Thursday, February 7, 2013

Resilience is brittle?

Ideas such as "relocation", "transition" and, now, "resilience" have generated a lot of interest and the "transition town" movement has gained an important foothold in Europe. It has managed to do that by correctly fusing information and empowering in order to motivate people to become active in changing things. But can the transition movement grow to the point of influencing major political decisions at the global level? Or will its strong focus on middle class people always limit its impact? (especially now that the middle class looks more and more like an endangered species on the brink of extinction). And do we need to shift from the concept of transition to that of resilience? In this post, Paula ("Mythodrome") provides a lot of food for thought: is the concept that "resilience is brittle" just an oxymoron or not? (U.B.)

Thoughts On ‘Resilience’


For the past couple of years a new buzzword has been bubbling through the doomosphere: “resilience.” It’s now become a permanently embedded meme thanks to changing its domain, and its focus, to

Near as I can tell, “resilience” means exactly the same thing as “transition” within a doomy context: an organic gardening club for rich white people with property, investments, and a comfortable lifestyle to protect. It’s an insular clique that requires everyone be on the same page politically in order to participate. It is based on the European idea of “community,” which is very attractive in theory, but which doesn’t port well (if at all) to the deeply ingrained American values of individualism and self-reliance. There are perhaps a dozen or two cities in the US where “resilience” efforts might find an audience, an actual geographic community of like-minded people. For many (most?) people, however, “resilience” looks like hardly more than a suburban organic gardening club for people with a high enough credit score to finance a new Prius.

My biggest beef with “transition,” and now with “resilience,” is that it offers very little to those who do not already have resources to spare. Both concepts assume a pre-existing level of property ownership which needs to be transitioned into low-energy operation, and/or made resilient in the face of deep economic contraction. There isn’t any room here for people who have no property to transition or to make resilient.

Some years ago on my long-defunct e-zine Adaptation, I wrote that individuals would experience the long emergency primarily as financial difficulty; failing to adequately address issues related to money, and income specifically — or to ignore these altogether, as was the case back then — is a setup for community failure. At least a year or two before the housing bubble collapse I wrote that a thriving backyard garden is awesome until you lose your job and get kicked out of your house. I look back now and wonder how many “transition” gardens have been lost to foreclosure.

What needs to be transitioned, made resilient, is not property but income. Economic contraction means purchasing power dries up, whether through deflation (lack of money), inflation or hyperinflation (worthless money). If you have property, dried-up purchasing power means relying on your property for things you’d otherwise buy elsewhere. If you live hand-to-mouth, you are basically a conduit through which purchasing power flows from your employer to your creditors and suppliers; when the purchasing power flowing through your conduit life becomes insufficient, your creditors take away whatever it is of theirs you’ve been renting and your suppliers stop supplying you with anything. Without property to fall back on, you’re basically fucked.

“Transition” and “resilience” address this problem only marginally, and so will become increasingly irrelevant as the ranks of people with reduced or eliminated incomes grow. Ultimately the only people who will be able to continue with “transition” and “resilience” efforts will be the fabulously wealthy.
Back in the early 00′s, before the “transition” concept took root, collapse/decline was understood primarily as an effect of peak oil. Peak oil meant two things: first, that prices of everything related to and derived from petroleum would become super expensive, thereby driving up prices across the board; and two, that planetary-wide supply chains would collapse, further increasing prices across the board. The obvious response to these twin sledgehammers was relocalization.

Back then, relocalization meant running globalization in reverse. It meant relearning how to make things close to home and re-establishing long decimated supply chains between the city and the hinterlands. It meant lots of cottage industry, neighborhood- and city-level retail markets, even a renaissance of skilled artisanship, repair, and restoration. It meant extricating local economic activity from oil dependence so that it would be adaptive to decline conditions, thereby providing at least some level of income opportunity for everyone in any given locale.

I suppose there is an argument to be made that “adaptive” and “resilient” are the same thing. They aren’t. A thing is resilient only to the degree that it is adaptive. Resilience maintains as long as conditions do not exceed certain parameters. Adaptation is required when conditions exceed resilience’s required parameters. Cockroaches are resilient because they can adapt to almost any conditions. Their adaptative properties are not the result of their resilience; resilient is something their adaptations evolved them to be.

Relocalization never assumed property ownership as a prerequisite to participation. It was open to everyone of any income level, wealth level, or political persuasion. It did not require joining any group or trying to coordinate with people who have differing goals and concerns. All it required was imagination: what can I sell that others in my locale will want to buy, and where can I sell it locally? If I need raw materials, can I get these locally or regionally? If I have absolutely no money to personally build goods to sell, what kind of service can I provide?

