What to Save? The Normative Dilemmas of Resilience

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In the first part of this series of essays on resilience, I discussed the general dynamics that make a social system resilient. I presented resilience as “the degree of disruption a system experiences in response to changing circumstances.” The Oxford dictionary definition is a bit less rigorous, but essentially the same: “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Both of these definitions present resilience as an anodyne feature of a general system, and they work fine as a functional way to initiate a conversation about priorities. However, the concept of resilience demands deeper questions about what the concept really means and how we should consider it. As we enter a future in which the earth ceases to behave as it has for the entirety of our evolutionary past, competing visions of resilience are likely to become central, whereas current discussions that juxtapose resilience and “efficiency” will recede.

While many people interested in sustainability, de-growth, slow money, conservation, and other subjects clumped together under the label “green” are likely motivated in part by a moral sentiment of deep ecology, a practical concern for the resilience of human society forms a significant undercurrent that is only likely to grow. A number of the leading voices for action on the various natural limits we rapidly approach—including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Lester Brown, Jeffrey Sachs, Rob Hopkins, Woody Tasch, John Michael Greer, and Serge Latouche, among others—offer a call to the ramparts to preserve society in the face of the oncoming volatility such limits will soon impose. As governments, communities, and individuals begin to grapple with the practical complexities of resilience, the question of what exactly we’re preserving, and what we should preserve, will become unavoidable.

What Is Resilient?

It is much easier to talk about resilience regarding a system with a clear barometer of functionality, such as an electrical grid. If it can continue distributing electricity in the face of floods, fires, tanks, and neglect, it’s safe to say it’s resilient. Applied to humans, however, such talk runs into the ontological wall noted by Heidegger and the later existentialists: it’s hard to say what exactly is the point of the human experience. In modern times we’ve taken to defining the significance of human existence apart from the context of religious belief and obligation. Nietzsche noted that given their origins in arrangements of social obligation, claims to external validity are properly understood not as truths, but as “genealogical” artifacts, dictated by social mores that emerge as a service to those in power. Aristotle may have tried to escape the issue two millennia earlier by use of the concept of eudaimonia (“good spirit/flourishing”) as the ultimate goal of human life and society, but this notion, like other normative conceptions of the human good, has fractured and cannot be the basis of cultural consensus any longer.

If resilience is about how a particular system responds to external changes, discussing resilience of societies, particularly with human-caused, global disruptions as the main referent, is then difficult to do without addressing these more timeless questions about what values we want to impute to human life. Is the goal of a society to ensure the bare survival of the highest number of its members? To maintain its material consumption? To keep in place a particular set of social relations? Do such goals truly represent the “common good,” or are they merely a composite of the preferences of those individuals that compose society? Can we meet the challenges that increasing strains on our climate, resources, and economies will pose without some viable conception of the human and the common good?

Imagine, for example, that we want to improve the resilience of our society in the face of uncertain energy access. Without explicit reference to what we want to preserve, it is difficult to have the conversation. It would be easy for people of means to focus on the resilience of their own energy access, whether through lobbying for government funds directed to their districts or building out their own renewable infrastructure. But such an approach would likely do little for the capital-strapped (easily the majority in our country), and a broader view of social resilience could focus on regulations to provide rationed access through the current grid, or on making our infrastructure more friendly for low-cost alternatives like bikes and solar cookers. What about the massive server banks that power the seemingly intangible Internet; would we want to make sure they keep running at the expense of more tangible needs? How about the technology involved in our research operations—even if grand technological fixes to problems are possible, will we be willing to trade off current resources to develop them? Would we want to pour energy into keeping current transportation infrastructure operating or completely rearrange our economic lives around the new scarcity? Under such a change, who would win and who would lose, and what, in the end, would be considered a “resilient” shift?

These questions, difficult as they are on their own, are complicated by the use of “society” as our unit of reference, as there are plenty of legitimate arguments about what exactly “society” means. The most common social referent worldwide is still based in kinship systems. More artificial imagined communities and political association that cut across family, clan, and tribal lines still struggle to capture the loyalties and identities of common people. Classical definitions of the concept of the political—particularly Aristotle’s view of citizens freely associating to protect their mutual interests (koinonia politike)—still have appeal, but it’s important to note that that the notion of citizenship, as in Aristotle’s own time, is not inherently universal; it can be limited to male landowners, whereas women, children, resident aliens, slaves, and the land itself are outside the political association and remain in the domain of the household, the private realm of economic production and biological reproduction.

