Against Resilience

How did the capacity for bouncing back from adversity turn into a technocratic burden?

The world faces horrendous challenges over coming generations. We as humans have become witnesses to the upheaval of the planet, very gradually coming to realise that we are the main agents of this convulsion. Life on earth, at least as we have known it, is slowly becoming untenable, with increasingly intense storm surges, inundations, heat-island effects, fires, droughts and floods. While picture postcards from various places around the globe, snapshots taken at the right angle and at the right time, continue to show a world of relatively comfortable urbanism for many, beneath the surface there is a deep unsettling of the human condition. Upheaval shakes the ground on which we walk, In this context, talk of ‘resilience’ is now the favoured approach of government and planners, yet the concept is contradictory and deceptive, and has a decided bias towards technocratic uses. This is especially evident in the example of resilience as applied to our cities and to urban development, as will be taken up later in this article and contrasted with a more vital, wholistic view of human community and its needs. 

The rapid rise of ‘resilience’

This great unsettling that is the Anthropocene is the context for the rapid rise of the concept and practice of ‘resilience’. The concept is everywhere. It is all the rage for describing the base-level capacities required by households, communities, cities and nations. Concerned organisations, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, set out in good faith to contribute to positive urban practice, and a hundred cities around the world now proudly call themselves ‘Resilient Cities’. Unfortunately, though, the term has in some hands become one-dimensional and reductive. In other hands, the very attempt to make resilience a positive virtue has undermined its usefulness as a concept.

Resilience is now too often associated with the easy deferral of state and corporate action in mitigating risks structurally, even as its use appears to coincide with public sympathy for community needs. The people of Puerto Rico ravaged by Hurricane Maria, for example, did not have enough drinkable water. But everyone, including Donald Trump, praised them for their resilience while not providing structural support. They ‘invented’ the term, said one New York Times headline; ipso facto they can take care of themselves. Fires ravaged Australia during the 2019-20 summer, and again the term ‘resilience’ was everywhere. One fire officer suggested that the landscape itself needed to become more resilient: ‘The solution is resilient landscapes that balance the hazards, reduce risk’, he said. Drought ravaged the country, and Scott Morrison’s answer was a National Press Club speech called ‘A More Resilient Australia’:

We know our farmers are on the front line of resilience, I saw it first hand when I was with them only yesterday, continuing to battle this devastating drought in the face of more frequent and severe droughts they have led the world in the development of drought resistant crops. That’s climate action now.

The language here is positive about those on the front line of disaster. It even acknowledges that climate change is consequential. But then quickly comes the ‘get out of responsibility’ card. ‘Of course,’ says Morrison, ‘we know that Australia, on its own, cannot control the world’s climate, as Australia accounts for just 1.3 per cent of global emissions. We also know that no fire event can be attributed to the actions of any one country on emissions reduction’.

Most recently, the COVID-19 crisis seemed to be the odd disaster out, with little talk of resilience. However, as pressure on the economy mounts, resilience talk has begun, and soon we will have a flood. Local and grassroots businesses are not immune. Minute Man press is providing free local advertising on its website to ‘help all of our neighbours overcome the tremendous economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’. Global consultancy company Deloitte is running a campaign called ‘Combatting COVID-19 with Resilience’: ‘Leaders like you are responding to one of the most sweeping crises in recent memory, calling for both empathy and action to guide your people and businesses through uncertain times’. KPMG is running a parallel campaign called ‘Embedding Resilience’. And, with a shift in orientation and a new emphasis on recovery, the World Health Organization is putting out press releases saying ‘Resilience needed as COVID-19 measures shift’. In short, together with instituting short-term disaster welfarism, calling for further study, and expression of superficial empathy for those affected, our politicians and corporate leaders are reaching for the concept of resilience. 

All of us, but especially those in trouble, are now supposed to have resilience in spades. The coming world of disaster management demands it. And, in the process, we increasingly open up disaster management to post facto responses and piecemeal action. Those who suffer find themselves praised for their resilience and are (implicitly) challenged to find more. ‘They’ are asked to find it in themselves to recover—to bounce back—while deploying recovery funds that require new skills in bureaucratic negotiation. ‘They’ are required to emerge stronger from whatever difficulties may confront them. And ‘we’, or least those of us who are currently either good at adapting to or ignoring an increasingly unstable ecology, are edging towards blaming those who are not bouncy enough.

