to protect the vulnerable. They are also willing to act boldly to manage global instability. However, they have the weakness of being instinctive meddlers, crowding out the initiative of other actors and risking over-centralisation in the face of distributed risks. This is a time when states will be under pressure to take on new, and onerous, responsibilities, such as taking responsibility for regulating carbon and other scarce resources. Unprecedented institutional innovation will be needed if these responsibilities are to be discharged without imposing unsustainable levels of cost. It is surely therefore time to put the ‘nanny state’ out of her misery, while we search for a more sustainable relationship between government and state.

In the end, resilience is about a politics that is ‘progressive’ in a pure sense. Rather than following the ideological imprint of a bygone age, we need to be prepared to take a broad view of the systems that we depend on – and re-order our priorities to ensure that every action we take helps strengthen and defend them. That takes courage, and a farsighted vision of the future. The question is not ‘what risks do we want to avoid?’ but ‘what do we want to be resilient for?’" (

Congruence between resilience thinking and the partnership view

Madronna Holden:

"In their 10,000 years of sustainable living here, our land’s diverse cultures had this in common: they treated all natural life as their intimate kin, with standing comparable to that of humans. “All animals and inanimate objects possessed spirits,” as STOWW (Small Tribes of Western Washington) stated in their handout for their 1975 treaty rights workshop. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River, the term for “life” is waq’ádyšwit, the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature.” Waq’ádyšwit indicates “intelligence, will, and consciousness,” and since it exists in all natural things, it is the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land.(1)

Similar recognition of personhood in nature is found in the traditions of the inland valleys as expressed by contemporary Coos-Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman: “The earth is alive. It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise also perceived natural landscapes as comprised of persons alive with spirit. In the early 1900s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a word for animals that contrasted with that for humans in the Pit River language. But there was no such word in their language, since there was no such distinction in Pit River culture.

The radical equality between humans and other natural life in the partnership worldview goes hand in hand with the recognition that nature and humans are intertwined in the holistic manner of Walker’s “socio-ecological systems,” in which “changes in one domain of the system... inevitably impact the other.”

In this sense, both the partnership model and the resilience paradigm offer an alternative to the dualistic split of the worldview that sets humans apart from and above nature. Both concur with the modern science that tells us whatever we do to our natural environment, we do to ourselves.

In recognizing the dynamic reflexivity between ourselves and the natural world, indigenous Northwesterners developed an ethic of reciprocity, which entailed sharing the gifts of life with others, taking only as much as you could replace from natural systems, and treating natural life with respect in order to allow it to flourish – which in turn allowed humans to flourish. In such reciprocity, we find the intersection of ethics and practical outcomes in an interdependent world.

Further, since all natural species were peoples in the partnership view, it followed that humans should establish diplomatic relationships with them. This conceptualization is not so different from Frances Westley’s chronicle of a contemporary resource manager’s work with adaptive Resilience Alliance guidelines.(2) In the modern case, the diplomacy took place between competing human interest groups. In the partnership model, the manager’s personal interest in caring for fish stocks would have been further developed and elevated to comparable status with his attention to human interests.

Historically, the partnership view impelled local peoples to act with consideration for the future generations of salmon and humans together. It also allowed for observation of the effects of human actions on other species as a whole. Drawing on this perspective, for instance, Lucy Thompson observed in 1916 that non-Indian rules for protecting the salmon on the Klamath River were bound to fail, since they were based on the actions of individual fishermen – but their actions taken together created a gauntlet of barriers the salmon could not run.

Such intimate observation of the salmon resulted in their abundance under native management, so that the indigenous peoples on the Columbia River, for instance, harvested seven times the modern take without harming the sustainability of the runs.

The ways in which the partnership model encouraged humans to manage themselves for the benefit of both their landscapes and themselves were not limited to the salmon. In Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson details the way that this worldview led to the exquisite bounty of root crops, wildfowl, and game recorded in hundreds of explorer records in native California. In like fashion, early explorers in the Willamette Valley termed it the “gourmand’s paradise” for the results of the specific management practices of the Kalapuya – and they would come to the Willamette Valley to stock up on provisions whenever they ran low.

The intersection of ethics and practical results in the partnership model is eloquently expressed by modern Nisqually leader Billy Frank, Jr., who has worked tirelessly both for Indian fishing rights and the care of the salmon and its habitat: “I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same thing.”(3)

As modern Westerners, we cannot authentically or ethically take over the specific spiritual beliefs of other cultures. Nor can we return to the past. Yet as the Resilience Alliance’s workbook for resource managers observes, it is important to tell the story of ourselves and our land in ways that free us from the constraints of the ruling paradigm. In this context, the partnership worldview has much to show us about fostering a resilient world.

