Rethinking Socio-Ecological Problems Through Resilience

Prevailing norms of sustainable development today are characterised by the assumed compatibility of economic growth and environmental protection. This idea emerged particularly after the publication of the Brundtland report in 1987, which advocated that both environmental and developmental issues could be solved together, hand in hand (Adams, 2005, 291). Sustainable development eventually has come to suggest that technological and economic innovation is not only compatible with, but a prerequisite of environmental protection, creating new, non polluting technologies (Petersen, 2007, 210). Despite its optimism, sustainable development has received much criticism in recent years, condemned as being both technocentric; depending heavily on technological innovation as a solution, and anthropocentric; demoting the environment as a second priority (Sander et al, 2000, 2), or even as simply an ‘extra cost’ (Petersen, 2007, 226).

People have also begun to question the feasibility of sustainable development goals, predominantly in light of the two key issues of resource availability and climate change. The popular concerns of global resource availability associated with the emergence of sustainable development thinking in the 1970’s, a prime example of which being Meadows’ ‘Limits to Growth’ in 1972, are being returned to. It is thought by many that our ever growing resource consumption is now meeting the ‘very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources’ (Heinberg, 2010, 1). Climate change is likewise a source of concern, as the environment is becoming increasingly fragile and unpredictable due to the continued release of greenhouse gases. These key issues have given rise to a search for alternative ways of approaching sustainability, one which ‘creates options rather than limits them’ (Walker and Salt, 2006, xiv), and it is this which has lead to the emergence of resilience thinking.

The term resilience originated in physics (Sander et al, 2000, 9) but has been adopted by ecologists to mean the capacity of a system to absorb disturbances and still retain its basic function and structure (Walker and Salt, 2006, xiii). This idea has more recently been applied to society, implying what Hopkins defines as an ability for people to adapt to disturbances and not collapse at the first sight of oil or food shortages (2008, 54).

Peak Oil and Climate Change
There has been accumulating evidence recently that many of the world’s key natural resources are reaching levels of peak production, such as oil, natural gas and coal, as well as other important minerals and fresh water (Heinberg, 2010, 2). However, unlike the peak productions of food predicted by Meadows forty years ago, we won’t have oil-intensive solutions such as the green revolution to fall back on. To push a business as usual approach even further out of the question, forthcoming effects of climate change will render us even less capable to continue to managing the environment in order to extract sufficient resources to feed our energy-hungry lifestyles.
As Chatterton and Cutler highlight, it will be less about dealing with isolated events than coping with price rises and shocks when it comes to peak oil (2008, 14). Indeed with all natural resources, it will become more difficult, expensive and dangerous to extract these resources far before we see them vanish. Desperate measures of refining and liquefying coal to obtain fuel and going to new extreme depths of marine exploration for oil and gas (which, as shown by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, can have disastrous outcomes), are eventually going to be proven inadequate in the face of peak oil and climate change, and the ensuing economic contraction will force us into new ways of doing things (Heinberg, 2010, 3).

Difference from sustainable development
Theories of resilience differ from those of sustainable development in several ways. Firstly, resilience theories reject the notion of living within a ‘sustainable yield’. This is the idea that nature, without human interference, acts in a linear and straight forward trajectory with very little change. If nature is significantly disturbed by human actions however, it will change its direction causing it to behave in a different way producing different feedbacks. Sustainable yield, or the “optimisation approach” (Walker and Salt, 2006, 6) advocates the need to find a balance in which people can receive the optimal yield while ensuring that the environment is able to recover to its original state. This perceived stability, however, is purely down to the illusion of the short time scale, which is much shorter than the timescale which the system works over in reality (Sander et al, 2000, 11), and ecosystems as well as social systems are much less stable on the grander scale of things. Rao distinguishes the difference between balance of nature as a static entity with flux of nature; more the dynamic equilibrium which exists throughout the changes that interact to evolve the system (Ibid, 115), the former being one which is perhaps more associated with theories of sustainable development and the latter to those of resilience.
Optimisation has been accused to have a tendency to place humans outside the system, unlike resilience theories which very much aim to bridge the divide between social and natural systems (Walker and Salt, 2006, 11).
Past mainstreams have also been criticised as offering “more of the same”; that is, more of what got us into the problem in the first place, namely more control, more intensification and more efficiency, yet it is evident that it is impossible to control one part of the system without it effecting the other (Walker and Salt, 2006, xiii, 8). Action for resilience has been able to learn from the mistakes of sustainable development, and alternatively advocates an entirely different approach- a devolution of power into communities, less intensified systems of agriculture and energy sourcing,

