Wednesday, 20 May 2015

‘Your amazing neighbours’ Yesterday evening I had a charity doorknocker. I’m always courteous but never encouraging with these people. It helps if they appear when I’m obviously cooking but it doesn’t help if they don’t get the message; nor if, when I mention that I give to certain charities in a deliberate way over periods of time, full stop, they don’t get that message either. True to the standard, this one used the phrase ‘I’m not asking for money’ almost immediately and then proceeded to suggest I gave 20p per day ‘like your amazing neighbours’. It’s possible he knows something I don’t, but I suspect not. If I’d had the patience, perhaps I might have asked him (a) where he lives, and (b) in what ways he has been amazed by my neighbours – things that have perhaps eluded me all these years. But unbeknown to this man and his well-trained phoney positivity, my neighbours are fairly special because a lot of informal mutual support goes on amongst us. There’s nothing unique about that of course, but it is noteworthy. What was striking about last night’s encounter was how it illustrates the gulf between informal neighbourly support and philanthropy. People think of them as close together on the pro-social spectrum; and our government likes to promote this notion because it suits them that philanthropy serves to reinforce disempowerment. But having a clown delivering this sort of patter on my doorstep will remain for me a symbol of the ideological contrast.
Resilience and ‘counter-resilience’ 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.

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