Resilience – the good, the bad and the ugly

By David Salt

Some 17 years ago a former boss of mine, Dr Brian Walker, approached me to write a book with him that made the science of resilience more understandable and engaging. That text, Resilience Thinking(Island Press, 2006), would become one of the first widely read, popular science books on the subject of ecological resilience. In my humble opinion, Resilience Thinking played an important role in bringing the ideas around resilience into the mainstream, raising the very notion of ‘resilience’ to the status of being a buzzword (with all the good and bad that comes with this).

At the time that Brian approached me I knew little about resilience science (and I was also ignorant about Brian being one of the world’s leading researchers in this field; I knew him as the ridiculously overworked Chief of CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, where I had been his Communications Manager). When he asked me to co-author a book with him, a few years after this, I was a freelancer. Indeed, I was an ageing freelance science writer that was growing increasingly cynical about ‘science being the answer’ to the world’s growing sustainability challenge.

When Brian began explaining what resilience thinking was my first thought was ‘it’s just another bit of tricky science that will supposedly boost efficiency and save us all, while we dig the planet into an even deeper hole’, just like many of the other ‘breakthroughs’ I had covered and promoted over the years.

Well, I was quite wrong about this. By the time I had finished writing Resilience Thinking, I looked at the world anew. Things that had befuddled me in the past, now made sense. I looked at the world with different eyes and became a proselytiser for the cause. It really was an epiphany; so much so that I would go on to write a second book with Brian (Resilience Practice, Island Press 2012), numerous articles on the theme, and lecture on the topic.

Though, I should be careful using the world ‘proselytise’ because resilience thinking has been criticised by some as looking like a religion (it’s not, it’s an ever-developing science with all the peer review and validation that comes with that) with adherents that sometimes come across as acolytes (God, I hope I don’t sound like one). Because, for all the value and insight that comes with resilience thinking, it has collected some unfortunate baggage along the way. But let’s begin with the positives.

The good

When I finished writing Resilience Thinking I suddenly realised that while we used the word ‘resilience’, the book was actually a guidebook to ‘complexity’ (and complex adaptative systems). Though I had written about complexity in the past, this was the first time the concepts wrapped up under the cloak of complexity came together and made sense.

The world is a complex system operating at multiple linked scales. I am a complex system, so is my family, my region, my country; all these systems are linked in lesser or greater ways; all are constrained by their histories to some extent; will change over time (adaptive cycles); are capable of self-organisation in the face of disturbance and have the capacity to sustain their identities (resilience), but only up to a certain point (thresholds) beyond which they take on new ways of being.

When these insights are applied to the world around me, I realise, in a very fundamental way, that my big problem with the world is that I always expect that things (events, people, history) to be rational (that people always act rationally, for example) when in fact they are complex (and often irrational). Rationality is just our way of simplifying things, of dealing with the uncertainty that goes hand in hand with complexity. It’s a great approach in the short term but brings wretched results in the longer term as the complex systems around us self-organise around our efforts to optimise, simplify and hold things steady.

Attempting to explain ‘resilience thinking’ to others gave me a framework that explained for me why optimisation is such a flawed model (maybe ‘partial’ or ‘incomplete’ are better adjectives here) to move us towards ‘being sustainable’; why ‘efficiency’, while being important, is never the answer to long term sustainability; why ‘stability’ is a myth and attempts to hold things steady actually reduces a system’s resilience. These and many other epiphanies became clear as I applied the insights from resilience thinking to systems around me.

So, I would say that, for me, ‘resilience thinking’ is jam packed with inspiration and insight about the world around me. Possibly more important, however, I am aware of many readers of Resilience Thinking who came away with their own epiphanies about their own systems of interest.

When people begin considering the complexity of their own system(s) (looking for thresholds, seeing adaptive cycles, reflecting on where their sources of resilience might lie) they too begin to see the world in a different way, and are excited by the insights that pop up.

