Jan 22, 2010
The Deeper Meaning of Resilience
In the Transition Movement, we tend to talk a lot about “resilience.” The subtitle of The Transition Handbook is “From oil dependency to local resilience” and the big question that lies at the heart of Transition is: “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)?” While I believe that this shift away from sustainability to resilience as the central concept of the Transition Movement is a positive one, the narrow and limited way in which this concept is generally portrayed fails to tap into the full potential of what resilience can be.
In The Transition Handbook, Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins offers a definition of resilience as “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.” He also mentions that the three primary characteristics that make systems resilient are diversity, modularity, and the tightness of feedback loops. While this definition is undeniably relevant to the task of responding to peak oil, climate change, and economic crisis, and is consistent with the standard dictionary definition of resilience, it is far from telling the full story of resilience as I understand it.
In a recent article for Resurgence Magazine, titled “Resilience Thinking: Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability,” Hopkins mostly expands on this earlier definition of resilience as a strategy for responding proactively to impending crisis. However, in his second to last paragraph, he also hints at a broader, more inspiring vision of resilience: “resilience is not just an outer process: it is also an inner one, of becoming more flexible, robust and skilled. Transition Initiatives try to promote this through offering skills-sharing, building social networks, and creating a shared sense of this being a historic opportunity to build the world anew.”
Indeed, resilience is not only an external strategy. More importantly, it is a way of being in the world – both as individuals and societies – that is dynamic and full of life and able to creatively respond to any situation in an uplifted and intelligent way. The word “sustainability,” on the other hand, often evokes a static state in which we have thoroughly analyzed our situation and figured out—once and for all—how humans can live indefinitely on the planet without destroying it. While this concept of sustainability has produced useful initiatives, such as ecological footprint analysis, there is ultimately a flaw in this thinking.
So what is this flaw? One shortcoming of sustainability is what Hopkins points to in “Resilience Thinking”: that peak oil is so near-at-hand and potentially catastrophic that it doesn’t matter how energy-efficient we make the supermarket. If the trucks stop rolling, we will need to grow something to eat ourselves. But there is another, more fundamental reason that sustainability isn’t enough: in the final analysis, there is ultimately no such thing as a static state that we can predictably plan for.
This sentiment is echoed by the ancient Buddhist teaching on impermanence: even at the most basic level of how we experience our lives—moment to moment—everything is constantly in a state of flux and change. People grow up and change their minds, fashions come and go, empires rise and fall, and even the earth itself is continually changing. However, by ignoring this fundamental truth, we put ourselves at odds with reality, and invest in the false hope that we can actually fix all of our problems—once and for all.
In systems thinking, the difference between sustainability and resilience is analogous to the difference between equilibrium and homeostasis. Both describe a state of balance, but they achieve this balance in very different ways, with different results. Equilibrium is what happens when you drop a ball on the floor, and, through a series of bounces, it slowly comes to rest. This is also what happens to our bodies when we die. Homeostasis, on the other hand, is said to be a dynamic state far from equilibrium. It is the mechanism by which our bodies adapt to cold by shivering our muscles or to heat by evaporating our sweat. It is a property of all things that are alive.
Ultimately, we all want to be alive. We all want to reach for our highest potential and live in a culture that is continually renewing itself. For this reason, a movement that is based entirely on preparing for disaster or achieving a static state is not going to work. We have to create for ourselves a world that is worth living in while at the same time addressing the dire realities of species extinction, ecological destruction, and human oppression and deprivation. In this context, we have to ask ourselves again: what is it that we are really trying to preserve? Is it Western civilization? Is it business-as-usual? And is a world that is merely sustainable really the best we can do?
If not, maybe a resilient world is. This is the world that Hopkins so beautifully evokes towards the end of his Transition Handbook:
“While peak oil and climate change are undeniably profoundly challenging, also inherent within them is the potential for an economic, cultural and social renaissance the likes of which we have never seen. We will see a flourishing of local businesses, local skills and solutions, and a flowering of ingenuity and creativity. It is a Transition in which we will inevitably grow, and in which our evolution is a precondition for progress. Emerging at the other end, we will not be the same as we were; we will have become more humble, more connected to the natural world, fitter, leaner, more skilled and, ultimately, wiser.”
This is the positive vision that has magnetized so many to Transition. But is this renaissance just something we do once before everything settles down into a permanent pattern? I don’t think so, and I certainly don’t hope so.
Taking this larger perspective into account, we can begin to change the way we approach Transition. While the concept of an Energy Descent Action Plan continues to be useful—in order to avoid the many pitfalls that John Michael Greer so eloquently pointed out in his critique of Transition, “Premature Triumphalism”—it needs to embody the truth of what Winston Churchill famously said: “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” Especially in the light of peak oil, climate change, and economic crisis, the future is sure to be non-linear and completely unpredictable. Therefore, an Energy Descent Action Plan should be undertaken less as a formal blueprint than an iterative process and an exercise in developing our capacity to cultivate vision and work together as communities.
Once we embrace this view, we can stop wasting our time and energy blaming others for the mistakes they made in the past and simply get on with the work that needs to be done now. In the ascent of the industrial age, it is likely that many of the people involved felt that they were actually contributing to the creation of a better world – much as we feel today. Of course, there were some that were primarily motivated by greed and power, but they were in the minority. Now that we know more about the costs of industrialization and can see more clearly the disastrous side-effects of living so detached from nature, we have the responsibility to change things. However, in making this Transition, let us remember that we may prove no wiser than our ancestors, and that soon there may be another generation who will have to attend to our mistakes.
In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren put it this way: “I am suggesting that we need to get over our naïve and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves or even our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is to use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent.” I would even go so far as to say that sustainability and the utopia that it evokes are not likely to prove a reality for anyone in anytime. We humans will probably always live on the razor’s edge – but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on how we look at it.
There is a joke—I can’t remember who I heard it from now—but it goes something like this: a man asks his friend how his marriage is going. When the man answers that it’s “sustainable,” his friend replies: “I’m so sorry to hear that! That’s really too bad!” Being in a perpetual state of transition—both as individuals and societies—keeps us awake. It keeps us alive and continually growing—not necessarily physically and materially, but spiritually and culturally. As both ecology and Permaculture teach, the edges are where the most life is. In this liminal space of great challenge and possibility is where we may discover that our life is most worth living and that there are many things about this world that are actually worth preserving.