Within my better big word, I decided to focus on what social resilience would look like. I just read Debra Davidson’s article and picked out some of my favorite quotes, which I will think through in this post, in an effort to build some connecting thoughts with other ideas I’ve come into contact with.
All systems, at least historically, have come to an end; they simply vary in longevity. Steadfast pursuit of the Sustainability Grail may well have blinded many researchers to the analytical value of observing sustainability’s absence: in the form of collapse events, and the equally insightful historic phases of post-collapse transformation. (Davidson pg. 1137)
I am looking at resilience as a way to build upon, or perhaps even replace, sustainability. Like this quote from Davidson demonstrates, sustainability is somewhat unrealistic — societies rise and fall all the time, perhaps in varying scales of birth and demise, but nonetheless they tend to either drift and shift over time. The only constant is change, after all. Resilience replaces sustainability with a framework that allows for these cycles of societal or ecological change.
In order to persist as a functioning ecosystem and hence avoid transformation, Gunderson and his colleagues identify three necessary qualities (Holling et al. 2002): (1) The system accumulates resources rather than depleting them over time; (2) it contains destabilizing forces for maintaining diversity, resilience, and opportunity, and stabilizing forces for maintaining productivity and biogeochemical cycles; and (3) there are evolutionary processes that generate novelty, implying a balance between dynamism and persistence. (Davidson pg. 1138)
I thought these three qualities were really interesting, and they made me wonder what they might look like in a social system instead of an ecological system. (1) The system would need to accumulate resources rather than depleting them — this makes me think of social capital. While money is inevitably in short supply, social capital can keep growing, and more people means more networks. Each person is a resource, and as humans we always keep learning and developing new skills, and therefore more social capital. (2) Destabilizing forces to maintain diversity, and stabilizing forces to maintain productivity. I would hope that community members would continue to question the norm as individuals, but various community organizations already in place would help maintain some stability/productivity. The destabilizing aspect is interesting to me, though — something that I think is missing from many utopias. (3) Novelty, dynamism, and persistence. I’m not as sure what this is about, but I’m guessing just bringing in fresh new ideas and projects would achieve this. There’s another quote that demonstrates the need for novelty and destabilization: “Willingness to accept societal ground rules implies individuals giving up their own freedom and power, and investing certain actors with the power to govern, which depends on high levels of trust and solidarity” (Davidson pg. 1140). People need to keep fighting for what they believe in. The work in a community is never done, because there are always the different scales to look at in more depth: personal and the larger implications.
Adaptation, on the other hand, is expressed as collective efforts to reduce exposure to, or minimize the impact of, disturbances. Transformation, finally, is the equivalent of societal collapse: the whole-scale breakdown of multiple institutions characterizing a social system. (Davidson pg. 1145)
Davidson argues that resilience isn’t the only result we should aim for; it’s one of three, including adaptation and transformation. She argues that resilience is one pathway but it can’t be forced since sometimes the current system has flaws of its own. This takes a bit of Holling’s 3D adaptive theory into account — sometimes in the cycle of death and rebirth, a society is reborn somewhere else, in a different form. That would be a transformation. I think it’s important to acknowledge these other two options so resilience theory doesn’t turn into a one-sided, rigid “plan” like today’s sustainability.
Agency encompasses both individual-level action, premised on confidence among autonomous and able members of society that change is possible, and collective agency, expressed in the cultural, infrastructural, and communicative resources that enable collective action. Regardless of the objective limits on material resources, a fundamental loss of agency in a given social system amounts to a breakdown in the collective capacity to persist. By contrast, a strong capacity for agency can encourage innovations in cooperative crisis response, including the equitable distribution of resources even under circumstances of extreme scarcity. When resilience is no longer an option, the nature of collective agency can define the ensuing adaptation or transformation trajectories. The ability to recognize when the existing system is untenable, and subsequently create a fundamentally new system (Walker et al. 2004), will be directly dependent upon collective action.
Although long, I think this quote is so important! Davidson points out that the fundamental difference between resilience in social systems and resilience in ecological systems is human agency. By using Holling’s adaptive theory model, we get a good understanding of what resilience could look like, and the theoretical ways in which it could function and influence in a perfect world, but the most amazing and inspiring aspect of these human systems, an aspect that is extremely hard to model, is human agency. It’s so hard to model because it depends on the community. It depends on the individuals and the current structures in place that allow people’s voices to be heard.
Perhaps that’s one of the most important qualities of a resilient community — a platform to hear different voices. I definitely noticed this in my work with Project Lyttelton: there were two women with very strong agency for change, and so they created a platform for themselves and people in the future. People wonder if programs like Project Lyttelton could be applied elsewhere, and sometimes I wonder if they can be. The two co-founders really put their hearts and souls into that program, and they have so much agency, that they make the program thrive. Without them though, can it be sustained? The program will need someone else with agency.
That’s one of my research questions this summer — does a utopian or dystopian sense of place create the most agency? Do people feel compelled to act when things are being shaken up, or when they feel like there’s a safe platform for them to express their ideas on?
This article was really interesting to my thoughts on resilience. Davidson concludes the paper by urging people to do more work surrounding the manifestations of human resilience into the resilience framework, and I hope I will be able to do that!
Debra J. Davidson. 2010. “The Applicability of the Concept of Resilience to Social Systems: Some Sources of Optimism and Nagging Doubts.” Society & Natural Resources 23:12, 1135-1149, DOI: 10.1080/08941921003652940