On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster

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When the going gets tough, the government hides behind resilience

By David Salt

Have you noticed that when the chips are down, and I mean really down, our political leaders frequently invoke ‘resilience’ as the thing that’s most important? We’ve seen it following massive floods, devastating cyclones and, most recently, in response to the bushfire catastrophe (that continues to unfold as I write).

What’s this about?

In my time I’ve written a bit on resilience. While I think resilience science can offer many insights on the challenges that currently beset us, I don’t see its current deployment as anything more than a strategy of obfuscation and displacement, the strategy you roll out when you don’t actually have a plan.

When a massive disturbance overwhelms a country’s capacity to continue with ‘business as usual’, governments do their best to reassure the community that everything will be alright, even though they are often impotent in the face of that crisis.

When that flood wipes out critical infrastructure, for example, it’s often apparent that despite the government’s grand claims, it can’t make the rain stop or move people and emergency services to where they are needed. And when that happens, they often fall back by saying: ‘we’ll get over this, we are resilient.’

Or when the fires are so extensive, as we are witnessing now, and whole communication networks and the road system goes down (and everyone is on edge while choking on endless smoke), we know there is only so much the government can do, but we want reassurance that it’ll all be right. And what is the Prime Minister telling us our priorities should be? “That resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” he said.

We are resilient

What’s the attraction in invoking resilience? From a political point of view, I think it’s twofold.

The first relates to our belief of the ‘rightness’ of the system we are in. Yes a fire/drought/flood might knock us down but we are ‘good, hard working people that care for each other’. We may be knocked down but our inherent qualities will help us triumph over adversity, get us back on our feet and prosper.

You’ll hear this refrain time and again following disasters from political leaders at every level, from the town mayor to the prime minister, each crafting their message of resilience to their own group of people, reassuring them that they are ‘right’, they are ‘good’ and ‘they’ll get over it’.

Consider Premier Anna Bligh’s now famous statement following the unprecedented Queensland floods in 2011: “We are Queenslanders,” she told the public. “We’re the people that they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again.”

That’s the basic definition of ‘resilience’, it’s all about how we cope with disturbance, and we like to think there’s something inherently right and good about our system (municipality/state/country) that will enable us to triumph. ‘We are Queenslanders/Victorians/south coasters/insert place name here, and we are tough…’

Politically speaking that’s exactly the ‘we-are-righteous-and-shall-overcome’ message that a government wants to convey to the electorate so invoking ‘resilience’ is an attractive notion; especially when it’s clear there’s not much they can actually do.

The second attraction for invoking ‘resilience’ is that everyone has their own idea of what it means and it’s impossible to measure in a precise manner. Consequently, it’s an ambiguous goal that is easy to hide behind while avoiding accountability.

So far, our Prime Minister’s invocation of resilience seems more about avoiding talk on emissions targets and climate change policy than any genuine engagement with the idea.

The new ‘sustainability’?

The idea of ‘sustainability’ has similar weaknesses (or strengths, depending on your perspective and degree of cynicism) to resilience but sustainability (and sustainable development) have been around for longer as a policy goal. Having been seriously worked on for at least the past 40 years, sustainability has had a lot of time and energy spent on working out how it might be operationalised.

‘Sustainability’ was also a ‘made up’ word to embody efforts to respond to the damaging effects of unbounded economic growth. In this way, sustainability had meanings loaded into it. ‘Resilience’, on the other hand, is a real word that now labels many different approaches to managing systems (people, families, communities, cities, nations and ecosystems to name a few) to help them overcome disturbance. People have their own idea what it is to be resilient.

All models (or framings) are wrong but some are useful (to paraphrase George Box). Sustainability, with all of its shortcomings, enabled national and international conversations to take place around the connections between the economy, society and the environment. It also allowed notions of equity and justice to be incorporated into our thinking. And, while it’s still a work in progress, the sustainability project is still an important and potentially critical element of our species ongoing survival.

Many faces of resilience

Resilience too has many weaknesses as a strategy and policy goal. For starters, what resilience approach are you talking about? It has separate origins and applications from many disciplinary areas with the disciplines of psychology, emergency relief, engineering and ecology being the main four fields from which it has emerged. Each considers resilience at a different scale and with a different purpose though all are concerned with how the systems we are interested in cope with disturbance.

The value of resilience is that it is a systems approach that engages with the complexity of the system of our interest (for example, in psychology that’s individual people, for ecology that’s social-ecological systems).

When I use the term resilience science I’m talking about ecological resilience, the topic I have helped write two text books on. It’s a rich body of research and academic discussion that has revealed much about how linked systems of nature and people endure over time coping with a range of disturbances. It’s all about thresholds and tipping points, linked scales, adaptive cycles and transformation.

To really make a difference with resilience science you need to honestly engage with the complexity of the system of your interest. You need to respect those people with expert knowledge on how it functions, maintain healthy buffers of economic, environmental and social capital, and work within the limits of your system rather than ignoring them. (These are themes I will explore in future blogs.)

Unfortunately, when governments invoke resilience they use it as cover to continue doing whatever it is their vested interests dictate (which seems in Australia at the moment the continued support for more coal mining). They usually spin resilience as a magic bullet that solves a multitude of problems without ever being accountable for what it is they are specifically attempting to achieve.

And isn’t that the perfect escape for a government – ‘because of this fire/flood/drought we are down but we are not out. We are resilient and we shall triumph come what may.’

Image: Epicormic regrowth from bark of Eucalypt, four months after Black Saturday bushfires, Strathewen, Victoria, in 2009. (Photo by Robert Kerton, CSIRO. Creative Commons 3.0.)