For a long time now, the psychological concept of resilience has been associated with being strong in face of adversity. Even the Cambridge dictionary defines it as the ability to be happy or successful after something difficult or bad has happened — a trait of the human psyche. But when it comes to global adversities, such as global warming or pandemics, narrowing it down to individual personality traits can be reductive, warns Dr. Garry Peterson, professor in environmental sciences with emphasis on resilience and social-ecological systems at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Resilience thinking, he says, could help humanity not only to adapt to environmental hardships, but also to tackle them from their very origins.
What does being resilient mean in times of covid-19 and climate change?
Resilience is the ability to navigate the world, and keep what you want and change what you don’t want. My colleagues and I find resilience thinking to be a useful way to look at the world. From this perspective, the entire world can not be resilient. To keep things we want, such as the living world, we have to decrease the resilience of things we don’t want, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Change and transformation require that some things lose their resilience.
Throughout this [covid-19] crisis we have seen that the ability of people to cope with the pandemic varies among different places and different people. The situation with covid-19 matches what research on disaster resilience has shown for decades. History, policy, and social structure strongly influence people’s resilience. Often, the poor and marginalized are those who struggle to cope with these types of situations, because society has been designed and built to make them less resilient. An example is access to parks — If people have parks near their houses, they can go outside, exercise, meet friends, and reconnect to nature, but if they have no access to parks in their neighbourhood they cannot. So, one way societies could build people’s resilience would be to ensure that everyone has access to nature and parks.
Overall, we know that both coronavirus and climate change have been produced by our economic system consuming the living world — building a sustainable planet requires we have to decrease the resilience of our current economic system and build the resilience of another way of living. The grand problem of sustainability is that many of these systems are pathologically resistant to change.
Can anyone become more resilient in order to resist these types of crises?
Resilience is sometimes thought of as a personality trait of individuals, but I think it is more useful to think of it as a systemic property. Resilience thinking —taking a resilience approach to think about how the world works— is something that anyone can apply to their day-to-day lives. My colleagues and I often use seven principles of resilience thinking. I won’t mention them all but two which I think are often not considered enough, especially during the covid-19 pandemic, are the importance of maintaining diversity and redundancy and fostering complexity thinking. Diverse systems, whether ecosystems or organizations, are generally more resilient than less diverse systems. Fostering complexity thinking, means accepting and preparing for unpredictability and uncertainty, and embracing a multitude of perspectives. So people can use resilience thinking to interpret the world, and use it as a tool to enhance the resilience of the systems they want to keep while reducing the resilience of dysfunctional or dangerous systems.
How can we prepare for the unpredictable?
Resilience is based on the idea that the world is turbulent and the future is uncertain. Many organizations use futures thinking to interrogate that uncertainty, plan for it and develop tools to help them cope with it. Resilience thinking would suggest that often organizations underestimate the variety of futures they should prepare for. It also embraces learning. In environmental management, for example, resilience has been closely connected to adaptive management. Adaptive management argues policies should be robust to uncertainty and surprises, and designed to learn about the world to improve future management. Learning approaches are needed, because planning and futures thinking often do not consider structural change or transformation and underestimate what can happen — 2020 is a great example of how the world can be stranger than people expect.
You have studied extensively abrupt systemic change — could the entire global system be transformed by taking small steps?
Abruptness is in the eye of the beholder. Twenty years can be considered as abrupt when looking at the global history of the planet, while it is a generation from a human perspective. One area of resilience thinking is focused on systemic transformation and how it does or doesn’t happen. I think researchers have a reasonable understanding of the types of conditions required for systemic change, and that it’s very difficult to predict or engineer that change because the success or failure of those situations often depend on contingent events. All we can do really is to analyze which situations or efforts to bring about change may cause a systemic transformation on some level, and which are not likely to. When looking at History, we often see a coming together of different events that people didn’t expect to come together that led to transformational change — events that are hard to reproduce or engineer, if not impossible. But, since the future is unpredictable, there’s hope. We can work towards favouring those necessary conditions to produce systemic change. And we can do this by preparing the system with alternative ways of organizing, paying attention to windows of opportunity that would disrupt or weaken the status quo, so the better alternative can take over —again, depending on a number of contingent events—, and then, if it succeeds, the alternative can stabilize and become the new status quo.
Could resilience thinking help tackle climate change?
We certainly hope so. There is a great number of scientists thinking about global resilience from different perspectives to guide action on climate change. I think people need to try lots of different approaches. And resilience thinking approaches are attractive to people or organizations because they help people strategize for change and can be effective. For example, one of my former students has been successfully using resilience thinking with Swedish municipalities, in order to help them address climate change, while also addressing other issues such as health, food, and disaster preparedness. Before, they were dealing with these issues separately but now they work on them as interconnected parts of a system, and have been able to be more effective. It can be hard to do so at global levels, but my colleagues are using resilience thinking with cities, governments and companies. Bottom line, it’s about both adapting to climate change and eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously, because ultimately these are interconnected — adapting to climate change must also reduce carbon emissions. And we need to try a wide variety of approaches and amplify whatever works.
This article has been written as part as a series of stories produced by Sparknews, a French social enterprise that aims to foster new narratives that can help accelerate a social and environmental transition to tackle our world’s most pressing issues.