The rise and rise (and possible fall) of a concept

With a long history in the technical sciences, materials science and civil engineering, ‘resilience’ later emerged as a concept in a number of fields separately across the end of the twentieth century. The environmental study of species and ecosystems, the psychology of childhood development, and the sociology of adults facing abnormal circumstances were key fields. The irony concerning ‘abnormality’ should not be lost here when multiple changes are already with us as part of the ‘new normal’—from the increased regularity of climate-change events to the take-up of ‘social distancing’ alternatives such as on-line teleconferencing and dating apps. 

It is only in the last ten years that all of these uses have come together in a public explosion of the term. The rise of resilience rhetoric in government and planning circles coincided initially with the emptying out of the term ‘sustainability’. Because the meaning of sustainability had become so generic, with Left and Right attaching everything to it, from the Sustainable Development Goals to sustainable built assets, policymakers and practitioners went looking for a new master concept. 

Resilience, unfortunately, was not a good choice. It does not have the capacity to carry so much weight. Sustainability, for all its weaknesses, actually works better at signifying the more general and important capacity of enduring across time. Recently, in the clash of concepts, sustainability has made a small comeback, with arguments about the importance of positive sustainability

The distinction between positive and negative sustainability recalls and modifies the well-known distinction between positive and negative liberty. As with positive liberty, aiming for positive sustainability appears to be either utopian or dangerous. By contrast having the capacity to endure through reducing what is bad appears to be more comfortable. It has been normalized. However, because neither positive nor negative sustainability are end-states, and because the dominant focus of the last three decades on mutually assured negative sustainability has not saved us from the current manifold crisis, then something more radical is needed. Positive sustainability in these terms is a negotiated process projected beyond the present about how we want to live. 

A few of us wrote those words in a book called Urban Sustainability in Theory and Practice: Circles of Sustainability. Given a positive orientation, at least in this version that foregrounds the ‘precautionary principle’, sustainability thinking has actively returned for some commentators and policy-makers as a meaningful guide for practice. That is, given that our knowledge is uncertain, and the consequences of non-action in relation to challenges such as climate change are great, the precautionary or ‘no regrets’ principle says that we should act now to make things better in general, and as part of responding to immediate threats. This suggests that perhaps the same thing should be done with resilience thinking and practice. 

Like ‘sustainability’, ‘resilience’ began as a negative concept. Oriented to crisis or insecurity, resilience meant having the capacity to face up to adversity, to survive the awful and unwanted. But it has become more and more positive in orientation—contradictorily, as the extent of the potential disasters has hit home. However, the more that its proponents have tried to give resilience a positive inflection—from survival to arrival—positive in the sense that it becomes the place that we want to be—the more that it collapses under its own weight. How can the capacity to bounce back from adversity be the basis for good living? All that resilience entails as a politics is that people overcome adversity: it says nothing about how we should live. 

Paradoxically, the outcome has been that treating the concept of resilience as positive has been its undoing. In our topsy-turvy world, where the Anthropocene names a crisis in which the ‘abnormal’ has become ‘normal’, to be resilient is now to be relatively comfortable with unsustainable degrees of madness and change.

Dangers in abstracting resilience from life

There are many dangers in a singular focus on resilience, and they need a little elaboration so that their undercurrents may be understood.

One key issue is how resilience, as it is used today, tends to cast nature as an external threat. This concern is part of a larger issue about the environment being seen as external to humans. In these terms, we humans are said to act upon nature, and nature to act upon humans, without at the same time acknowledging that we are formed in and through nature. In other words, instead of treating ecology as the intersection of the environmental and the social (using the original Greek root of oikos to re-embed humans in nature), the environment becomes the dangerous external context that requires human resilience. Instead of working creatively with the existential contradiction between nature and culture—that is, that humans are both in nature and have reached the point where we are now acting on nature to reconstitute even its basic foundations—we become either the problem or the solution.

This is not to suggest that the concepts of ‘the social’ and ‘the natural’ should be collapsed into each other, as the New Materialism suggests. Handled with care, they remain useful analytical distinctions. Rather, it is to suggest that ‘nature’ is only contingently a threat. ‘Threat’ here is used in a shorthand phenomenal sense: for a moment it gives weight to an individual experience of a storm or a flood. For example, in the disaster-management literature we are seeing some practitioners coming to the important realisation that a hurricane is not a natural disaster but rather a potential social disaster. Social disaster is accentuated, for example, by humans building their cities in ways that heighten the possible destructive consequences of hurricanes on settlements.

