Can resilience give us a future?

What can we do in the face of two overarching crises: a crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss, and a crisis of social injustice characterised by the systematic removal of support from places and communities? 

Resilience: not just persistence, but a different way of understanding connections

For two days last week I was part of a group that discussed, debated and shared stories with an inspiring and fascinating mix of people convened by Cumberland Lodge and the Young Foundation, under the rubric of ‘resilience’. Resilience, of course, can be all things to all people. But there are common themes of capacity and capability, ability to respond and adapt in the face of crisis, to act independently and collaboratively. Resilience experts talk about engineering resilience (or ‘bouncing back’), adaptive resilience (‘bouncing forward’), and social-ecological resilience, all with their own backstories and nuances. 

Perhaps inevitably with such a wide range of understandings, it was sometimes challenging to focus the discussions. And in some ways the difficulty in focusing created opportunities to follow multiple threads and discover novel ways of understanding resilience. Absent from the agenda, but not from the concerns of participants, was the imperative of considering resilience in the context of climate crisis. To be fair to Cumberland Lodge, this is the theme of a forthcoming conference. But this felt like a disconnect, not least in a week in which continued flooding brought home (literally, to some) what a changing climate is doing to communities in the UK, and in which economic panic over the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the vulnerability of an economy predicated on ever-increasing consumption. 

Trying to articulate complex connections in a way that enables rather than stifles action can be tough. But it is worth trying. 

For me, the starting point in joining these things up is to recognise that the crises we face are linked. We have a crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss, and the prime driver for these crises is an extractive economy that removes resources from the earth – fossil fuels and habitats – and destroys the environments and beyond-human relationships that are the basis of much of the health, wealth and joy we can find in our lives. We have a crisis of social injustice, and the main driving force is an extractive economy that commandeers much of our time and our labour and resells it to us packaged as experience and consumption. In doing so it concentrates wealth in fewer hands, drives a cultural wedge between the haves and have-nots, entrenches inequalities of access to basic services, and perpetuates destructive power dynamics.

This is not the totality of the problems we face, but it encompasses enough of them to give us some clarity about what kind of resilience we should focus on and the types of actions that flow from it.

There is a basic level of resilience which is about survival skills: living in a socially and ecologically unjust world and managing to keep going. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of these skills, but the conversation should never stop there. The resilience we need is the ability to transform the experience of living with injustice into a shared agenda for change, recognising that there are powerful interests that will resist any attempt to seriously reimagine the economic basis of 21st century society. It involves developing the personal, social and political skills to live and act within a context of continuing crisis, a crisis that will not be resolved any time soon. 

At a personal level, this involves continually refilling and drinking from the well of imagination. The better future we want is created first in our imagination and projections of the world we would like to live in. We can do that through logics and policy agendas and research, but more than that we need love and hope. That’s where arts and cultural initiatives can reach places and people that policymakers can’t. It’s why the insights of people like Rob Hopkins or Ruth Levitas or Rebecca Solnit can speak into our lives in ways that the self-styled thought leaders of this world can’t. 

At a social or community level, we need to recognise the importance of shared activities and conversations. We were inspired last week to hear ideas of community-building in one city, at the heart of which was the idea of widening the circle – creating links with those we wouldn’t ordinarily associate with. To live with crisis we need each other, and we need the time to build relationships. Cumberland Lodge is rooted in a belief in the power of dialogue, not just with those who are like us but especially with those who are not like us (and may not like us very much). 

However, something else wove its way in and out of last week’s conversations. We need to recognise the effects of a decade of dismantling the civic and social infrastructure that provides the platform from which people in the UK are able to act in their communities and build conversations. This infrastructure includes the physical fabric of our towns and cities, the parks and public spaces that enable people to come together. It includes the basic services such as housing and welfare benefits that allow people to look outwards rather than on their struggles to survive. It could be as simple as affordable bus travel, something that can determine whether or not someone can leave their neighbourhood to join in with wider community activities. Without a basic level of civic infrastructure, inequalities will widen. Local government may never win much love, but it deserves much more of our respect and investment.

At the political level there is no shortage of ideas for change, and no shortage of analysis of the problems. Much of the time, however, these stop at creating shinier new versions of business as usual: an economy that is a little bit more just because businesses bring wealth back into communities, or a little bit more equal because we recognise the pernicious effects of gender, race and sexual inequalities. These issues are important and we shouldn’t underestimate the work to be done. But they need to be set within an understanding of the overarching shifts required in order to create the conditions for living and ultimately thriving in a climate-changed world. 

This is not just about reducing carbon emissions, listening to the science and acting as if the climate emergency is real. It is about developing and putting into practice the values and paradigms that will be necessary for the next stage of human evolution. And that process will demand constant reflection and adjustment, because none of us has anything approaching a full picture of the future. But the overall direction of travel is no longer up for debate: we are not in the business of ‘levelling up’ the short-term benefits of ecological and social destruction. We have to focus on ending it. 

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