Socio- Environmental Resilience solutions
We have seen the criticisms that ecologists have made of sustainable development policies, so what, then, are the initiatives that would come out of resilience theory? Perhaps one of the main principles of resilience thinking is re-localization. This initiative seeks to ensure that resources stay in a local community; that money is spent locally and food and energy is sourced locally, through such measures as farmer’s markets and renewable energy sources suited to the region. Self-sufficiency, according to Seyfang’s survey, is the public’s main priority (2009, 5), and resilience theory encourages people to make a transition away from dependence on one institution such as the state and towards autonomy. This isn’t to say however that places will become isolated and stubbornly cut off from other place, but rather remain networked and within the broader system of things, affiliating still to national and greater networks to offer coordination (Chatterton and Cutler, 2008, 2). According to Mason and Whitehead, the emphasis is as much on the care of vulnerable proximate others as it is on those much further away (2008, 2). Since resilience covers a range of economic, social, environmental and personal aspects, it also aims to work alongside a variety of different actors, such as voluntary groups, charities, local and national governments, businesses and political groups (Seyfang, 2009, 4, 5).

Through this localisation, resilience aims to increase the tightness of feedbacks, the speed with which changes in the systems are felt. It also hopes that the ability to sustainably source food will be achieved through measures increased diversity, promoting the number of connections between elements within the system to create greater flexibility (Walker and Salt, 2006, 145-147).

Although a return to simpler times is suggested by many, it is not, as Goldsmith puts it, a romantic belief in some pre-existing “Golden Age”, but an opportunity for certain ways of living which are harmonious with the environment to be rescued and improved (1995, 48). Mason and Whitehead note the benefits of working alongside those who have once lived a lower energy lifestyle (particularly those who were alive in pre-industrial times) and considering these people as an important source of information (2008, 9), agreed by Gibbon et al. in relation to the indigenous farming practices which are notably well adapted to limitations and fragilities of the environment (1995, 52). It is also worth noting though that despite values for older traditions, socio-ecological resilience also aims for innovation; learning, experimenting and embracing change (Walker and Salt, 2006, 149). Resilience suggests a movement away from the technocentricity of previous initiatives towards ways of living sustainably using only appropriate technologies (Chatterton and Cutler, 2008, 3).

Its localised focus nonetheless has received dubious responses to its ability to resolve global issues such as climate change. Pickerill and Chatterton’s writing on alter-globalisation movements (2006, 2, 5) illustrates the potential for it to remain networked and connected to the rest of the world, whereby the negative impacts of globalisation are challenged by everyday practices.

Despite the movement’s lack of intention for revolutionizing the political status-quo by any means (Mason and Whitehead, 2008, 6), resilience solutions are inevitably going to involve a political dimension. Chatterton and Cutler however reject the attempts to limit political elements of resilience, and stress that significant social change is only possible through political re-organisation and local mobilisation (2008, 6, 19).

Case Study: Transition Towns
The best way to expand on the subject of resilience initiative making is perhaps to refer to the Transition Towns movement, which is dedicated to making places more locally resilient to the effects of climate change and the threats posed by peak oil production (Mason and Whitehead, 2008, 2). The idea of ‘Transition Towns’ was a permaculture based model for a transition to a low carbon economy (Chatterton and Cutler, 2008, 2), made by Rob Hopkins in 2005. This movement aims to instigate community action and public empowerment (Seyfang, 2009, 2).
Certainly, it involves substantial devolution of power as most groups are set up by individual citizens, making it largely a grassroots movement moving away from a dependence on a ‘petrochemical infrastructure of development’ and enhancing local powers of self-determination (Mason and Whitehead, 2008, 2). The idea of Transition Towns was followed by the publication of a 12-step guide on how to achieve resilience. This involved many aspects generally associated with socio-ecological resilience, but also suggested more specific projects such as the ‘great re-skilling project’ (Seyfang, 2009, 5) which aims to encourage the use of traditional skills commonly used in pre-industrial times, so that one person might not necessarily have the ability to sustain themselves in all areas of life but each person in the community has their own role to play to sustain the community itself. There is emphasis here on not just recycling, but really reducing waste and reusing things, such as repairing clothes. Another key aspect of this guide was education, raising awareness of the issues of peak oil and climate change and encouraging a better understanding of the environment and how it works (Ibid. 8).

