Saturday, December 12, 2009

Poverty, Gender, Vulnerability and Resilience.

I'm posting this from St. Andrews, NB because St. George doesn't have internet (in my part of town). It's my contribution on this International Day of Action for Climate Justice, part of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

I have been researching "definitions of resilience" for my dissertation the Transition Towns movement in Canada. About a month ago, I contacted Rob Hopkins of Transition Towns UK, who put me in touch with Neil Adger of the (now infamous) University of East Anglia Center for Climate Change Research. This resulted in an email exchange with Rob, Neil, Katrina Brown and Helen La Trobe. I've been so swamped with course work I didn't have a chance to review them until now—but this post is a summary of those messages. In addition, Neil sent me a copy of the chapter, "Vulnerability and Resistance to Environmental Change." Co-authors Neil Adger and Katrina Brown gave me permission to post the chapter to this blog. If I figure out how to embed the document, I'll post it over the next week.

I told Neil I had been looking for a definition of "resilience" to use in my research. The first thing he wrote to me was "a good theory is better than a good definition":

"In response to your major points, let me say that you need to explore resilience as both an emergent system property – i.e. something you can observe independently, as well as resilience as a normative social goal." (Neil Adger.)

A discussion ensued about the many definitions and normative goals of resilience. An emerging question for me, and for the others, was whether "maintaining system stability" (i.e. sustainability) becomes "rigidity" or "resistance to change." Resistance to change, or "stability at all costs," can keep a system stable and keep people and communities intact for a short duration, but in the long run, it becomes counter-evolutionary, that is, it is maladaptive to changes that need to happen, either for normative social reasons or as a response to environmental shocks.

“The message of resilience is more radical for policy-makers than that of sustainability. The agenda implied by resilience actually challenges some widely held tenets about stability and resistance to change that are implicit in how sustainability is formulated in environmental and social policy arenas around the world. Promoting resilience means changing, in particular the nature of decision-making to recognise the benefits of autonomy and new forms of governance in promoting social goals, self-organisation, and the capacity to adapt. In a policy world focussed on resilience there is less scope for global blueprints, which are high on central control but low on equity – such blueprints create their own vulnerabilities and render some problems and issues invisible [3]. Promoting resilience is concerned with the knowledge required to facilitate robust governance systems that can cope with environmental changes and social, demographic and democratic transitions.” (Neil Adger)

"Resilience is not about promoting growth or change for its own sake. It is about promoting the ability to absorb shocks and stresses and still maintain the functioning of society and the integrity of the ecological systems. However, resilience also requires communities and societies to have the ability to self-organize and to manage resources and make decisions in a manner that promotes stability. Most important of all, resilience requires societies to have the capacity to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and risks. These objectives give generic guidance on how to promote sustainability at different scales.” (Helen La Trobe)

In human communities, it becomes very difficult to sort out what kind of change is "good in the long run", even though initial shocks are disruptive, and what kinds of change are damaging and maladaptive. As a bright line example, stepping down capitalist production and trade would cause serious shocks and disruptions to many communities in the over-developed world, but in the long run would slow climate change and help us adapt to a post-fossil fuel economy. On the other hand, Hurricane Katrina was a sudden ecological shock that was severely detrimental to poor people of colour in New Orleans and offered few opportunities for beneficial adaptation.

Which brings us to the next topic. Neil Adger and Katrina Brown's chapter on "Vulnerability and Resilience to Environmental Change" looks at several examples from cultures around the world that have experienced different kinds of ecological shocks: economic and environmental. To quickly sum it up, poverty and gender are factors which significantly effect a community's ability to adapt to shocks. In an example from Cameroon, "structural adjustment" policies led to a reduction in government employment and sent thousands of city dwellers back to the rural agricultural areas. Men who re-ruralized adapted well by growing cash crops. Women who had traditionally done farming became excluded from the land, and were relegated to producing household services and cottage crafts. The men prospered (relatively speaking) and the women suffered severely, There were other examples in the article which showed that women and the children they care for are more severely impacted by ecological shocks and less able to mount a beneficial adaptation to change. The power differential between men and women is a factor affecting resilience.

By the same token, there are several examples in the article which show that poverty makes people unable to adapt to serious ecological shocks, whether resulting from climate change, loss of water, farmland or other natural resources, political and economic shocks, etc. In other words, systemic poverty and powerlessness caused by race, gender, and economic exploitation sets poor people up to be devastated by ecological shocks, such as hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, floods and fires.

That is why today's protests in Copenhagen, the International Day of Action for Climate Justice, is such a powerful statement of this profound truth. Europeans and North Americans, as well as Indigenous and People of the South, who are protesting today in Copenhagen, have intuitively understood this profound truth: adaptation to climate change is possible only with the achievement of equity and justice around the world. The elimination of poverty and equitable access to resources and decision-making are fundamental conditions for adapting to climate change. The over-developed world needs to ratchet down its capitalist conquest of the world, share its resources, stop emitting any more carbon and greenhouse gasses, phase out fossil fuels, and share appropriate technologies and self-empowered development strategies with the South.

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