Those who hold the partnership worldview would certainly concur with Walker’s inclusion of diversity in his resilience vision. A partnership worldview inherently promotes such diversity in its recognition that all natural life possesses spirit and personhood. In this sense, the partnership view envisions the most democratic of socio-ecological systems, embracing what Vandana Shiva terms “a democracy of all life.”

Indeed, the partnership worldview immunizes its holders against the “paradox of domination” that goes along with the Walker’s “paradox of optimization.” The more one tries to control a thing, the less one sees it for what it is. One-way communication with natural life (we plant, you yield) subverts the knowledge we need to foster a resilient world. As a remedy for the dangers of such limited information gathering, the partnership model sensitizes humans to the ways in which natural life “talks back” to us.

This paradigm has important scientific potential, as expressed in geneticist Barbara McClintock’s Nobel Prize-winning work she accomplished through “speaking with the corn,” getting to know each corn plant as an individual. It was not a popular method for any scientist, much less a woman beginning work in genetics several decades ago. For years McClintock struggled to continue her research without the support of her colleagues, finding ways to fund her own work. In doing so she expressed leadership and inventiveness of the kind that Walker outlines as necessary for enacting a resilience vision.

This is also the kind of leadership expressed by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Pilgrim Baker in taking on her personal commitment as a “voice for the voiceless.” She does not say, “voice of the voiceless.” She is not subsuming or taking over the voice of the other. Instead she is expressing the central stance in the partnership worldview: speaking up for those we might otherwise leave out of our goals or visions, in the same way that Mary Heck called attention to the beaver.

Such leadership reminds us that in order to gear our behavior toward fostering a resilient natural world, we need to increase our listening skills – and thus expand our range of vision.

Key to the success of the partnership worldview is its attribution of agency to all in any socio-ecological system. Thus it helps us embrace a question as pressing in this era of increasing globalization as it was to cultures with 10,000 years of standing in the Pacific Northwest." (

Resilience vs Efficiency

John Michael Greer:

"he rise of this term to its present popularity in green circles has a history worth noting. A year or two ago, the word “sustainability” began to lose its privileged place in the jargon of the time, as it began to sink in that no matter how much manhandling was applied to that much-abused term, it couldn’t be combined with the phrase “modern middle-class lifestyle” without resulting in total absurdity. Enter “resilience”, as another way to talk about what too many people nowadays want to talk about, generally to the exclusion of more useful conversations: the pretense that a set of lifestyles, social habits, and technologies that were born in an age of unparalleled extravagance can be maintained as the material basis for that extravagance trickles away.

The word “sustainability”, it bears remembering, has a perfectly clear meaning. It means, as the word itself suggests, the ability of something to be sustained, either for a set period of time – “sustainable over a twenty year period”, for example – or indefinitely. That was its problem as a green buzzword, because next to nobody wanted to talk about just how long the current crop of “sustainable” tech was actually likely to stay viable (hint: not very long), and even fewer were willing to grapple with the immense challenges facing any attempt to sustain any of today’s technologies into the indefinite future.

The problem with “resilience”, though, is that it also has a perfectly clear meaning. Once people figure out what that is, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be hunting for another buzzword in short order, because resilience can be defined very precisely: it’s the opposite of efficiency.

Okay, now that you’ve stopped spluttering, let me explain.

We can define efficiency informally as doing the most with the least. An efficient use of resources is thus one that puts as few resources as possible into places where they sit around doing nothing. The just-in-time ordering process that’s now standard in manufacturing and retail, for example, was hailed as a huge increase in efficiency when it was introduced; instead of having stockpiles sitting around in warehouses, items could be ordered electronically from a database so that they would be made and shipped just in time to go onto the assembly line or the store shelf. What nobody asked, and very few people have asked even yet, is what happens when something goes wrong.

The great Tohoku tsunami a few months back provided a wakeup call in that direction, as factories across Japan and around the world suddenly discovered that the shipment of parts they needed just in time for next month’s production runs had been delivered instead to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In the inefficient old days, when parts jobbers scattered all over the industrial world had warehouses full of parts being produced by an equally dispersed array of small factories, that would have given nobody sleepless nights, since the stock of spares on hand would be enough to tide things over until factories could run some extra shifts and make up the demand. Since production had been efficiently centralized in very few factories, or in some cases only one, and the warehouses full of parts had been rendered obsolete by efficient new ordering systems, knock-on costs that would have been negligible in 1970 are proving to be very substantial today.

Efficiency, in other words, is not resilient. What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down. Most bridges are designed and built with that sort of inefficiency in place, because the downside of too little efficiency (the bridge costs more to build) is a good deal less troubling than the downside of too little resiliency (the bridge collapses in a storm). Like every project worth doing, a good bridge has to strike a balance between many conflicting factors, no one of which can be maximized except at the expense of others of equal importance.