Resilience demonstrates the benefits of re-thinking contemporary environmental problems as socio-natural problems (Sander et al, 2000, 28), of bridging the gap between the natural and the cultural and realising that we, as humans, are part of the ecosystem. Humans have had the tendency to look at nature in terms of profit, calculating in what way we can exploit a thing in order to get the best return, perhaps linked to our evolutionary past of competitive consumption and production as a means of survival (Walker and Salt, 2006, 5). The question now poses itself as to whether we are able to open ourselves to re-skilling, inform ourselves of the way the environment around us works, agree to lead simpler lives and care about the environment and its species for more than just their utilitarian qualities (Rao, 2000, 117). The Transition Towns movement looks promising as far as a shift towards a more resilient society is concerned, harnessing a bottom-up approach to empower and protect the people. With this approach it will be necessary to ensure communication is thorough, and difficulties such as resource availability, funding and job allocation (Seyfang, 2009, 8) will need to be addressed.

Although resilience has been defended as being non-exclusive and insular in theory, it is important that it remains so in practise. It is also important, as Chatterton and Cutler emphasise, that we avoid “sleepwalking into a green police state”, where strict environmental laws keep tight control of people’s actions denying social aspects such as freedom (2008, 38). Despite these warnings, I believe resilience thinking, providing that it stays true to its principle of community responses appropriate for the local environment, has the potential to offer solutions which allow the spacialities to play a role; a broadening of the concept of sustainability suggested by Whitehead (2006, 5) which allows the “stories, struggles and values” involved to be addressed and dealt with.

A transition to a post-carbon economy, however hotly debated, needs to, as Heinberg stresses, become the mainstream (2010, 7). Educating ourselves on the best ways to source things such as food and energy with relation to environmental and social justice and making simple changes to our everyday life will not only make us far more likely to cope when faced with shocks from peak oil and climate change. It will also prompt a range of other advantages in tow, such as a sense of belonging to a group, better community communication and quality of life.


Adams, W. (2005) ‘Sustainability’, in Cloke, P. Introducing Human Geographies, London: Hodder Arnold

Gibbon, D. Lake, A, Stocking, M. (1995) Sustainable Development: A Challenge for Agriculture in (eds. Morse, S and Stocking, M) People and Environment, London: UCL Press

Heinberg, R. (2010) Beyond the Limits to Growth, California: Post Carbon Institution

HOPKINS, R. (2008c) The Transition Handbook, Totnes, Green Books

Mason, K and Whitehead, M. (2008)‘Transition Urbanism and the Contested Politics of the Spatial Practice’. Antipode, pp.

Pickerill, J. Chatterton, P. (2006) Notes Towards Autonomous Geographies, Progress in Human Geography, January, 2006.

Rao, P.K, (2000) Sustainable Development: Economics and Policy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Redclift, M (1987) Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions, London: Routledge.

Sander. E van der Leeuw, Chr. Aschan-Leygonie, (2000) A Long-Term Perspective on Resilience in Socio-Natural Systems, Paper presented at the workshop on « System shocks – system resilience » held in Abisko, Sweden, May 22-26, 2000

SEYFANG, G. (2009) Green Shoots of Sustainablity: The 2009 UK Transition Movement Survey, University of East Anglia, Norwich, July

TRAPESE COLLECTIVE (2008) The Rocky Road to Transition: The Transition Towns movement and what it means for social change, Trapese Collective.

Walker, B. and Salt, D. (2006) Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, Washington DC: Island Press

Whitehead, M (2006) Spaces of Sustainability: Geographical perspectives on the Sustainable Society (Routledge, London) Ch. 1.


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