Understanding our responses to environmental change

Resilience

Resilience, Vulnerability and Development

Pink FlowerThis strand of my research explores how resilience ideas – which provide insights into the dynamics of change and responses to multiple stresses and shocks in both ecological and social dimensions – can be applied to understanding environmental change and international development.

Resilience is extremely popular in current policy and public discourses related to change, risk and uncertainty, and a sense of cascading crises. Yet resilience has quite specific meanings in different scientific fields, describing how individuals, systems and materials respond to shocks and disturbance. I explore these plural meanings – across disciplines, policy and by different publics in a range of developed and developing country contexts. My work aims to provide a social-science informed analysis of resilience and its applications.

I have worked on the following aspects of resilience:

1. My professorial fellowship on resilient adaptation

My Fellowship ‘Resilient Development in Social Ecological Systems’ was funded by the ESRC (2009-2012). This research examined theoretical and conceptual understanding of resilience across the social sciences and aimed to inform policy discussions and governance strategies which take a resilience approach. This included: developing a political ecology of resilience; investigating diverse social constructions of resilience in policy and practice; using discourse analysis and mental models and analysing the winners and losers in a resilience approach.
I wrote a number of key papers on resilience during my fellowship and I am currently writing a book, which will synthesise this work. The book will examine how resilience thinking potentially changes the theory, policy and practice of development and the key gaps in current resilience approaches. It has been argued that resilience approaches – focussing on systems – overlook issues of agency and capacity.

I wrote a number of key papers on resilience during my fellowship and I am currently writing a book, which will synthesise this work. The book will examine how resilience thinking potentially changes the theory, policy and practice of development and the key gaps in current resilience approaches. It has been argued that resilience approaches – focussing on systems – overlook issues of agency and capacity.

For example, listening to coastal communities explain their own resilience and vulnerability reveals quite different perspectives – people link resilience to resistance, to self-sufficiency and to standing up for themselves’.

My analysis also shows how the current popularity of resilience in policy – especially within climate change and international development, as evidenced through terms such as ‘Climate Resilient Development’ – promotes a business as usual approach. This is at odds with scientific perspectives on resilience which places it within a dynamic, complex systems-perspective.

2. Resilience, human security and adaptation to climate change.

I co-edited a special issue of Climate and Development on Sustainable Adaptation with Siri Eriksen. The papers were originally presented at the Global Environmental Change and Human Security Conference in Oslo in June 2009. The special issue includes these papers:
Sustainable Adaptation: An Oxymoron? Climate and Development.
Sustainable Adaptation to Climate Change Climate and Development.
The Changing Environment for Human Security: New Agendas for Research, Policy, and Action.

3. Analysing policy discourses of resilience

This stream of research finds that in different policy arenas, very often resilience is being used in a conservative way, which promotes business-as-usual rather than radical approaches. This contrasts with scientific views of resilience as a characteristic of complex adaptive systems. I also analyse resilience as the new ‘sustainability’, as the term is now prevalent in many policies produced in preparations for Rio +20.

Publications from this work include:

Policy Discourses of Resilience, In: Climate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism: A Chance to Reclaim Self, Society and Nature
Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, IPCC Special report

I am also interested in understanding whether a resilience lens changes how we understand responses to environmental change. A number of meetings and publications explore this issue:
Resilience implications of policy responses to climate change

4. Resilience thinking in different disciplines

This paper brings together literatures on resilience from human development and social ecological systems to inform analysis of agency in adaptive capacity:
Agency, capacity and resilience to environmental change: Lessons from human development, well-being and disasters.
• Resilience: In Climate Change and Society