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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)