My gut instinct is that relocalization got kicked to the curb in favor of first “transition,” and now “resilience,” because it is overtly entrepreneurial and business oriented. I don’t dispute for a minute that business is the Great Evil that got us into our collapse mess in the first place. It would be simply amazing to live in a society where money serves people and not vice-versa, or even in a society where it isn’t necessary at all. Money’s a fucking drag. However, it is a grave mistake to ignore the fact that money is oxygen within our current economic organism. No money causes death just as surely as no oxygen causes death.

“Resilience” is brittle because because it ignores this fundamental reality and thereby creates a faulty process: first, it tries to first divine the future; second, it projects its political desires into that future; third, it tries to determine the parameters within which it will operate based on its divination and projections; fourth, it creates a path from now to then. Quite obviously this process can create nothing resilient. “Transition” proved itself a failure when it tried to apply this process. More of the same isn’t going to prove any more successful.

I submit that the original idea of relocalization in the service of adaptability was far superior. Its process is tried-and-true: first, determine current and foreseeable-future conditions; second, innovate some way to support yourself within these conditions; third, iterate as conditions change. That’s it. Everything else is wide open. The process is infinitely scalable both up and down and excludes no one on any grounds. This is how adaptation works in nature and, if we are to align ourselves with nature for the long-term survival of the species, it is an excellent breakpoint to extricate ourselves from the idea that we are separate from nature and can plan it, control it, dominate it.

I realize that my protestations about these things fall on deaf ears among those who are into the “transition” and now “resilience” scenes. Nevertheless I find it frustrating that these issues are so thoroughly excluded from the conversations. I do wish those with the bullhorns would pay more attention to the plight and feedback of those outside their propertied, academic circles.


  1. You know, Ugo, you have a lot of great insights here, but you miss the fundamental one when you say "money is oxygen within our current economic organism". It IS our current economic organism that is the problem, that is using up our resources and polluting our planet. Living without money isn't some ideal utopia to be aspired to. It is the reality we will find ourselves in when the dust settles from the collapse. What people don't get, even those in the movement, is that the "transition" is into extreme poverty. "Resilience" under those conditions means being able to survive under more hardships. "Relocalization" means only going as far as your own two (or horse's four) feet will take you.

  2. John... it is not me writing this post. It is Paula of "Mythodrome". On the point she makes of "money is oxygen", well, I am not sure I agree, but I'd say I don't disagree from a practical, down to earth viewpoint.

  3. Paula is most likely right that transition is mostly about white yuppies protecting their stuff, but I take issue with Paula's definitions of resilience and adaptation. Her example of cockroaches is definitely more about resilience than adaptation. The key is that the cockroach's system boundaries are not breached, which is what resilience is. They are resilient because they have a wide range of food resources and have a body plan that can do a lot of neat stuff. Adaptation is long term and involves shifting of the information system being used, which for cockroaches is ostensibly locked in DNA. Adaptation is only possible as long as the system is resilient to short term changes. In fact cockroaches body plans have been stagnant for a longtime, meaning there probably isn't a lot more adaptation they can do.

  4. I think she makes a lot of great points here. In fact, I am going to bookmark her, and cite her arguments myself.

    But I think argument of iterative adaptation is a little much. Sure, that is what we have to do, but wouldn't it be nice to do it while using our big brain to aim for desired states further down the road? Lots of relocalization efforts could be totally poisonous.

    Let's use poison to show the limits of her parallels with evolution. A bacteria in a puddle can only produce so much waste until it dies, or is metabolically slowed so other bacteria can process its waste. We can keep shipping our waste to other countries or dumping it in ocean trenches. So, it can take a very, very long time for our adaptive efforts to give us feedback.

    I would like to see her try to inform Transition with her economic understandings. I think she is bang-on with her points on the immediacy of economic problems, and I agree Transition has a real Achille's Heel with all the artisan bakers and blacksmiths.

    Maybe she could offer some more history about the shift from relocalization to Transition. Is it really as simple as being business-hating, or was there other good analysis and planning?

  5. "...first, it tries to first divine the future; second, it projects its political desires into that future; third, it tries to determine the parameters within which it will operate based on its divination and projections; fourth, it creates a path from now to then."

    1. "Resilience" does not try to divine the future - people might, but resilience doesn't.

    2. "Resilience" does not have political desires - people do, but resilience doesn't.

    3. "Resilience" does not determine anything let alone parameters for its own operations - people might, but...

    4. "resilience" does not - well, you get the idea.

    Resilience isn't a sentient thing, which a simple definition should make clear:
    (of a person or animal) Able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.

    1. Lucas, it is pretty clear she is not talking about the abstract ability to withstand or recover. She is talking about how the pursuit of that plays out in human society. Her whole post is about movements--so you are picking nits.

      Do you have any thoughts on her support for relocalization over resilience?

    2. Ruben,
      I understand what she is saying and yes, I am picking nits.

      She paints with some pretty broad strokes here and her is weaker than it could have been as a result.

