Date: September 4th, 2008
Cate: on this blog

What is resilience ?

For now, my working definition of resilience is this:

resilience: the capacity of a resiliety to withstand the effects of sudden shocks and slow-moving trends due to its inherent characteristics that lead to suitable actions.

This is dry matter. Let’s try to liven it up a bit. A resiliety is a resilient entity and I see resilience as a character trait of any entity, be it an individual, a group or organisation, an institution or an even larger system that consists of a number of resilieties. I emphasise this any because it is our daily experience that most individuals cope with the minor and major accidents of life most of the time. This is the first good news: resilience isn’t something that would need to be invented from scratch. It is an essential part of our mental and physical constitutions. It is a pre-condition for staying alive. To a very large degree the same applies to all kinds of human-made institutions. In fact, the more successful ones tend to outlive a human lifespan by centuries if not millenia. Individuals and institutions that retreat or implode at the slightest shove are the exception rather than the rule. Looking for resilience, therefore, may mean taking a particular perspective on entities in general rather than describing a salient characteristic of particular individuals or organisations in contrast to others. That said, resilience surely is as diverse and varied as are individuals and organisations. And what may bowl over person A may earn not more than a shrug from person B; and vice versa. However, things get really interesting when we start looking at the resilience of larger systems that consist of and are linked to a number of other resilieties. I don’t think the term ‘network’ of resilieties is a useful description of such larger systems. It implies too much orderly structure when the reality in all likelihood is messy, always in flux and defies easy labelling. Enmeshed, entangled even, is probably a more fitting description of the relationships between resilieties that form a larger system. For my further work the resilience of large, enmeshed systems is likely to be of central interest. The desire to find ways of strengthening the systemic resilience of societies, building societal resilience, is really my ultimate objective for this blog.

But after the event, what would qualify as having withstood, as having been resilient? At the most basic level, still being around must be an obvious criterion. My starting point for further research and thinking on resilience is somewhat different. I focus on the ability to continue to function. That leaves a lot of room for various definitions of functioning. Which is important; because in a world of enmeshed resilieties the decisive functional interdependencies can be very different depending on the position in such a mesh. Say, a company staves off bankruptcy by abandoning a loss-making product line. From the perspective of the owners that should count as resilience. From the perspective of a customer who is dependent on these products the picture is less clear. And even more so from the perspective of an employee who loses his or her job in the process. Another criterion could be the ability to maintain or regain the prior welfare situation. I hope that in time it will be possible to establish ethical criteria to help decide which functions are essential or important or desirable.

Sudden shocks and slow-moving trends there can be and are plenty. It is highly uncertain what kind of event may eventually test (or break) societal resilience. My research interest will concentrate on systemic resilience against the effects of humanity’s approach to and crossing of the safety thresholds and limits in the planetary ecosystem. Climate change and energy scarcity are likely to be the main risk multipliers in this respect. Sudden shocks could then be a natural catastrophe of the type likely to become more frequent with advancing climate change, but also the arrival of refugees made homeless by the sudden collapse of a state suffering from severe energy constraints. While slow-moving trends could be the salinisation of an agricultural area due to shifting weather patterns and overexploitation. What is certain is the uncertainty we face; exacerbated by our lack of fantasy or stubborn ignoring of warning signs. My hope is to get a better understanding of the various risks and how they are related.

This is all fine, yet the really important question is to find out what inherent characteristics constitute resilience. Is an entity’s resilience necessarily specific to particular threats? Or is there a kind of general resilience that will help whatever the event is going to be. Most likely there is both: a groundwork of general resilience and more specific resiliences on top of that. This general resilience is likely to be much more important than most of the more specific preparations for particular risks. Why? Because our knowledge about the shocks and trends that may hurt human societies is very limited. And it is therefore quite certain that wholly unexpected events are going to be the toughest tests of societal resilience. Thus two central questions for my research are: What characteristics constitute general resilience for a society (or certain types of resilieties)? And: Are economic policies in any way (positively or negatively) related to these characteristics?

Looking for inherent characteristics assumes that resilience is a potential that is simply there or can be built up before its possible use. In contrast, the notion of suitable actions links back to the question of what functions would need to be conserved for an entity to be considered as withstanding a shock or slow-moving trend. How is this actually achieved? An action is suitable if it achieves both: continuing the physical, material functions that constitute resilience and maintaining the moral integrity, internally and externally, that characterise an entity. From a somewhat restricted, purely resilience-oriented perspective, not lowering ethical standards would have to count as having been resilient. Nevertheless, as part of the human endeavour to better ourselves, resilience actions should wherever possible increase the protection of human life and freedom, further the case of social justice and strive for more sustainability, i.e. better protect the rights of future generations. Suitable activities can be many things: They can be effected before or after an event. They can take the form of mitigation (reducing the risk of a particular threat) or adaptation (finding ways to cope with the effects). They can be taken at all levels of an entity or society. They can be taken wholly individually or with the aim of being replicated by others. They can even be unintentional and effective nevertheless.

What is your idea of resilience?

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