Alternatively, Plato’s vision placed the internal balance and pursuit of truth in the society as its end goal, explicitly at the expense of the preferences and experiences of those who composed it. In the post-classical period (and ongoing in some international relations and policy-making circles) the referent has often been the established social regime rather than the individuals who make up a society. For example, medieval scholars applied Plato’s framework to the structures and ideals of the time, which placed a heavy emphasis on ties of obligation to the Catholic Church. Canon law and its scholars promoted a cross-regional Corpus Christianum centered on the Church, in opposition to the secular rulers of the time—a similar concept appealed to today in the Muslim concept of the Ummah, or society of the faithful. Even philosophers who emphasized the individual as the basis of society, such as Hobbes, quickly went on to rhetorically build a vision of society as a body that existed as the non-corporeal extension of a single ruler (a popular formulation by absolutist monarchs of the time).

The notion of the modern nation-state as the referent for “society” is notably new; its first rumbles in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which formally tied the religious and social policies of groups of people to delineated regions. Other conceptions include our modern emphasis on society as a series of economic interactions, first introduced by Hegel, and Marx’s critical extension of this stance, in which any notion of common society is meaningless in the face of competing class interests. All of these conceptions, in one form or another, identify the meaningful locus of society within a set of geographic, genealogical, institutional, ideological, or economic relations.

Returning to the example of energy disruption, how would we even begin to address practical questions without addressing whether we want to keep intact the national legal and market structures currently in place? The series of choices offered above, dependent as they are on our conception of human good, are inextricably tied in practice to whom we consider to have a voice in our society, and how those voices matter for making decisions. Similarly, such questions stray into a vexing debate between action in your immediate community (interacted with daily) versus the wider community of the nation or world. It’s unclear, for example, how a pullback in global capital flows to wealthier countries from poorer nations would be interpreted from a resilience perspective. While there are many good reasons to think that these capital flows can in some cases undermine the resilience of cash-strapped economies, in many cases the additional infrastructure can insulate them against outside shocks. Attempts to answer that question start with where you draw the boundaries of the system intended to maintain function.

Alternatively, as Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “there is no such thing as society.” Robert Nozick presented this notion more formally as the argument that any appeal to the notion of society is essentially coercive, that individuals are the only experiential unit, and thus, governance, policy, and ethics are only relevant when framed in terms of individual experience and choice. The burgeoning “prepper” movement in the United States—focused on preparing an individual family for social upheaval, often with an expectation of violence—provides a tangible example of how thinking about resilience through this type of philosophical framework can alter one’s approach.

Thus, when speaking of society, it’s possible to mean a particular group within it (like the nobility), an interlinked series of institutions, a set of ideals (like theological canon, democracy, or rule of law), a specific geographic or ethnic community, some abstract gauge of general well-being like per-capita GDP within a national boundary, a Rawlsian vision of marginalized group protection, or simply an analytical catch-all for the individuals self-identified as part of it. Because the word society innately reflects the social conception of the speaker, speaking of the resilience of society in terms of its ability to maintain its functions will essentially turn into a pulpit for pushing the vision of the functioning society that the speaker explicitly or unknowingly favors.

Moreover, there is always some relationship between a proposed social conception and its practical beneficiaries, even though that relationship is not always transparent. It is no accident that libertarians and other groups that place personal liberty as the highest good and the individual as the only worth unit of moral analysis have found staunch support amongst large corporations. Such appeals to the isolated individual provide the perfect air cover for dominant power structures, in much the same way that appeals to the divine have long been a vital support to eminently earthbound claims to material comfort and influence. It is not a surprise then to find the former group putting its hope for resilience in the responsive powers of market innovation, or the latter in a return to the church.

The notion of referent is further complicated by the muddy connection between the resilience of one element of a social system and others. Edmund Burke’s classic work Reflections on the Revolution in France is a powerful—and, in view of the excesses and instability of the Jacobin regime, a prescient—defense of the governing status quo for the sake of stability. As a social system, England’s monarchy has been remarkably resilient, and from a domestic bloodshed perspective, the history of England over the past three centuries versus the majority of its revolutionary contemporaries is comparatively resilient. This has come at the cost, however, of an entrenched system of power that still sees 80 percent of the land owned by 1 percent of the population, composed of many of the old noble families, and of course, the crown—a domestic injustice that doesn’t even begin to touch on the colonial legacy enabled by that social stability (England has invaded nine out of every ten countries in the entire world). A focus on stable governance has allowed adaptive institutional change over time, but the parameters of that change have been remarkably resilient, to the detriment and instability of groups who find themselves on the outside of that system.

Thus, while in some cases institutional resilience may lend itself to the resilience of other entities, it’s entirely possible that the resilience of a given social order may be contrary to the resilience of systems outside of that entity’s borders. The international banking system is a viable example of this phenomenon at work; the consolidation of local banks into global banking super-giants has made these banks and their shareholders—through a combination of genuine diversification and coercive power attained by size—more resilient as far as their own existence goes. However, the globalization of finance has also allowed for world-spanning bubbles and busts, acting as a destabilizing force within the world economy as a whole, with particularly devastating effects on the poor communities and countries inundated with, then starved of capital (the U.S. subprime crisis in 2008, the southeast Asian collapse in 1997, and the Mexican banking bust in 1982 are recent examples). Similar examples can be found in most empire structures, where a central entity derives internal resilience from external destabilization, from the Roman empire’s internal stability during its period of rapid military expansion and capture, to the current ability of the United States to buy macroeconomic stability by devaluing the fiat debt backed by its large military and held by international creditors with few alternatives.

