Against resilience

‘Resilience’ has become a buzzword among a range of policy networks, wherein it serves as an ambition. People ought to become more resilient. The world is threatening: the economy, the climate and terrorism all figure as dangers against whose impacts we must resile. The fertile discourse of resilience spawns activity in research, policy development and service delivery. If we can educate our children to be resilient, if we can structure our communities to become resilient, we may survive a world of risk and then… And then what? This survivalist doctrine paradoxically relies on an image of failure as its vision of the future. We prepare against the awful things that may one day befall us and are left prepared. And no more. Planning for survival, striving for resilience, has no vision for flourishing; progress is lost, and hope with it.

Between ‘resilient’ and ‘resile’ there is something of a semantic sleight of hand as, although the two share a root, their common meanings have diverged. But the comparison is instructive. OED tells that resilient means ‘Rebounding; recoiling; returning to the original position’ and most pertinently, ‘tending to recover quickly or easily from misfortune, shock, illness, or the like; buoyant, irrepressible; adaptable, robust, hardy.’ These sound, to be sure, like positive characteristics of an individual, organisation or society. But to resile means, rather, ‘To draw back, withdraw, or distance oneself from an undertaking, declaration, course of action,’ and ‘To recoil or retreat from something with aversion; to shrink from.’ These appear almost opposed: could one retreat in an irrepressible manner? Yet in practice I think these are not so distant and, in fact, when the discourse of resilience informs policy it is more likely to produce an ability or preference for resiling than structural resilience. To see why, consider the following example.

For an extreme case we may look to the survivalist enclaves already being built by individuals and small groups in various locations. The ideal is the high-lying wilderness bunker with independent power generation and long-term supplies of water, preserved food, medicines and weaponry. Apocalypse – whether financial, environmental or political in origin – is the inspiration and a future of brutal competition for scarce resources is envisaged. Protagonists could certainly conceive of their preparations as planning resilience though clearly a world of armed enclaves is not the one sought by current policy trends. But the reasons that good citizens ought to recoil in horror from survivalism should also give us pause to reconsider the discourse of resilience.

Firstly, the orientation of the survivalist is decidedly inward. Whether the individual, kinship group or like-minded community plans a secure future they do so in competition with all others. Survivalists scramble now for resources so that they can keep them to themselves in a future in which they become increasingly scarce. The targets of policies to increase resilience are also typically relatively small groups, communities or even individuals and there is no reason to suppose that reliance requires a more outward-looking approach. The resilient ‘I’ cares little about the other.

Secondly, even the most positive notion of resilience has as its best outcome the ability to persist in the same manner. We survive the shock and return to normal: we continue to live in the bunker. The allure of normality is sharpest when set aside the destructive potential inherent in the global risks we face. But it is normality, precisely normality, that has produced those risks. We must identify the causes of our multiple crises within the structures and the culture of contemporary global society and we must overcome them through far-reaching social change. The direction of change is open, but it must be change. ‘Returning to the original position’ is not an option if our ambition is to be for anything more than the constant experience of surviving shock.

Finally, then, the doctrine of resilience lacks an inspiring vision for progress. To return to its paradoxical nature: its only long-term vision is of its own failure which produces the short-term objective to avoid the seemingly inevitable. Yes, to be capable of resisting crises is a positive characteristic but it is one that should develop alongside an alternative model of a society in which risks are dramatically reduced. To target resilience truly is to resile from that most traditional characteristic of human societies: the attempt to improve one’s lot and that of future generations.