Resilience is having a moment right now. Like its counterpart, the ever-popular “sustainability,” the term is everywhere: urban planning, industry, business leadership, national security, libraries, and even in childhood and midlife. Across professions and in popular culture, the benefits of an individual’s or a community’s ability to “bounce back” are being sung.
As an urban planner and librarian, we understand firsthand the importance of resilience. When a library’s funding is cut, the library must find a way to continue to serve its community’s needs. Similarly, a coastline town that is hard hit by coastal flooding must ensure that it rebuilds to withstand these types of events, protecting the town and its residents. At the same time, we also see that this laser focus on promoting resilience — across professions and in the many other ways this concept is evoked — can obscure important concerns and prevent necessary dialogue.
Standing in the shadows of resilience lurk significant questions:
Why are we being asked to be resilient?
What brought us to need to be resilient?
Who is asking us to be resilient?
What actions can we take to help lessen the need for future resilience?
We will start with a brief history of the concept of resilience, consider an example of how resilience is commonly conceived, and then highlight concerns among resilience researchers.
HISTORY OF RESILIENCE
Throughout the 1970s and 80s the concept of resilience was established and adapted by researchers in both ecology and psychology. The term was first developed by Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling in 1973 to describe ecosystems that continue to function more or less the same despite adversity. A few years later resilience began to appear in the psychology literature, with Michael Rutter studying the concept in terms of childhood development and mental disorders. Researchers found resilience useful for understanding the ways in which people cope with abuse, poverty, or the loss of loved ones. The concept continued to develop in both fields, gathering interest and momentum.
Decades later, resilience has become a major fixture in a variety of professions. The popularity of resilience has skyrocketed along with the increased pace and severity of catastrophes and disasters. Resilience is increasingly used in fields as diverse as international finance, the psychology of trauma, parenting, public health, education, and of course, libraries and urban planning. From its beginnings in ecology, resilience has been gradually reconceived as a characteristic or quality that people and environments need to cultivate to adapt to the difficulties of thriving and surviving.
POPULAR APPROACHES TO RESILIENCE
Judith Rodin, former president of The Rockefeller Foundation, posits that resilience begets more resilience, an ever-widening positive feedback loop. In The Resilience Dividend, a book designed to appeal to CEOs of international corporations and environmentalists alike, she writes:
What is resilience? Resilience is the capacity of any entity—an individual, a community, an organization, or a natural system—to prepare for disruptions, to recover from shocks and stresses, and to adapt and grow from a disruptive experience. As you build resilience...you become more able to prevent or mitigate stresses and shocks you can identify and better able to respond to those you can’t predict or avoid. You also develop greater capacity to bounce back from a crisis, learn from it, and achieve revitalization. Ideally, as you become more adept at managing disruption and skilled at resilience building, you are able to create and take advantage of new opportunities in good times and bad. That is the resilience dividend…It is about achieving significant transformation that yields benefits even when disruptions are not occurring. (3-4)
In addition to Rodin’s view, many others have noted the positive aspects of resilience. Resilience is a part of life, and is a factor enabling humans to live in health, safety, and security. Sometimes simply persisting in the face of adversity, as so many people do, is the most significant act there is. At its best, resilience challenges us to account for considerable problems we know are coming and must act upon.
Other writers bring attention to the “organic-ness” of resilience. In the essay “Beginning a Conversation About Resilient Communities,” Blair A. Ruble notes “resilience depends on thinking about the world in organic, incremental, bottom-up terms rather than in overarching, top-down abstractions. It is about accommodation and accumulation of small-scale change” (13). And, as Simin Davoudi and Libby Porter write in The Politics of Resilience for Planning: A Cautionary Note, “resilience thinking offers concepts and methods for breaking planning out of its obsession with order, certainty and stasis. It considers transformation as normal, and dynamism as an inherent part of how systems operate.”
SOME CONCERNS WITH RESILIENCE
The appeal of resilience is apparent: who doesn’t want to bounce back from adversity? Who doesn’t want small investments to grow into larger investments and new opportunities? But the danger of an uncritical embrace of resilience in any discipline is the failure to engage with hard questions. In unpacking its usage, we find three primary concerns: problematic naturalization of crises, undue emphasis on individual responses, and the lack of a clear or consistent meaning.
Focusing on resilience can ignore the fact that the crises that caused the need for resilience are, in fact, caused. As Davoudi and Porter argue, “Socio-ecological contexts, not to mention crises, are never inevitable: they are produced, and could always be otherwise.” John Patrick Leary concurs, writing in Keywords for the Age of Austerity 19: Resilience that the concept “presumes catastrophe and crisis to be baseline conditions of everyday existence without questioning why this is, or whether it should be.” The logical conclusion can lead to insecurity and a constant state of crisis becoming a humdrum fact of life, with those most vulnerable to catastrophes charged with becoming more resilient against them.
Concealing society’s role in creating the need for individual and community resilience has negative consequences: resilience is often used to emphasize individual responsibility. Leary writes, “as we saw with “wellness,” health becomes the individual’s personal responsibility, and poor health his own failure; it is a receding horizon, since one can always be more well or more resilient.” Focusing on personal perseverance ignores the fact that it takes resources to be resilient. Paul Sehgal points to this in The Profound Emptiness of “Resilience”:
But where “resilience” can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character…[As] the social scientist Alfie Kohn argued in an op-ed article in The Washington Post [,] “The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies.’’
Finally, critics of resilience have pointed out that like many buzzwords, a lack of meaning for the concept has resulted from its widespread adoption and use across various fields has rendered it less meaningful. Resiliency has lost context and the term is employed without regard to scale, context or locale. Magali Reghezza-Zitt, Samuel Rufat, Géraldine Djament-Tran, Antoine Le Blanc and Serge Lhomme note in What Resilience Is Not: Uses and Abuses:
Resilience could have led to a debate on acceptable level of risk for every society. However, because the concept stays blurred and elastic, it was picked up by a multitude of stakeholders with divergent interests, leading to a point where now, talking about resilience is more about imposing one’s views than about opening a real debate.
If you cease to be resilient in our disaster-prone world, it’s possible to end up dead. Similarly, the institutions we depend upon, and our towns and our cities, must also be resilient in the face of threats and adversities — for our sake and the sake of many more. However, understanding the full picture of resilience and the underlying issues surrounding the need for resilience is imperative.
After all, this isn’t merely hypothetical. As The Washington Post reported in May, the U.S. Department of the Interior erased the mention of “climate change” from a press release for a study that focuses on climate change impacts. If we are to address the major challenges this planet faces, we must recognize those issues and meet them head on, not hide them from view or gloss over them with buzzwords. In the case of resilience, we should not normalize a state of crisis but instead dare to imagine alternatives to the way things are.
Renata Silberblatt is an urban planner living in Brooklyn. Eamon Tewell is a librarian at Long Island University and lives in Brooklyn. He can be found at @eamontewell.