Monday, May 10, 2010

Neil Adger on Social Resilience

Neil Adger is a lead researcher at the Univ. of East Anglia Tyndall Centre. In Transition Culture's blog, he present a definition of social resilience that is necessarily different from resilience that defines non-human environments. Social resilience requires that human systems have the ability to change and adapt, as well as to maintain basic function.

An Interview with Neil Adger: resilience, adaptability, localisation and Transition

neil_adgerProfessor Neil Adger is a lecturer and researcher at University of East Anglia. He is a researcher and teacher who specialises in social vulnerability, resilience and adaptation to environmental change; on justice and equity in decision-making; and the application of economics to global environmental change. He is a member of the Resilience Alliance, and is involved in a range of climate change research projects, including the IPCC and work for the Tyndall Centre. He has written many papers on the subject of resilience, and so, for the research I am doing, I was thrilled to be able to interview Neil about resilience, Transition, peak oil, and localisation.

How do you define resilience?

Intuitively resilience is about being able to be flexible and also about the ability to be able to adapt. So the working definition within the Resilience Alliance that we’ve been working towards, which has three elements, is quite succinct. It’s about the ability to absorb perturbations and still retain a similar function; about the ability of self-organisation; and also the capacity to learn, to change and to adapt.

Although that sounds quite generic because it comes from a systems perspective I think that captures most of what we’re trying to articulate in terms of resilience. I should say that I think the key element is about the ability to change rather than the ability to continue doing the same thing.

What for you is the overlap between resilience and sustainability – is one part of the other? What’s their relationship?

That’s a very good question. Let me try and break this down in two ways. Sustainability, and sustainable development, in particular, are normative concepts: they are goals, something we would strive towards, and that’s the usual sense. It’s contested what the exact elements of that might be, but there’s general agreement that we want our developments, societies and environments to be sustained.

Resilience is used in two ways, one of which is very similar to what we would call sustainable development, i.e. resilience as a normative goal. Clearly resilience in that sense would be part of sustainability. So part of sustainability would be the ability to change, the ability to deal flexibly with the future, and in the context of changing social values, a changing demographic and other types of social, environmental and political change.

Whereas, I think resilience in a positivistic sense is actually just a characteristic of a system – a system can be resilient or not resilient. And that positivistic scientific view doesn’t necessarily speak to sustainability as a societal or normative goal. You can have systems, and even ecosystems that are quite persistent and resilient, but they don’t necessarily produce l lots of ecosystem services which societies demand. So I think there’s a distinction here between resilience as a system property, and resilience as a goal for society.

I was reading a piece of yours yesterday where you wrote “some elements of society are inherently vulnerable, and others are inherently resilient.” What is it that determines the degree to which things are vulnerable or resilient?

First of all both vulnerability and resilience need a referent, so we need to be vulnerable to something, or resilient to something. I think the things that parts of society are vulnerable to are environmental change at the large scale, and the changes in the way the world and society works, which you can capture in the idea of globalisation. Some parts of society are, in effect, vulnerable to the large scale structural changes that are happening around the world – the changes in the flows of capital and labour and the restrictions on those, and the impact that that has on their life and livelihoods.

So if you think about the farming sector, it’s vulnerable to large scale price shocks, and we as consumers are vulnerable to large scale price shocks around the world. Some parts of society are vulnerable to environmental change and in combination are vulnerable to the sorts of things that are going on in terms of economic globalisation around the world. Others are more resilient. But being resilient to the forces of globalisation doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts of society are immune to them or even aren’t integrated into them.

I don’t think you can simply isolate yourself from the globalised world and say, “well, that’ll make us more resilient”. It’ll make us more resilient in some senses, but the world is as it is and I think we just need to deal with the fact that it’s more globally integrated and look on the positive side of that and reap the benefits of it.

Would you not have any truck with the idea that a resilient society is one where local economies are stronger?

I don’t disagree with that. What I’m saying is that local economies, for all sorts of reasons, are actually stronger and likely to be more resilient, because if we go back to the definition, they have more autonomy and room for self organisation and adaptability and change. Hence, I think it’s impossible to isolate a community or society from a globalised world.

Simply looking to give more autonomy to a community is a positive thing, but trying to isolate it from the rest of the world and not realise that we’re globalised and all the rest of it isn’t a sensible thing to do. As I say, there are a lot of benefits to globalisation (not necessarily economic globalisation) such as the flow of information around the world, global solidarity with places in other parts of the world. There are all sorts of up sides to globalisation. I’m sure you’re familiar with all those arguments and you know this on the ground.

The rest of the interview is here:

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