Stop calling me RESILIENT. Comment on Tom Slater's blog post "The resilience of neoliberal urbanism"

The recent blog piece by TOM SLATER from the University of Edinburgh has punch and speed. "The resilience of neoliberal urbanism" articulates a set of critiques that scholars using "resilience thinking" has still to face up to, in particular in relation to urbanisation and cities. My shift from having used resilience inspired theories, to instead draw on critical geography and political ecology inspired my comments below (and there are several other comments that you can check out at the blog). Thanks to Marnie Graham for notifying me about Slater's post.

Indeed, those who has followed my writing know that I have used resilience theory as an analytical perspective before, or rather social-ecological systems theory, but that I have moved away from it (see here and here in relation to urban natural resource management; and social justice here). To be sure, in approaching the inherent contested character of urbanisation and cities, there are better intellectual traditions to open up how power, ecology and urbanisation are interrelated, and which are more interested in, and make better use of in-depth and textured case studies. With co-workers I am developing research repertoires around what we refer to as Situated Ecologies, and Situated Urban Political Ecologies (SUPE). Tom Slater's piece brings up some of the reasons for my shift as it foregrounds how a social-ecological analytical perspective (heavily reliant on systems theory) has transformed into a normative language of policy of about almost anything.

"Stop calling me resilient", a photo that Tom Slater has found from a poster in New Orleans—tweeted from Julian Reidcaptures one inherent problem with using "resilience thinking".


Stop calling me RESILIENT. Because every time you say, "Oh, they're resilient," that means you can do something else to me. I am not resilient.
Indeed, the photo arrests an inherent problem of analytical frameworks based in systems theory, and in particular in the normative and systems couched position from which "resilience scholars" have come accustomed to analyse their 'object'. This position tends to presuppose 'systems' and 'feedbacks', which hinders description, and a grounding of empirical accounts. There is also this gesture of being in possession of an 'objective' platform, an abstract position, from which to analyse anything—from cities, persons, cells, you have it—which can be disturbingly immune to take in difference, particularity and contingency (i.e. history). Indeed, almost anything can be translated into the abstract theorising of systems language of which resilience theory is but one genre. There are few ways (if any), by which empirical case studies can kick back and reshape the overarching framework since this framework always hover 'up there', colonising any place it is brought to operate onto.

In reading the Neworleanian poster from this light, its author critiques how there can be some-body in a position to analyse and prescribe what the author is, and what she and her comrades should do, or how they should behave. 

However, one thing that Tom Slater might be missing, or avoiding in his punchy critique, is the relation between cities and ecology. He mainly frames the urban as being about people, rents, social injustices and mentions land mostly as something for housing, something to live on and simply use as space. The idea that the urban is also ecological/biophysical processes; about animals, plants and their interactions with the built-up environment, is not entertained. In trying to recognise the value that resilience thinking might have brought to urban studies, it would be to assess what it has brought to the long-standing human-environment and society/nature discussion. With its background in systems ecology, vegetation studies, biophysical flows etc., resilience studies (or more correctly social-ecological systems studies) brought an interest on how to comprehend the city as constituted out of socioenvironmental processes (translated as social-ecological systems (SES), feedbacks etc. etc. following a long tradition of systems theory, but adding that these systems are now complex and adaptive). Tom Slater focuses on how community resilience, or how external factors like floodings etc., impact on communities and people, and how a row of "conservative" actors have utilised the prescriptive power of "resilience thinking" to dictate, or influence, what to do with the city. He attacks, and rightfully so, resilience as a slippery and general policy framework. In that sense, he leaves out how certain resilience scholars, with a background in ecology, have tried to contribute in (re)understanding the city as a socioenvironmental imbroglio. Indeed, due to its success as a discourse it might have participated in shifting mainstream debates to better recognise biophysical properties of the urban. 

Of course, and as already mentioned, historical materialist and urban political ecology perspectives responds equally well in theorising urbanisation as a socioecological process. And with their deep roots in Marxist thought, they keep intact an important preoccupation of power (while also integrating ideas of cyborgs, quasi-objects and actor-network theory), see e.g. Erik Swyngedouw. From human geography there is also works by Sarah Whatmore and Steven Hinchliffe on "Living Cities", and Colin MacFarlane on "assemblage thinking". These theoretical developments is also why I have shifted to combine urban political ecology and poststructuralist theory in approaching urban ecologies (where my meeting with, and learning from Cape Town in particular has been important; see here, and here).

Thus, Tom Slater is doing the right thing—he helps us to focus on were the intellectual battle lies now. He is critiquing, and rightfully so, a quite sinister maturation of 'resilience thinking' that has travelled from (and with) the hands of ecologists (and the study of shallow lakes in Canada), over ecological economist workshops in the archipelago of Stockholm, mixed with Santa Fe style complex adaptive systems theory, to become a well-polished research/policy language that asks for resilience, while keeping intact the relations of power (in the city). Alf Hornborg from Lund expressed it ironically: "We needed a revolution. We got resilience." What Tom Slater is observing is the speed by which resilience has become a research and policy framework for everything (see also James Evans on this). He writes:
[Resilience] is the latest policy and think tank abomination to infect and paralyse the study of cities, to the extent that it has become a research funding council priority all over the world (recently, the Urban Europe “Joint Programming Initiative” was released.) […] Like its ideological twin of ‘sustainable urbanism’ before it, 'resilient cities’ is proving extraordinarily seductive. 
Resilience has (too) quickly become part of the "transformative agenda" of any city. It slips in easily since it does not challenge the powers that be. The catchphrase being "the ability to deal with change and continue to develop", as expressed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. 

