At Resilience 2017 (I)

At Resilience 2017 (I)

This is the first Resilience conference I have attended, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Resilience is one of those terms that, like Sustainability, has tended to assume multiple meanings, depending on who is using the term. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably, which is an error. Resilience is a systems characteristic, one that can often be quantified–the ability of a complex system to adapt to change, sometimes catastrophic change. Sustainability is, well, not resilience, although it’s a set of practices that presumably can contribute to resilience if they’re sufficiently well defined. Much of the work done on resilience over the past two decades has focused on both local ecosystem and larger, planetary systems, and it has been invaluable work. This is where the notion of planetary boundaries comes from–and the likely assessment that several have already been crossed.

The conference, which is triennial, is back in Stockholm, and it’s a mix, I have to say. There are sessions with titles that might make you thing you’re at a conference of semioticians. This is potentially problematic, but it probably reflects my own lack of knowledge about the level of discourse in social sciences these days. There is a lot of talk about values and empathy, which seems a bit distracting until you recognize that the water problem in Flint, Michigan, for example, seems to derive from people who have none. There is an over-riding sense of how to work to assess people’s values of the natural world, and how to give these a voice in the modern corporatist narrative. And part of this process is clearly to try to achieve agreement with parties and stakeholders whose value systems may be in conflict. Necessary work, to be sure.

As far as I can tell, the number of finance people here can be counted on one hand, but I may be wrong. This is somewhat discouraging, since there is some interesting quantitative work going on in the insurance industry, for example, where the notion of resilience ratings is being mooted, and where the resilience concept actually lends itself to a degree of quantification. My own presentation, on the financial risks to achieving not only an energy transition, but also any sort of broader transition, seemed to be well received, but I also had the sense that I was at the wrong conference. Global economic issues such as Subsidies don’t appear to receive much attention, at least this time around.

On the other hand, there is some serious work being done at a variety of levels, particularly at the community level. For one thing, these people tend to take localism seriously. This is a good thing–problems being faced these days invariably need to involve a local solution. So there have been any number of talks from people who are working in local communities around the world on how to value and preserve localism, even if it’s a subsistence form of localism, and this necessarily involves developing and preserving local ecosystem resilience. Much of this is pretty inspiring, and the dedication of these folks is to be applauded. There is a bit less focus on what the opening speakers referred to as “resilience science,” but much of that is already out in the public domain. The current focus seems to be more in the context of encouraging and managing local transitions to communities and ecosystems that are more, well, resilient.

What doesn’t appear to be here, in any depth anyway, is any broader discussion of the economics involved, or how these transitions are to be costed and paid for in a regional or global context. How can resilience be achieved in the face of increased climate adaptation costs, for example, or in the face of continued global annual fossil fuel subsidies of $5 trillion plus? I think these are necessary conversations to be having. There’s another day to go, though–maybe I’ll be surprised.

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