      "Resilience" is less good because "it tries to first divine the future", and relocalization is better because it begins with "determine current and foreseeable-future conditions"...
      "foreseeable-future conditions"?
      Ever see a sports upset where the winning point came in with seconds on the clock?

      My own perspective is that there is no clear advantage to choosing a relocalization movement over a resilience movement.
      In some ways, relocalization is a movement towards resilience (the abstract definition that is, not the other movement).

      Any movement is only as useful (or sane) as are the people who participate in it.

    3. I think what a lot of people have realized is that relocalization won't happen till it absolutely has to. Walmart is going to be with us for a very long time killing any kind of relocalization movements. However, anyone can go and try to become an artisan baker, blacksmith, or gardener today. Go gain skills and tools today. If your house is foreclosed on you still know how to garden. The resilient have to try to predict the future in order to try to see what adaptations we need, which she then later states as what adaptation does anyways. Resilience divines, but adaptation determines? Got that? Getting the adaptations now will help some to be more resilient. Trying to just adapt once a situation arises will be hard, especially if one is not resilient enough and your systemic boundaries are breached. Perhaps what the white yuppies are responding to is that they aren't resilient because they have few adaptations in a post peak world.

  6. It's hard to respond to Paula's arguments, since they are pretty abstract and have little to do with my experiences in Transition and Resilience over the years.

    If one wants to criticize, it would be very good to have actual experiences and observations, or to cite documents.

    I think it makes more sense to think of Transition/Resilience as a grassroots infrastructure that has developed. There is no leader, no sacred text. If you want to do something, you can probably find information and support.

    The "movement" is decentralized and widespread. Depending on the location and people involved, different projects are emphasized. What I appreciate is the openness to new ideas and practices.

    It changes the atmosphere when people are actually doing something, rather than arguing.

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  8. I have had to live on virtually nothing for most of the past 6 years.

    I succeeded in that because I live and work on a ship, which I built with my own hands, using the best materials and equipment available at the time.

    Some lessons:

    At about 20 years after construction, the electronic instruments are toast, and I am using my senses, or mechanical instruments I can repair. The engine has 12,500 hours on it, and I am going to overhaul it myself. The original concept of engine driven refrigeration has been replaced by an Engel drop-in box, electrically driven, which uses 4.5 amps @ 12 VDC about 40% of the time in the tropics. The 600 watts of PV runs the ship quite well, with no need to run the engine for electrical power or refrigeration as before.

    The entire sail inventory was replaced by sails I sewed on my own machine back in 06.

    You can live on the hook, paying virtually nothing for dockage, water, and access to land.

    Except in the western South Pacific and the South Atlantic, fish are hard to come by at sea.

    In most countries outside the US, medical care is inexpensive and freely available.

    In most countries outside the US, food costs about 25% of the US price.

    In most countries outside the US, land is cheaper and available

    Most countries outside the US, don't want US citizens emigrating there, unless they
    are young or have skills or both.

    During the Great Depression, many moved to the northern parts of Minnesota, Michigan, and New York, where they built cabins on mining claims or wilderness lots, and subsisted by hunting and gathering. This is still possible, but opportunities to do so are greater in Canada and New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, New Guinea, Philippines, Micronesia, Mongolia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Panama.

    Regardless, Paula is right in some respects, and ignores some key realities of rural life in several respects, which by the way, validate her point. Property tax is a
    major revenue source for local governments in rural areas, and it is not going away anytime soon. This is a major headache for subsistence folk, who by definition do not generate cash income. It is a common reason homesteaders work off the farm. Then too, most everything you need to run a place, must be paid with cash. And you will need a surprisingly large amount of stuff to run a place.

    Assuming your place is 40 acres, 10 of which are wooded, to supply timber and fuel, 5 of which are mixed orchard to provide fruit for home use and sale, 3 of which are berry bushes for home use and sale, 10 of which are pasture for goats, sheep and pigs, 5 of which are planted annually in corn, 2 planted annually in wheat, 1 planted annually in sunflowers/soybeans, 1 in potatoes, 2 in mixed garden, 1 in buckwheat, 1 in oats and 4 in alfalfa hay

    The place is too big for shovels and forks to prepare seed bed for planting, you need a large walk behind tiller, or an old MF tractor, plow, harrow, side delivery rake, baler, and wagons. This means parts and maintenance of equipment. It means fuel cost, unless your tractor is a diesel, which you can train to run on soybean or sunflower oil.

    All of which cost cash, which by definition your place will not produce.

    You are far better off buying 160 wooded acres, and selling dimension lumber cut on your portable band saw mill, plus christmas trees in season, poles for fencing, building, and firewood.