The bad

Unfortunately, descriptions of ‘complexity’ become very complicated all too quickly (though please don’t confuse these terms). It takes time (and some patience) to absorb ‘resilience thinking’. And, like complexity itself, resilience thinking is not a linear process in which you read ‘the formula’ press a button and the answer is delivered (‘the answer to your question on resilience is 43’).

Resilience thinking is more of a culture in which stakeholders in a system investigate their system, assess different facets of its resilience (where are the thresholds, what is its space of safe operation; where does it sit in the adaptative cycle, what are the system’s levels of adaptability and transformability, and so on), decide on a course of action, monitor and adapt around that decision; and then iteratively go through that process (compile, assess, act) again and again; learning, adapting, experimenting and transforming as you go.

That’s all good and well, and it’s what we should all be doing all the time, but managers, decision makers and policy people need simpler and linear processes to inform their actions and decisions. Resilience thinking is sometimes seen as ‘nice (if time and resources are unlimited) but unhelpful (in the real world)’ when it comes to getting on with things.

Also, many of the insights emerging from the application of resilience thinking are quite dependent on a particular context and may not hold in a different context. On top of this (and maybe because of this), one person’s insights often vary from the insights another person finds when applying resilience thinking.

Some people have accused resilience thinking of being somewhat vague. Others have even suggested that this is deliberate and even important when it comes to framing complexity. One philosopher asked: “Does resilience exhibit conceptual vagueness, and, if so, is that beneficial? Can looseness in concepts and meanings lend itself to shedding light on unsolved problems? While resilience research has established that redundancy is an asset for complex adaptive systems, does a similar finding also hold for conceptual frameworks?”

All of which is to say is that while resilience thinking can be inspirational, it can also be problematic in its implementation.

And the ugly

While acknowledging this, I do believe it’s an important first step in re-evaluating our failing approach to sustainability (an approach largely based on simplistic linear thinking, technology and efficiency).

I’m happy to acknowledge the good with the bad. Where I get extremely frustrated, however, is where political leaders and corporate spin masters see ‘resilience’ as an opportunity to claim action while actually doing nothing (or continuing with their environmentally damaging activity).

Our last national conservative government claimed they were building a ‘resilient’ Great Barrier Reef while subsidising and expanding the country’s fossil fuel sector. (Our new national government appears to be doing much the same.) Carbon emissions are killing our Reef.

In a similar vein, one of Australia’s biggest companies, BHP, co-funded the Australian Coral Reef Resilience initiative to protect the ‘resilience’ of the reef while continuing to expand their fossil fuel pollution.

When climate-charged wildfires tore apart coastal communities along New South Wales (NSW) coastline in 2019/20 (our Black Summer), the NSW Government created a new overarching recovery agency called Resilience NSW (because who can have enough resilience, and the NSW government is there to provide it). Two years later and instead of fires, unprecedented floods devasted NSW coastal communities. A government enquiry found that Resilience NSW (an agency that hadn’t even found its feet) had failed and should be abolished.

These are just a few local examples where the ideas of resilience are inappropriately used (and abused). This happens everywhere. The problem here is that resilience is complex, most people don’t have the opportunity to have a deep engagement with it, and politicians are quick to exploit that ignorance; in the first place to hide behind it, in the next to use it as the scapegoat.

In a rational linear world, they wouldn’t get away with this. But, of course, we don’t live in a rational world, do we?

Banner image: Resilience thinking is about people, landscapes, society, ecosystems and complexity. Depending on how it is applied it can be good, bad or ugly. (Image by David Salt)

8 thoughts on “Resilience – the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Thanks David, great read as usual, and very insightful. Resilience is complex indeed, and in my humble opinion we’re in dire need for complex approaches to deal with the complexities of climate change – to match these complexities so to speak. The problem as you say is the time and resources needed to do that. Still I personally find the process of thinking in systems, using a resilience lens, and the ongoing learning quite fascinating. It’s what drive me to keep going, day on day off. Thanks so much again.


  2. Loved this David. Spot on! Overused (and misused) and misunderstood, but incredibly powerful and insightful.


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