A second problem in this take up of resilience as master concept is that social values tend to be redefined in terms of abstracting metaphors and instrumental frames such as ‘ecosystems resilience’ and ‘resource-use maximisation’. This has the effect of distracting attention away from the bases of community strength in culturally and locally variable forms of social relationships. As Liam Magee writes in The Interwoven City, drawing on Bruce Braun’s work on eco-cybernetic urbanism, ‘Resilience discourse marks the complicated agenda of managing these systems’. In other words, resilience is recruited as a frame of management and is projected back onto communities as a matrix for assessing their incapacity.

Even worse, this orientation in planners and others treats the capacity for resilience as inhering naturally in ‘good’ communities. In past liberal considerations of what makes for good community, capacities for trust and care were reduced to regimes of social capital. Now, by an ironical twist, the term ‘social capital’ is being reinserted into the dialogue by commentators concerned about this abstraction process, but with the result that community resilience is understood in terms of measurable ‘asset accumulation’, things as various as a family’s capacity to bring in a steady income, to accessing roads that do not readily flood, paying for disaster insurance to developing community trust based on people’s prior experience of working together.

This recognises that resilience does not reside only in the psycho-social forbearance of individuals as part of designated groups of people, but it also turns relationships into instrumentalised assets. Once this happens it allows the state to retreat from providing more than minimal direct support for citizens while it concentrates on exhorting communities to accumulate assets and build capital. It allows for blaming the victim and labelling those beset by problems as ‘non-resilient communities’. And it sets up a regime of survival through essential services, guided in part by assumptions about the survival of the fittest, the worthiest and most resilient individuals and communities.

A third problem is that people, at least under conditions of emergency and crisis, tend in this framework to be reduced to figures of resilience or failure, privileging the successfully self-managing individual. Here we can see an example of Lauren Berlant’s notion of ‘cruel optimism’: 

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.

A person who excels in resilience is a person who comfortably bounces back from adversity. Resilience supposedly provides the means to flourish under difficult circumstances. However, the very process of becoming resilient in this way tends to require dulling our senses in relation to adversity, when emotion and feeling are arguably important capacities for human flourishing. That is, instead of recognising a dialectical relationship between well-being and adversity—where adversity can enhance receptivity to others and to nature, and therefore becomes an aspect of human flourishing—resilience emphasises the thin outcome of comfort and acceptance—together with potential complacency and smugness.

A fourth problem is that safety tends to be shifted to the auspices of technocratic management and homeland security, falling into step with the current shift towards the militarisation of homeland security, including through counter-terrorism framing. Resilience is quietly integrated into soft authoritarian policies. This might seem alarmist, but the examples of disaster governance tending towards technocratic management and soft authoritarianism are many. The left-leaning Demos Foundation provides an early quaint example. On the last page of its 2009 report Resilient Nation it turns to community safety:

Community resilience may be best managed through existing neighbourhood watch schemes; in other areas of the country schools and education initiatives may present a more obvious route. In rural areas farm networks can be employed by local authorities, while in major cities supermarkets may offer an innovative way of nudging individuals to become more resilient.

From the other side of the political fence, the UK Conservative Party’s 2010 Green Paper was called A Resilient Nation. To what was this report devoted? Yes, national military security. And, predictably, so too was a parallel report on homeland security produced by the Obama government in the same year. While that report was devoted to national security and disaster responsiveness, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, wrote about public interventions under the heading of ‘A Resilient Nation’:

The federal government cannot prepare for, respond to, and recover from major crises on its own. Our ability to effectively prevent, disrupt and respond to terrorist attacks, violent extremism, and other major disasters relies upon Americans working together—preparing emergency plans, notifying law enforcement when we see something suspicious, and helping our fellow citizens rebuild when disasters do strike.

Here the rhetoric is generous, crediting American communities with contributing to the security of the nation. But in an associated report, ‘resilience’ is evoked as the key capacity alongside security—being tough on violent strangers, keeping border-crossers out, and securing cyberspace—as the basis of defending the nation. Despite the range of these examples, resilience obviously connects across a bigger range of themes than just security, and it is worth taking this discussion into that broader territory.