As these cases illustrate, one challenge when discussing resilience is the reality that in a fundamentally unjust society, resilience of the governing order could be a source of tremendous suffering. Anyone thinking about how their actions may shape our collective future will need to grapple with the fact that what they choose to help preserve may degrade or improve the preservation of related systems. As an example, such concerns gird one pillar of the opposition to GMOs: in the cases where they actually do boost yields, they simultaneously provide continued support to mono-cultural farm practices and the capital-intensive, corporate institutional structure interwoven with them. However, as a guide to decision-making, a framing that sees preservation of the status quo as the ultimate enemy can be equally problematic. When out of power, such a view can lead to impotence. For example, in the Western countries, hard line Marxists cut themselves off from the more moderate left by arguing that the social reforms that eased the suffering of the poor or provided better workplaces were counterproductive. Non-revolutionary social reforms, they argued, merely ease the experience of living in a bourgeois state and thus contribute to its continued existence by undermining revolutionary action. When in power, that ideological intolerance can easily be transferred to the individuals who make up a given social entity, as nobles, landlords, and myriad other elites have discovered when full-blown revolutions have occurred. Understanding and navigating the interwoven dependencies of different referent frames is critical to determining the type of resilience we want to pursue.

Resilience over What Time-Frame?

From the perspective of the average Western family over the past century, the explosive economic growth and accompanying complexity allowed by the mining of fossil fuels and soil nutrients has brought about an unprecedented improvement in social resilience. The resilience embodied in this boom is difficult to dismiss: Crop failures in one region can be alleviated by shipping in food from another; regional depressions prompt rapid out-migration; remote fires are fought by squadrons of helicopters scooping up water from nearby lakes and by the use of chemical flame retardants. We may unknowingly be reaching the end of such fossil-fuel related resilience responses of this kind, as 50 million Americans report struggling to put food on the table, and rising food prices trigger riots and revolutions across the Middle East and Asia. Nevertheless, the critical point is that as a social observer at the turn of the last century, the industrial model may have seemed the best possible way to improve resilience for yourself, your children, and most broader definitions of society. Conceptions of social resilience in current society rarely reach as far as the next generation, with emphasis placed on restarting the debt engine to improve quarterly employment, or desperately drilling in as many holes as possible to keep energy prices within bounds that allow the flexibility and resilience of the industrial system to continue rolling down the highway.

It is perhaps a cliché at this point (judging by its appearance as a detergent brand, “Seventh Generation”) to refer to the Lakota tribe’s concept of making every decision with the interests of seven generations, but it’s important to periodically remind ourselves that even talking about the conditions our grandchildren will face is a bit myopic, though perhaps practical through the human experience of time.

However, the notion of resilience as temporal at all, whether for one generation or seven, may be a shallow way to approach the issue. Temporal conceptions run into a number of problems, not least of which include the impressive unknowability of the future. Systems put in place to protect future generations over a given timeframe can quickly be rendered irrelevant by changing circumstances on the ground. Then there is the uncomfortable reality that all human systems, however designed, share the fate of the message of Ozymandias buried in the desert sands, proclaiming himself king of kings to people who have forgotten him and indeed can no longer even read the signs of their past existence.

It is possible, however, to take an atemporal view of resilience, emphasizing not specific conditions but instead the resilience of timeless qualities—justice, equality, compassion, personal liberty and obligation, love. The resilience of Jewish holy text and tradition, which has survived unchanged for several millennia whereas larger, more established parallel traditions disappeared or changed into something unrecognizable, provides an example of this process in action. Identifying particular principles of society that we wish to protect from change, such as gender equality, is an eminently different project than considering resilience solely in terms of material and institutional changes.

Such a framing is almost guaranteed to lead to difficult choices, as it makes far more explicit the types of values we are trading off. Politically, such battles are currently being waged between those who want to maintain the sovereignty of personal choice in consumption, and those concerned with the ecological disruptions such a focus can create. Appeals to abstract values at the expense of the actual experiences of individuals have been a feature of many of the atrocities of the past century, and such conversations need to be entered with care. Nevertheless, imagining resilience without explicit reference to time can be a good thought exercise for understanding what exactly it is we intend to preserve, and as a way to undermine false claims by economists and other parties to universally applicable metrics.

Does Resilience Necessarily Mean Resistance to Change?

