Friday, September 25, 2009

The Sociology of Resilience: Panarchy and Post-Katrina

Our planet is faced with an array of ecological crises—in particular, peak oil, climate change, and fresh water scarcity. Scientists have begun in earnest to examine the impacts of these crises on natural and social systems, and how these systems respond. The ability of a system to respond to and survive crisis has come to be known as “resilience.” There are many theories of resilience, but one that has attained great influence recently is the resilience theory of Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling and his coauthor, Lance Gunderson. Resilience theory is part of their monumental work on cycles of transformation in natural systems called Panarchy. Their theory of resilience was developed out of detailed research on the life cycles of forests (including New Brusnwick) and other ecosystems. In Panarchy, they attempt to apply these theories of transformation and resilience to human social systems, in particular, the ability of social systems to respond to environmental crises.

My early study of this work raised questions for me as a social scientist. In the course of their research, Holling and Gunderson had to admit that human social systems were different from natural systems; social systems didn’t neatly fit the model. So they developed a set of “exceptional conditions” for social systems to explain how human systems responded differently. But what I found particularly troublesome was that their theory of resilience seemed to be completely antithetical to the way we experience the human condition. Panarchy’s theory of resilience states that in third stage of transformation, the ecosystem breaks down, collapses, and in the process, releases all the biological “wealth” that was stored during the “wealth-building” and “conservation” (first and second) stages. During the collapse stage, the system’s raw materials, nutrients and species are freed from their former links to the ecosystem. According to Panarchy, it is in the collapse stage that the system obtains its maximum resilience to ecological crises. In the final stage, the materials and species released by collapse can be recombined, new niches are built, and new species, formerly suppressed under the old system, can become the new dominant species.

I found this concept of resilience a little troubling, especially when applied to human social systems. I immediately thought of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the greatest ecological catastrophe in U.S. history. It was an ecological catastrophe, not just an environmental one, because it was caused by the combined forces and failures of both the natural system (climate change, hurricanes), and the human systems (systemic poverty, racism and a lack of preparedness to respond to disaster). To this day I can still remember the horror of seeing poor people of color drowning in the floods, stranded on roof-tops, imprisoned in hellish conditions in the Superdome, thirsty, hungry, searching for their families, for clean water, food, and a way out. To this day, I can still see the images of families walking down abandoned highways, carrying their few belongings, walking, walking toward they didn’t know where, trying to find a safe place to rest.

I had to ask myself, “is this maximum resilience?” Here you have a perfect test-case: complete collapse of both the natural and human social systems, and yet they these people did not seem to be “resilient” in the sense of "surviving.” More than 1400 people died in the storm. Half a million people left New Orleans and the affected Gulf region, the largest migration in U.S. history. Two years after the hurricane, only one-third of the City's population returned or remained in the area.(1.) Most of the evacuees never returned, and were forced to find homes in other cities and states. Not much is known about the fate of people who were forced to leave and resettle elsewhere, but one thing is certain: they left with little more than the clothes on their backs. Poor, traumatized, unemployed, bereft of connections and support from their former communities, how did they possess the resilience necessary to rebuild their lives? How is it possible that they would eventually be better off than before the crisis? Is this resilience?

These are the questions and concerns that led me to conduct research on the concept of resilience. I am not trying to discredit or debunk Hollings and Gunderson's theory, or Panarchy, because I think there is much in the theory that does work and is highly applicable to human social systems. But there also remains much in the theory that needs to be tested against the realities of the human condition. Human social systems are different from natural ecosystems, and thus we need to develop a sociological theory of resilience that accounts for that difference. And certainly I hope that research into the resilience of human social systems will yield knowledge and strategies that will help us face the many ecological crises ahead.

1. Source: NARAYAN SASTRY: Tracing the Effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Population of New Orleans: The Displaced New Orleans Residents Pilot Study


  1. Terrific! I look forward to following along.

  2. twice i've posted a long reply, not to have it show up. will this short one work?