Cities: an example of complex resilience

If we now turn to the question of cities, we find key examples of how resilience is used, and the problems it creates. The Rockefeller Foundation was until recently the dominant player in this field, pouring millions and millions of dollars into its resilience program. Beginning in 2013, the foundation took on the concept of resilience as the motif for its philanthropic global ‘resilience movement’. ‘Join the urban resilience community’, said its website. Radical language indeed. And many of the aspirations are well founded. Unfortunately, the operationalisation of these good intentions into a resilience framework was handed over to a global consultancy company, with predictable results. Arup, a consultancy company in competition with Deloitte and KPMG, was chosen to set up the methodology. After a subtle but partial analysis of human needs, Arup’s framework puts forward a skewed system of four domains for assessing resilience: health and well-being; economy and society; infrastructure and ecosystems; and leadership and strategy. 

Of these, only the first, health and well-being, works well to prioritise human needs and capacities. Arup’s own research indicates, for example, that questions of trust underpin all factors related to resilience, ‘including trust in government; trust in communities; trust in information/communications; and trust in law enforcement’, but this insight disappears in its analytical framework. And when the analysis is done, somehow the narrow and reductionist function of a resilient city ‘to protect, maintain and enhance assets’ is lifted out as the most important factor. ‘Facilitating human relationship’ scores low on this scale, and interestingly so does ‘Stimulating economic prosperity’—yet the economy remains a structuring feature of its domain framework.

At the top level of categorical organisation and the prioritisation of domains of resilience, immediate questions arise. Why is the economy featured and then treated as outside the social? Why is leadership more important than actively engaged citizens? Why does ecology get reduced to ‘ecosystem services’? Then there are questions about placement and priorities. Where do critical factors such as local community support or cohesive communities sit in the framework? They are grouped under ‘economy and society’, as are ‘strong identity and culture’, and ‘actively engaged citizens’. Where does education sit? It sits under ‘leadership and strategy’. 

To extend these examples we can turn to the emphasis on the resilience of Indigenous communities. In 2016 the Arctic Resilience Report was published, assessing the resilience of different Indigenous peoples living in the Arctic region—in this case the Eurasian Sami people of Arctic Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway (see Julian Reid’s discussion in Arena Journal 51/52). The report ordered resilience into three categories: cases exhibiting resilience, cases exhibiting loss of resilience, and cases exhibiting transformation—all based on a template developed for what it called its ‘Regime Shifts Database’ framework. Under conditions of semi-enlightened postcoloniality, Indigenous people are now said to show resilience by simultaneously staying close to nature and finding ways of making money within contemporary market relations. Successful resilience arises from the capacities of peoples to ‘self-organize…experiment, learn and thus adapt’, while cases ‘exhibiting loss of resilience are those in which there has been a loss of livelihoods, identity, function and structure’.

Here again, we read the abstracting language of ‘ecosystems services’. The language is apparently careful, but the final conclusions about the basis of successful resilience show the skewed consequences of the emphasis on the economy and the market. ‘They’ need to adapt to current realities. For example, the successful resilience of the Inuit of Cape Dorsetis trivialised in the heading: ‘Cape Dorset: From nomadic hunters to international art sensations’. As others have noted, the dark side to this success is the counterproductive cruel optimism of a transformation that maintains the old traditions in particular artists only by changing the form in which those traditions were once embedded. According to Reid, artistic ‘success’ in Cape Dorset has entailed, in his words, ‘the wholesale neoliberalization of the communities in question, the debasement of their traditions and livelihoods, the commodification of the catastrophes they have suffered, and their subjection to western economic reason’.

An alternative approach to resilience

A basic problem of all the resilience talk is that instead of ‘resilience’ being integrated into a framework of other positive human capacities, it has been lifted out as a singular and unsustainable virtue and then firmly attached to neoliberal modes of disaster management. It has come to be treated as a capacity in itself, a capacity that people are thrown back onto without the social wraparound of the kindred capacities of reciprocity, flexibility, adaptation, receptiveness, care and trust. This accords with the tendency towards the abstraction of social life that many writers in the pages of Arena have talked about. Capacities become instrumentalised techniques that, with a little training, can be instilled into everybody.

To be sure, the compound concept of ‘community resilience-building’, and the cries for leadership in supporting local resilience-building, attest that the concept stands in for many other capacities and support structures. However, as the emphasis on disaster management proceeds, including the next stage of ‘COVID Recovery’, we have unfortunately begun to blame those who have not properly assimilated the resilience-training manuals—both the ‘victims’ and the service providers. In what might be called a double revenge of the intellectually trained, acquiring the technique of bouncing back is now a necessity in a turbulent world, and those technicians who do not manage risky communities well are now equally under pressure to perform. The pressure redoubles in both directions and the deferral of action on basic questions of climate-change mitigation is clothed in rhetoric about targets and doing our share.

