Resilience and Its Discontents

By Randall Amster

Resilience is a vital attribute, conceptually and pragmatically speaking. In a world where it often seems that the only guarantee we have is greater instability due to escalating crises at all scales, our capacity to roll with the punches and cultivate creative responses is paramount. Still, despite the need for a resilient stance in these hard times, it is worth inquiring whether our adaptive nature can work against us as well.

Specifically, it is important at the outset to integrate resilience with resistance, and likewise to advance beyond regarding resilience as a form of absorptive capacity. Too often, we look to communities to stay #strong in the face of calamities and tragedies, with less attention paid to the structural drivers of these events and a misplaced media fascination with the aftermath of crises rather than obvious precursors.

Again, this doesn’t undermine the necessity to be resilient, but instead asks that we balance the ledger between causes and effects, focusing at least as much on the supply side of crises as we do on the response side. In its most vibrant sense, resilience is solidarity and networking, community and dignity, mobilization and imagination. Yet it cannot substitute for systemic change at the roots of problems.

In the environmental realm we often hear about strategies falling into categories of either mitigation or adaptation. Ideally and impactfully, these can coincide—as for instance with developing ‘green energy’ (i.e., contributing less carbon emissions while preparing for a post-fossil world), or with a community blocking a toxic facility (i.e., imposing costs on harmful industries while building participatory networks).

With this in mind, here are a few points of reflection on resilience, including some cautions and caveats:

Frontline communities often are expected to be paragons of absorption and resistance. Whether coping with acute crises (like the poisoning of municipal water sources in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere) or the ‘long emergency’ of structural inequalities and the allocation of disparate environmental burdens, communities on the front lines of struggle sometimes are viewed through a lens of either neglect (i.e., “that’s terrible but at least it isn’t happening where I live”) or elevation (i.e., “how inspiring they are!”). Neither of these responses is sufficient, and can escalate the expectation of resilience as absorptiveness.

The extent to which we normalize crises can deflect attention from official malfeasance. In the aftermath of many ‘natural’ disasters, we often see activist networks (or more broadly ‘civil society’) filling the void left by inadequate official structures—and perhaps in the process propping up a deficient system. This can take the form of horizontal coordination and an ethic of care manifesting as ‘disaster solidarity’ in an acute crisis, which is a necessary and powerful lifeline in such instances. Yet these emergent prosocial responses should not become an invitation to court further disasters and erode already-thin safety nets.

Resilience is a collaborative endeavor, but in an atomized world it can tap into ‘survivalist’ impulses. Individuals cannot be expected to muster the fortitude and resources necessary to survive (let alone thrive) in a world plagued by more frequent and severe crises across the social and ecological realms. Nor can communities be expected to function in relative isolation when it comes to confronting threats that are systemic in nature, from police violence to climate displacement. The model isn’t to develop ‘fortress societies’ with militaristic and separatist overtones, but rather to aim for collective stability.

Some ‘shocks’ simply are not absorbable and should be met with resolute refusal to be condoned. Even the most resilient systems have their limits, societally and ecologically speaking. The existential threats posed by nuclear weapons, runaway climate change, and enforced inequality fall outside the realm of any expectation of being resilient. We all have to make choices every day about what we will resist and what we will accommodate, but increasingly the willingness to embrace the latter seems to outstrip the former. These micro-moments of daily life often occur at the ‘pillars’ of where and how power operates.

Resilience is viable when coupled with strategies to mitigate the drivers of crises at their roots. Harking back to the core theme of this missive, any sense of resilience-as-adaptation should be coupled with an equally robust sense of resilience-as-mitigation. In this sense, we can view resilience not merely as a responsive framework but as a preventive, proactive, and prefigurative one as well. The time to cultivate resilient capacities is now, before crises fully subsume the lifeworld—and in so doing, maybe they won’t. It’s wiser to muster the resources needed to avert crises than to be ruined by the costs of courting them.

In the end, we can affirm that resilience is a beneficial aim and should be cultivated; it is also, however, a cautionary tale about the need to draw a complete picture and balance reaction with effective action. If we do so, it may even turn out to be the case that being extraordinarily resilient now will help usher in a world where we can be ordinarily resilient and devote more of ourselves to thriving than to surviving.



Randall Amster, J.D. Ph.D., is Co-Director and Teaching Professor of Environmental Studies at Georgetown University and is the author of books including Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015). Amster served as Executive Director of PJSA for many years and is still an active member.