This seems like an illustration of Marx' notion of ideology; when a certain viewpoint (here neoliberalism) enrols the "experts" and the "intellectuals" to re-produce an imaginary in which issues of power and equality is not discussed; and in fact cannot be discussed in a meaningful way since there is a lack of language through which to express it. Or in thinking with Foucault, when the real debates lie outside of what is sayable and thinkable.

In this sense, resilience shares a strong similarity with "ecosystem services". Although ecosystem services might have served to put new light on the inherent relation that human life has to intricate biophysical and ecological processes, it is naïve to think that ecosystem services can still merely be treated as an illuminating "metaphor" or "communication tool"; and that its growing network of experts, consultants, algorithms and institutions, can somehow avoid the accusation of taking part of neoliberalization—preparing the marketisation and privatisation of ecological relations, with its effect on the political economy. (See how this plays out in Cape Town here.)

The major problem of resilience theory (or "resilience thinking" as more and more of its proponents likes to put it) lies in its difficulties to grasp power (in particular discursive power), to learn from contingencies (dismissing textured and descriptive account), and foremost its translation into a slippery policy language of general resilience. As mentioned, the resilience discourse, or rather the social-ecological systems perspective have contributed to the intellectual task to come to grips with how the "social" and the "ecological" are intertwined through urbanisation. And in that regard, there are certainly very skilled ecologists and social scientists that can carry on their labour under a different rubric, not being forced to organise their work under the resilience or ecosystem services frameworks.

/Henrik Ernstson
Berkeley and Stanford, 4 Feb 2014


Comments

Stephanie said…
As a person who became enamored with both resilience and Foucault during the write-up of my dissertation, and who is now back in the 'development' world and has seen first hand how 'resilience' has been appropriated (ugh!), I can fully appreciate this critique. However, I will say that some of the principles of resilience and adaptive capacity have actually allowed me to push back against the neoliberalization of cities, at least as far as food provisioning is concerned. Typically thought of as chaotic, dirty, inefficient, there is very little research that shows how emergent city food systems serve a protective capacity and probably allow more people access to food than a centralized, highly efficient 'modern' food system would. Principles such as 'redundancy' and 'multiple connections' and 'decentralization' allowed me to articulate and draw attention to characteristics of emergent food systems that are generally obscured, and to discuss them in a way that valorized them.

I have also found that what's happening with resilience is that it is being construed mainly as a problem of technology. See here, for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmF3gGouFEc. He seems to think of resilience as something that can be engineered and applied from on high with some 'innovative' (another one of *those* words), so that all resilience becomes is another way of framing top-down development and as a proxy for 'modernization.'
Henrik Ernstson said…
There are certainly various takes on that old English word of resilience. And I a glad to hear about your work in relation to food systems. See my take with Stephan Barthel and John Parker on it last year in Urban Planning (https://www.academia.edu/4455205/Food_and_Green_Space_in_Cities_2013_Barthel_Parker_and_Ernstson). And see also the work by my UCT colleague Jane Battersby on food security using a critical geography lens (https://uct.academia.edu/JaneBattersby). She has also used the word of resilience (at least once), but then in its original literal meaning in English, rather than the whole analytical apparatus that comes with systems theory. In effect, her work stays grounded in the realities she is studying, without abstracting too far and too quickly using the whole connotation from systems theory. Within urban planning practice/theory, Cathy Wilkinson is probably the one who has pushed "resilience thinking" furthest (see here: http://plt.sagepub.com/content/11/2/148.abstract in Planning Theory).

Ultimately, however, resilience theory (or resilience thinking) face the same problem as did for instance Talcot Parsons's functionalist sociology or for that matter any meta theory in particular those not that makes heavy use of metaphors and abstract jargon—to disconnect from the world, while gesturing to explaining it and giving advice on how to live in that world: "we have to learn to live with disturbance"; "we have to acknowledge cross-scale feedbacks" which happily gets taken up in policy circles and by politicians since no power relations are challenged. This gap between words and world is (perhaps always) filled with ideology and established centres of power.
szavo said…
Also check out Julian Reid's critique of resilience in ‘The Disastrous and Politically Debased Subject of Resilience’,
Development Dialogue (58, 2012). Available as PDF here: http://www.dhf.uu.se/mint/pepper/orderedlist/downloads/download.php?file=http%3A//www.dhf.uu.se/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/dd58_art6.pdf
Sophie Laggan said…
Thanks for your comment Stephanie, it has really got me thinking. I want to look at Bristol's food system and would love to chat with you. Any way we can connect?

And thanks Henrik! I am so glad people are challenging resilience thinking. There is a healthy debate around the topic but I really think it serves as a useful policy tool and way of reframing how we view the world. If we acknowledge that 'transformation' (sorry!) is often necessary and consider the role of power in our assessments of truly social-ecological systems then I think we have a fairly robust theory. This field of research is very exciting, and considering that is relatively recent creation it is bound to have teething problems.