There I was, needing to write something about resilience and not looking forward to it. I distrust the careless fashionable use of the term in community development and regeneration. When a respected publisher begins the blurb for a new book with a sentence like this – ‘”Resilience” has become one of the first fully fledged academic and political buzzwords of the 21st century’ – I reach for my scepticism.
Then into my mailbox someone drops a link to a curious mixture of blog posts on the theme of ‘How do you measure resilience in cities? How would you know if your city or your community was resilient?’
Scrolling through, I’ve found myself returning to a piece by Tom Henfrey from Bristol. Part of his concern is with the sociological use of the term without any appreciation of the scientific understanding of resilience in the ecological study of complex systems. This may be an accusation that can fairly be leveled at academics; but in defense of practitioners it seems to me wholly reasonable to be thinking about, say, ‘resilient communities’ just as we talk about people who show resilience in the face of disadvantage. Wholly reasonable – up to a point. The problem is that the language has been appropriated and is tainted.
As Henfrey notes:
‘Most treatments of urban resilience are overtly or covertly complicit with the appropriation of the concept by conservative forces seeking to reinforce inequalities of wealth and power.’
He elaborates on this with reference to the notion of resilient cities:
‘In their current form, cities inherently lack resilience. They depend on throughputs of matter and energy that are utterly unsustainable, and consequently endure only because they externalise the consequent social and ecological damage: in other words by systematically undermining resilience elsewhere. Their primary function—reflecting the main, unstated, policy goal of almost every government in the world—is to ensure that wealth and power accrue disproportionately to those who already have both in excess, at everyone else’s expense. An inevitable consequence of increasing inequity is to intensify resource flows to even less sustainable levels, further undermining resilience in the city itself, its constituent subsystems, and connected systems elsewhere.’
Indeed: if we use the term, there’s a risk of doing so in collusion with forces and ideologies that seek to embed ‘resilience’ within the status quo. This in turn – to develop Henfrey’s point - effectively undermines other forms of resilience.
I wonder if we should be talking about ‘counter-resilience’? – the capacity of those without access to wealth or power to resist, in positive ways, the imposition of resilience.