At Resilience 2017 (II)

At Resilience 2017 (II)

It’s over, and it’s been quite interesting. I gather from various conversations that the science element has been downplayed a bit this conference–there used to be considerably more ecology, apparently, whereas this year we’re hearing a lot more social theory. Even more, we’re hearing more about theories of theory–if we were to have a theory about something, what would that theory look like, that sort of thing. I have become used to session titles with “meta” in them. This seems abstract, but then I realized what was going on, or what I think is going on. What people are actually looking for is a set of appropriate tools for figuring out how social actors interact with local ecologies–fisheries, villages, whatever–in a way that will foster both social and ecological resilience. This is a tall order, given, as several speakers pointed out, the significant differences in the types of data that are being captured and assessed at each level. It still sounds like a semiotics conference sometimes.

It’s necessary work, though. I have been very impressed with the quality of many of the presentations, where the purpose was to map human and ecological interactions, particularly in areas of the world that are becoming significantly stressed. This includes large parts of Africa, coral reefs, areas ravaged by wildfires–you name it. If there’s an ecological crisis unfolding somewhere, there are enthusiastic and dedicated researchers trying to make sense of it all. I have learned a lot.

But–and, of course, there is a but–what is slightly concerning is what is absent. This is a big conference, after all–nearly 900 people from, I think, 70 countries. And they reflect a wide range of academic and government disciplines. (There is, incidentally, no shortage of graduate students.) And yet there is little economics, and virtually no finance, other than some occasional discussion at some local level. There have been two, I think, papers dealing with the notion of Circular Economy, which at least gets it out there in this context, but I have to say I missed them both (the problem of parallel sessions.) It took until the morning of the third day for me to finally hear a speaker mention the word “risk” in the sense of climate change risk. And it’s not that “risk” wasn’t mentioned–it crops up in a number of abstracts (including mine)–but it was usually in the context of assessing risk perceptions of stakeholders and actors in a variety of scenarios, rather than cataloging what needs to be done about broader societal risks to the kinds of systems people here are dealing with.

The lack of discussions of risk at any level seems odd on the face of it. The folks behind these conferences are the people who first posited the notion of “planetary boundaries” and the risks of blowing through them, which is what we currently seem to be dong on a global scale. More to the point, the very concept of resilience implies a systematic reaction to risk, or risks, and at least a cursory attempt to detail the risks that are characteristic of any system, complex or otherwise. Maybe this sort of thing has been discussed exhaustively before, and people have decided to give it a rest for the time being. Of course, dealing with five or six parallel sessions at a time means you miss a lot, so there may have been some interesting discussions that I missed.

Still, there seemed to be little acknowledgement, let alone discussion, of the fact that global and economic trends seem to be working against the very local focus of much of the work being presented here–and that these risks continue to grow. The fact that there is significant and meaningful work on sustaining the resilience of local agriculture in, say, Namibia, or fisheries in the Pacific, is encouraging. But unless there is some mechanism developed for curbing the climate impact of, say, the $5 trillion or so currently spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies, or in developing meaningful climate adaptation measures, how meaningful–one almost wants to say “resilient”– will this great local work be over the longer term? I worry about this.

Perhaps this conference is not the venue for these discussions. But if not here, where? Davos? Somehow I don’t think so. Some UN forum? Possibly, but while these have often been successful at the development level–the Sustainable Development Goals actually do seem to be bringing benefits on a global scale–the track record on climate was pretty poor prior to Paris, and there is still some uncertainty about the longer term impacts of that agreement. So while I enjoyed the conference for any number of reasons–meeting a diverse collection of dedicated people, for one thing–I’m hoping that the next one will have at least some token acknowledgement that there are significant risks deriving from institutional and political factors arrayed against much of this work, and that these need to be acknowledged and addressed.

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