Thus efficiency is not resilient, and resilience is not efficient. Just-in-time ordering is conceptually the same as the Dymaxion car’s narrow wheelbase and high center of gravity: a great idea, as long as nothing goes wrong. Since it may have occurred to you, dear reader, that today’s industrial civilization seems to have a lot in common just now with these examples of high efficiency and low resilience, you may be thinking that it might turn out to be necessary to accept a lower degree of efficiency, in order to provide our civilization with the backlog of unused resources that will give it resilience.

Ah, but here’s where things get difficult.

There’s a reason why contemporary industrial culture is obsessed with efficiency, and it’s not because we’re smarter than our grandparents. Every civilization, as it nears the limits of its resource base, has to deal with the mismatch between habits evolved during times of relative abundance and the onset of shortages driven by too much exploitation of that abundance. Nearly always, the outcome is a shift in the direction of greater efficiency. Local governments give way to centralized ones; economies move as far toward mass production as the underlying technology will permit; precise management becomes the order of the day; waste gets cut and so, inevitably, do corners. All this leads to increased efficiency and thus decreased resilience, and sets things up for the statistically inevitable accident that will push things just past the limits of the civilization’s remaining resilience, and launch the downward spiral that ends with sheep grazing among ruins.

Trying to build resilience into a system that’s already gotten itself into this bind is a difficult project at best. The point of these efficiency drives, after all, is to free up resources to support the standards of living of the privileged classes. Since these same privileged classes are the ones who have to sign off on any project to redirect resources toward resilience, the difficulties in convincing them to act against their immediate self-interest are not hard to imagine. Since efficiency tends to take an aura of sanctity in such cases – privileged classes, after all, are as prone as anyone else to convince themselves that what’s good for them is good for everyone – proponents of resilience face an uphill fight against deeply rooted assumptions. After all, who wants to go on record in support of inefficiency?

And of course that’s exactly what we’ve seen in recent decades in industrial society. The Glass-Steagall Act, which imposed resilience on the US banking system at the cost of a fair amount of inefficiency, is a good example; it was gutted by an enthusiastically bipartisan majority, giving us the highly efficient but hopelessly brittle financial system we have today. Many other measures that put resilience into the system were also scrapped in the name of “competitiveness”, though it’s worth noticing that America’s ability to compete in any arena that doesn’t involve blowing large chunks of a Third World country to kingdom come has gone down steadily while these allegedly competitive measures have been at work. All of it, slogans aside, served to free up resources to maintain living standards for America’s privileged classes – a category that extends well down into the middle class, please note, and includes a great many people who like to denounce the existing order of American society in heated terms.

That’s our version of the trap that closes around every society that overshoots its resource base. The struggle to sustain the unsustainable – to maintain levels of consumption the remaining resource base won’t support indefinitely – always seems to drive the sort of short-term expedients that make for long-term disasters. I’ve come to think that a great many of the recent improvements in efficiency in the industrial world have their roots in this process. Loudly ballyhooed as great leaps forward, they may well actually be signs of the tightening noose of resource constraints that, in the long run, will choke the life out of our civilization.

Thus it’s a great idea in the abstract to demand a society-wide push for resilience, but in practice, that would involve loading a great many inefficiencies onto the economy. Things would cost more, and fewer people would be able to afford them, since the costs of resilience have to be paid, and the short term benefits of excessive efficiency have to be foregone. That’s not a recipe for winning an election or outcompeting a foreign rival, and the fact that it might just get us through the waning years of the industrial age pays nobody’s salary today. It may well turn out that burning through the available resources, and then crashing into ruin, is simply the most efficient way for a civilization to go.

Where does that leave those of us who would like to find a way through the crisis of our time and hand down some part of the legacy of our civilization to the future? The same principles apply, though it’s fortunately true that individuals, families, and local communities often have an easier time looking past the conventional wisdom of their era and doing something sensible even when it’s not popular. The first thing that has to be grasped, it seems to me, is that trying to maintain the comfortable lifestyles of the recent past is a fool’s errand. It’s only by making steep cuts in our personal demand for resources that it’s possible to make room for inefficiency, and therefore resilience.

Most of the steps proposed in these essays, in turn, are inefficient – indeed, deliberately so. It’s unquestionably inefficient in terms of your personal time and resources to dig up your back yard and turn it into a garden; that inefficiency, however, means that if anything happens to the hypercomplex system that provides you with your food – a process that reaches beyond growers, shippers and stores to the worlds of high finance, petroleum production, resource politics, and much more – you still get to eat. It’s inefficient to generate your own electricity, to retrofit your home for conservation, to do all the other things we’ve discussed. Those inefficiencies, in turn, are measures of resilience; they define your fallback options, the extra strength you build into the bridge to your future, so that it can hope to stand up to the approaching tempests.

The emerging patterns of the salvage economy that have been discussed here over the last few weeks feed into this same quest for resilience. Many older technologies, of the sort that might readily be salvaged and put to use, are a good deal less efficient than their modern replacements, and therefore much more resilient." (