Despite the deep problems with treating resilience as a singular Atlas-like upholder of a sustainable ‘good life’, bearing the whole world on its shoulders, resilience can nevertheless be treated as a dimension of human flourishing. But it does need to be located in an alternative paradigm. The alternative domain structure suggested here by way of conclusion begins with the human condition. Rather than an Arup-style focus on domains that relate to corporate or metropolitan governance of cities—infrastructure, leadership, health and socio-economy—an alternative approach should seek to treat human capacities as generative and integrated, organised in relation to human capacities in general (see my essay ‘Creating Capacities for Human Flourishing: An Alternative Approach to Human Development’). What are the foundational capacities humans need for building a flourishing world that integrates the social and the natural? Let us consider four constellations of capacities necessary for the good life: vitality, relationality, productivity and sustainability.

The domain of vitality sets out a threshold set of mental and embodied capabilities that are basic to human flourishing, from emotions and sensuality to security and safety. It is a social capacity, not one that falls back on each individual’s embodied capacity. Someone with embodied or emotional ‘disability’ in one area has many alternative capacities, including, most importantly, social engagement and the support of others. No one needs to bounce by themselves.

The second constellation of capacities concerns relationality, that is relations to others and to nature, from affinity and reciprocity to care and trust. Capacities for care and trust, custodianship and stewardship, to name a few, are much more important for the future of the planet during this great unsettling than simply adapting to change.

The third constellation of capacities is the most difficult of all to name. Here various terms provide possible ways of naming the general capacity to reproduce the conditions of existence. The approach finally settled on productivity. This, admittedly, is a dangerous choice of term. The concept of ‘productivity’ can be easily misunderstood, particularly given the contemporary narrowing of its meaning by productivity commissions and the like to a measure of efficiency and output. Productivity is rather used here with all the nuanced complexity entailed in describing the creative process of reproducing the conditions of existence. In this sense, then, it cannot be reduced to the capacity to produce a measured number of objects. Instead it refers to the capacity for creating the means for living, including practices ranging from practical technique to creative play.

Finally, there is an important fourth constellation of capacities that enables us as humans to contribute positively to the conditions of social and natural flourishing over an extended period of time: namely, sustainability. For all of the capacities for bringing about change that we seem to have in abundance in the contemporary world, we also need both capacities to respond to change and to effect continuity and positive conservation. Sustainability names that basic capacity to endure over time. This entails having the (negative) capacity to recover from social forces that threaten basic conditions of social life, and to resolve to continue on in the face of adversity. It also entails the generativecapacity to project alternatives beyond (almost) business as usual: positive sustainability. In this framework, resilience appropriately becomes one capacity among many. It does not have to bear the full burden of a planet in upheaval. And, ‘lacking resilience’ must not be used as term of abuse for those whose capacity to respond to disaster is limited; equally, ‘having resilience’ must not describe those who sack workers in order to bounce back from the COVID period of physical isolation.


In summary, the capacity to bounce back from adversity can be a good capacity, but when lifted into a singular virtue, or in the context of a manifold and ‘normalising’ crisis, resilience turns into a bouncing ball with multiple trajectories, some of which are leading to the opposite of what was intended. In a thought experiment it is possible to roughly assess our global capacities for making a flourishing world. Resilience, while ‘unsatisfactory’ in such a rating, is perhaps not the most important thing that we should be working on. And security, another capacity to sustain over time against threats, while rated as ‘critical’, ironically seems not to have benefited from the trillions of dollars spent on it. Cruel optimism? We clearly need a different approach to a world in upheaval than that currently proposed in the resilience literature.

This thought experiment, as schematic and simplifying as it is, shows a world of uneven productivity that is remarkable at innovation and change, and that has, through a century of intensifying science in intersection with capitalism, achieved new levels of practicality and technique. But it is also a world that contradictorily accentuates individual emotion and feeling while emptying out the domains of relationality and sustainability. With our current emphases on productivity and vitality we are destroying the planet as we know it. The time has come to rebalance the ledger.

About the author

Paul James

Paul James is a researcher in the Institute for Culture and Society at the Western Sydney University. He is Scientific Advisor to the City of Berlin, and a Metropolis Ambassador of Urban Innovation. He has been an editor of Arena since 1986, and is author or editor of numerous books including Globalization Matters: Engaging the Global in Unsettled Times (with Manfred Steger, Cambridge University Press, 2019).

More articles by Paul James

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