The process of visualizing resilience in a conceptual space, rather than through immediate physical outcomes or institutional longevity, opens the door to rich traditions that invert the entire concept of resilience as resistance to change. The concept of non-attachment has provided the foundation for numerous spiritual traditions, from Buddhism to the classical stoics. Such non-attachment can apply beyond an individual’s experience of reality with implications for practical alternatives for social resilience. The resilience of the herding and horticultural societies that cover the vast majority of human social history was rooted in rootlessness; overgrazing, weather anomalies, and other threats could be handled simply by moving to a new area that didn’t face those problems. Historically, these models of resilience depended on limited populations and significant amounts of open land—the opposite of the situation most of humanity faces today.

The economic mobility afforded in the United States by its shared cultural and linguistic roots provides one form of social resilience dramatically different from the visions of resilience offered by proponents of deep localization. Some of the worst conditions on earth are currently found in refugee camps and massive urban slums—transition areas where those forced into mobility meet the institutional walls of nation-states or established visions of urban development. In these cases, those running from war, drought, or blight would experience eminently greater resilience if society was designed to accommodate their mobility—the Chinese system of city-based residence is often pointed to as the primary cause of the misery of its migrant population. For a group of people whose personal resilience or lifestyle is bolstered by setting clear limits to outside access, the question of whether mobility improves resilience becomes one of where they decide to draw the boundaries of the society in question.


German artist Herman Josef Hack’s “World Climate Refugee Camp”
in Hannover, Germany, 2009


Mobility-based resilience versus place-based resilience may become one of the defining conflicts of the coming years, particularly if weather or energy access becomes more volatile. While immigration has long been a political flashpoint, the rising tide of anti-immigrant parties in Europe provide a powerful example of what happens when one vision of social resilience (and one vision of what defines society) comes into direct conflict with the resilience response (in this case, mobility) of a group beyond that society’s existential borders.

Many Paths

The way people address the questions proposed in this essay will critically affect the vision and solutions they will propose, and, more importantly, be able to see. A quick browse through Bloomberg news’s “Sustainability” section or any major policy publication on environmental issues will reveal this process at work—massive solar farms, soaring vertical greenhouses powered by the latest optical technology, smartgrids undoubtedly chock full of rare earth minerals mined on the other side of the world. Capital-intensive, technology-driven, and demanding of ever more specialized labor, these visions spring directly from an underlying value judgment of what needs to be saved. Most likely in the case of anyone in the orbit of mainstream powers, solutions that maintain their privilege and narrative will be included prominently in any proposed future order. For the elite in poorer countries, building out the industrial infrastructure to respond to oncoming climate, hydrologic, and agricultural threats will likely trump more abstract questions of preserving the global ecological commons because, as concerns the resilience of their immediate population within a given social order, doing so is most effective. Alternatively, amongst groups that chafe at the assumptions, impacts, and distributions of the current social order, concepts like localization, independent eco-communities, and de-specialized household production attempt to make resilient a set of values incompatible with current power structures, as part of a project that appeals to general resilience, but specifically seeks to overturn a number of existing social paradigms, with implications for redistributions of power, comfort, and privilege that even proponents may not fully want to face.

All of these camps will argue that their path is the only way to realistically face the coming challenges—in other words, to make our societies more resilient. All may be right, for the vision of what it is they want to preserve. There may be ways to preserve access to current convenience lifestyles for a small fraction of the world (at least, an even smaller fraction than those currently enjoying them), or to resiliently feed nine billion people with ever more frantic industrial agricultural techniques at the expense of turning what remains of the natural world into an open strip mine. There may be unimagined technofixes (fusion comes to mind) that could make possible the continued growth now projected by mainstream economists. A continued burst of population growth might elbow out what little remains of the natural world. Population displacement and eroding or non-existent public health and sanitation infrastructures will put us on a collision course with waves of new global pandemics.

Perhaps we may be able to create alternatives, eco-villages, transition towns, or other localized visions of life with limits on personal consumption and population growth. These communities will be unattractive to those wedded to a vision of the individual as king. And they may become enclaves open only to a small group of self-selected adherents, with strict and potentially violent limits to outsiders should they actually be the only viable alternative.

All of these visions of the future (and the steps we take toward them) bring with them different types of resilience, all dependent, in turn, on different visions of what it means to be human. I would propose that as we converse going forward, it is no longer enough to present the oncoming problems and jump to a favored solution with its bundle of attendant moral assumptions. While it may be convenient to ignore these assumptions for the purpose of pitching a bigger tent, they may also render the conversation meaningless. That our societies must become more resilient is obvious; how, why, and for whom are the harder questions we now must face.

  • Jake Bornstein

    Jake Bornstein is a Senior Associate with Slow Money, the non-profit organization that seeks to use a new, community-driven approach to finance to support local, sustainable food enterprises. You can follow him on Twitter @JLBornstein.

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