  9. Everyone has an idea/suggestion for living of-line. I am working on that here in the Philippines. We have about 3 hectares(7 1/2 acres) of farm land on a hilltop just 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. 15 minutes walk from a large river that flows from an unpolluted mountainous water shed. Three miles to a small town of 5,000. Sixty miles by highway from Manila and any other large town/city. We are planing a house and outbuildings in the next few years. The taxes are about $50 per year and we will have enough cash to ride out the rest of our taxable lives. Yes, permaculture 'farming' is the best way with multiple crops and no dependency on just one or two, but 'transition' in my neighborhood will be easy. Most still live without all of the 'conveniences' and are 'independent'.

  10. The essay's critique of the transition and resilience badges, in favour of the relocalization badge, has the central flaw that all three share a basic delusion - that somebody else is going to resolve the critical issues they choose to ignore. The national and global politics of climate and energy are the stage on which the decisions will be made that define whether agriculture continues its global decline towards non-viability, and retreating into badges of varying approaches to futile efforts at adaption is not only an amoral neutralism - leaving those first in the firing line to their fate - it is also a new passivism that is either ignorant of the rising scale of impacts or pretends that they would be endurable.

    That new passivism - the abstention from developing well organized political resistance - is of course exactly what is needed by a grossly callous incompetent status quo to continue putting its priority of competitive national dominance ahead of of all other goals. In effect, the new passivism is less than neutral in that it actively facilitates the status quo continuing its policies by acting as a sink for dissent.

    Some may be unaware of the proximity of shocks beyond the scope of any endurance via a transition to localized resilience. They'd do well to internalize the facts that,
    according to Munich Re's 40yr database, catastrophic climate impacts on the US have been rising far faster than in any comparable area, and,
    that major crop failures are now reported as probable across Asia within a decade or so.
    On the latter point, see: "Food Security: Near future projections of the impact of drought in Asia" at It describes China, Pakistan and Turkey as the most seriously affected major producers of wheat and maize, and India of rice.

    From the press release:
    "Research released today shows that within the next 10 years large parts of Asia can expect increased risk of more severe droughts, which will impact regional and possibly even global food security. On average, across Asia, droughts lasting longer than three months will be more than twice as severe in terms of their soil moisture deficit compared to the 1990-2005 period. This is cause for concern as China and India have the world’s largest populations and are Asia’s largest food producers.

    Dr Lawrence Jackson, a co-author of the report, said: "Our work surprised us when we saw that the threat to food security was so imminent; the increased risk of severe droughts is only 10 years away for China and India. These are the world’s largest populations and food producers; and, as such, this poses a real threat to food security."

    Given that Asia has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to outbid the West on traded oil, what little food gets traded in times of shortfall is rather unlikely to arrive at western ports to make good the steepening decline in western farm yields. Those who've been actually running 'transition gardens' for the last few years need only to extrapolate forward the climate destabilization they've seen to realize the predicament. Without reliable external food sources, and the wealth to afford them, just one year's crop failure is famine and ruin in countries that are still under delusions of invulnerability.


  11. This outline of the threat within one decade is of course just a snapshot - we are on a rising curve of warming and climate destabilization reflecting the rising curve of our carbon pollution output 30 years ago - the timelag being due to ocean thermal inertia. Back in 1983 we'd raised airborne CO2 to 342ppm, about 22% above the pre-industrial level, since when we've raised it to 394ppm or about 41% above. (We'll see what the realized warming from 350ppm does to climate in about 2016). And even with the requisite adamant popular demand for an early stringent Emissions Control treaty we'll raise CO2 ppm quite a bit more by 2050. Then we've the 30yrs timelag before anthro-warming peaks around 2080, which would allow around seven decades of rising warming to drive the major feedbacks into a mutually self-reinforcing acceleration . . . .

    While global Emissions Control is patently not enough by itself, our predicament is eminently soluble IF people pull together in solidarity with those already in the firing line and demand the requisite changes. The starting point in my view is recognizing, exposing and overturning the bipartisan US policy of a 'brinkmanship of inaction' against China's bid to displace America's global economic dominance. Once America accepts its need to negotiate, both the damage and its causes can be mitigated equitably.

    From this perspective, in proposing the merits of re-localization over transition and resilience, the essay's author misses the point entirely - the badge we actually need is called SOLIDARITY.



    1. Well said!!! Lewis.
      Solidarity at the local, regional national and global levels... of people... not corporations, not governments, not nations... facing and overcoming inertia, political reticence, greed and ideology... has a chance to move us forward collectively.
      The seven deadly sins are our collective enemy, Our human intellect must work with and through us all... to help minimise the impacts of our less than insightful past actions.
      Movements build from the grass roots... spread virally... via global connectedness... that use civil disobedience and affirmative action are the main tools we have.

    2. ...except that has pretty much zero chance of happening in the US. Which is why Transition/Resilience do not port from European to American culture. Isn't the whole point to deal with reality on the ground, as it is, and not as we wish it to be? Isn't that exactly why the cornucopians are wrong?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)