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Resilience—Are We Giving Up on Change?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pamela Mischen
December 18, 2015

The concept of resilience has embedded itself in many disciplines. Researchers speak of psychosocial resilience, disaster resilience, resilience of the Internet, educational resilience, ecological resilience and community resilience. Many of these are interrelated. For instance, community resilience is often related to the ability to recover after an ecological disaster and psychosocial resilience forms the basis for educational resilience.

door-672999_640Resilience is generally thought of as a good thing. But can resilience get in the way of change, such as creating a more sustainable way of living or dealing with issues of racial injustice?

First, let us consider the resilience/sustainability issue. The term resilience is used to describe how much of a disturbance a system can withstand before a regime shift takes place. Sustainability is typically defined as a meeting the needs of the present in a way that does not prevent future generations from meeting their own needs. Redman (2014) argues that although resilience and sustainability have been viewed as complementary, and even used interchangeably, we need to focus on further developing their distinctiveness. Redman further contends that resilience is based on adaptation (as can be seen in the repeated references to adaptive capacity in the work of Folke and others) while sustainability is based on transformation.

Complexity theory can help us understand the difference between the two concepts. For a system to be resilient, it must have negative feedback loops that allow it to continually return to its equilibrium state. Negative feedback works like a thermostat. If the room gets too hot, the air conditioning turns on and cools it. When it gets too cold, the furnace turns on and warms it. The temperature of the room oscillates around the temperature set on the thermostat. Another concept from complexity theory that comes in handy when explaining resilience is path dependence, the fact that current decisions are not independent of past decisions (more on this below).

If a system is already sustainable (i.e., meeting the needs of the present while not preventing future generations from meeting their needs), we want that system to also be resilient. I believe this is why Folke and others have focused on resilience—they are looking at natural systems that have evolved to be sustainable but may not be resilient to human-caused changes.

But what if the system is not sustainable, yet exhibits significant resilience? An example of such a system is the current transportation system in the U.S. It is largely a fossil fuel and car-centered system. Past decisions to build roads and communities to accommodate cars, and to develop and refine technology based on fossil fuels, have constrained current decisions and created a system that is highly resistant to change—it is resilient. Despite shocks that have come from soaring oil prices in the past, the system itself has not transformed, it has adapted. This adaptation has led to the continuation of a system that is not sustainable.

Whether we focus on resilience/adaptation or sustainability/transformation has a lot to do with whether we treat the “disturbances” (e.g., flooding, reliance on gas-powered cars, racial bias) as endogenous (part of the system) or exogenous (outside of the system). When the disturbances are viewed as exogenous, or something over which we have no control, we must focus on resilience. To a great extent, extreme weather events fall into this category. Although it is generally accepted that human activity has increased the occurrence of extreme weather events, they have always and will always exist. Therefore, we should build communities that are resilient to these disturbances.

However, if the disturbances are endogenous, meaning that we have some control over them, we should be focusing on how to transform the system to make it more sustainable. In these cases, a focus on resilience is a useful short-term strategy but should not divert our attention from transformational change.

I fear that this is what is happening with issues of racial justice, on campuses and elsewhere. There are increasing calls for students to become more resilient. I am not arguing against resilience. As I stated above, both resilience and sustainability are essential. At the individual level, resilience allows us to bounce back from all sorts of setbacks and transgressions that exist within society. My concern is that we are using the term resilience so that we can overlook the transformational changes that still need to be made to create a more equitable society. I am not alone in this concern. A NYTimes magazine article and an NPR story have explicitly addressed this issue. We are treating these underlying biases as exogenous and beyond our control.

So I ask the question: are we focusing too much on resilience? Is this focus a “giving up”? Are we throwing our hands into the air and saying it’s all beyond our control, the best way we can deal is to “buck up”?

I hope not. Resilience is certainly necessary, but let’s not give up hopes for transformational change that will lead to a more sustainable way of life.


Author: Pamela A. Mischen is an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration and a member of the Center for Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems (CoCo) at Binghamton University. She can be reached at [email protected]

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