26 Mar 2010
An Interview with Neil Adger: resilience, adaptability, localisation and Transition
Professor Neil Adger is a lecturer and researcher at University of East Anglia. He is a researcher and teacher who specialises in social vulnerability, resilience and adaptation to environmental change; on justice and equity in decision-making; and the application of economics to global environmental change. He is a member of the Resilience Alliance, and is involved in a range of climate change research projects, including the IPCC and work for the Tyndall Centre. He has written many papers on the subject of resilience, and so, for the research I am doing, I was thrilled to be able to interview Neil about resilience, Transition, peak oil, and localisation.
How do you define resilience?
Intuitively resilience is about being able to be flexible and also about the ability to be able to adapt. So the working definition within the Resilience Alliance that we’ve been working towards, which has three elements, is quite succinct. It’s about the ability to absorb perturbations and still retain a similar function; about the ability of self-organisation; and also the capacity to learn, to change and to adapt.
Although that sounds quite generic because it comes from a systems perspective I think that captures most of what we’re trying to articulate in terms of resilience. I should say that I think the key element is about the ability to change rather than the ability to continue doing the same thing.
What for you is the overlap between resilience and sustainability – is one part of the other? What’s their relationship?
That’s a very good question. Let me try and break this down in two ways. Sustainability, and sustainable development, in particular, are normative concepts: they are goals, something we would strive towards, and that’s the usual sense. It’s contested what the exact elements of that might be, but there’s general agreement that we want our developments, societies and environments to be sustained.
Resilience is used in two ways, one of which is very similar to what we would call sustainable development, i.e. resilience as a normative goal. Clearly resilience in that sense would be part of sustainability. So part of sustainability would be the ability to change, the ability to deal flexibly with the future, and in the context of changing social values, a changing demographic and other types of social, environmental and political change.
Whereas, I think resilience in a positivistic sense is actually just a characteristic of a system – a system can be resilient or not resilient. And that positivistic scientific view doesn’t necessarily speak to sustainability as a societal or normative goal. You can have systems, and even ecosystems that are quite persistent and resilient, but they don’t necessarily produce l lots of ecosystem services which societies demand. So I think there’s a distinction here between resilience as a system property, and resilience as a goal for society.
I was reading a piece of yours yesterday where you wrote “some elements of society are inherently vulnerable, and others are inherently resilient.” What is it that determines the degree to which things are vulnerable or resilient?
First of all both vulnerability and resilience need a referent, so we need to be vulnerable to something, or resilient to something. I think the things that parts of society are vulnerable to are environmental change at the large scale, and the changes in the way the world and society works, which you can capture in the idea of globalisation. Some parts of society are, in effect, vulnerable to the large scale structural changes that are happening around the world – the changes in the flows of capital and labour and the restrictions on those, and the impact that that has on their life and livelihoods.
So if you think about the farming sector, it’s vulnerable to large scale price shocks, and we as consumers are vulnerable to large scale price shocks around the world. Some parts of society are vulnerable to environmental change and in combination are vulnerable to the sorts of things that are going on in terms of economic globalisation around the world. Others are more resilient. But being resilient to the forces of globalisation doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts of society are immune to them or even aren’t integrated into them.
I don’t think you can simply isolate yourself from the globalised world and say, “well, that’ll make us more resilient”. It’ll make us more resilient in some senses, but the world is as it is and I think we just need to deal with the fact that it’s more globally integrated and look on the positive side of that and reap the benefits of it.
Would you not have any truck with the idea that a resilient society is one where local economies are stronger?
I don’t disagree with that. What I’m saying is that local economies, for all sorts of reasons, are actually stronger and likely to be more resilient, because if we go back to the definition, they have more autonomy and room for self organisation and adaptability and change. Hence, I think it’s impossible to isolate a community or society from a globalised world.
Simply looking to give more autonomy to a community is a positive thing, but trying to isolate it from the rest of the world and not realise that we’re globalised and all the rest of it isn’t a sensible thing to do. As I say, there are a lot of benefits to globalisation (not necessarily economic globalisation) such as the flow of information around the world, global solidarity with places in other parts of the world. There are all sorts of up sides to globalisation. I’m sure you’re familiar with all those arguments and you know this on the ground.
Indeed. I’m just reading the Adapting to Climate Change book that you published recently. How much does your take on resilience differ if peak oil and economic contraction are added in as things that we need to build resilience to? How does that differ in how we understand what resilience is or does it not make much difference? Most of the stuff I’ve read about resilience, particularly with your work, tends to be built around responding to climate change….
So does what resilience look like in practice change if actually we add peak oil and economic contraction in as the things that we’re building resilience to? And do you know of anyone who’s doing any work on that?
It’s a disciplinary perspective, and something that I’ve been interested in: how do people and systems (i.e. interacting human and environmental systems) respond to environmental change. I’ve been particularly interested in how people cope with a change in climate and what that does to their resources, but also what it does to their sense of identity, place, things that people care about.
So there’s a huge amount of traction that ideas of resilience can give to how we’re going to cope with change in the long run and how people cope with change in the contemporary and historic sense. That’s why resilience ideas are so popular in those areas. But I think that if resilience has some purpose and traction and explanatory powers of theory, then it needs to be able to explain and also give normative goals for all areas, including how we deal with what others call socio-technical transitions and change in the way that we actually use resources.
Although I haven’t worked directly with this myself, basically I would suggest that if a community or a place or a sector of the economy has the capacity to respond to a changing climate, then it should also have common assets and common sets of resources that will allow it to adapt to, or even implement, the transition towards a reduction of dependency on fossil fuels. Although the ideas of resilience have been applied to the areas I’m familiar with, to responding to environmental changes and exogenous shock, it clearly needs to be able to explain those phenomena. I think this is an exciting area, to work on deliberate transitions away from a dependence on fossil fuels towards a more sustainable economy.
Some of Gill Seyfang’s work touches on some of those things as well.
Yes, you’re obviously going to talk to Gill and many colleagues – Adrian Smith at Sussex – and others working on these ideas of what characteristics within a technical system that allows change and facilitates change. It’s the key idea of resilience, just in terms of the diffusion of technologies or the uptake of them and that sort of thing. I think those are all really, really important.
What does local government, if it’s optimally designed to facilitate resilience, look like? Part of the stuff I’m doing is looking at Totnes as a case study and at the moment we have this three tiers – town council, county council, district council – and trying to get a sense of what a shift in local government would look like if it actually were designed to really support transition and resilience? I suppose, from the resilience perspective, there’s the short term, emergency planning type stuff, and then there’s the longer term resilience building. But I wonder what your thoughts are on the qualities local government would have or how it would operate if that was its intention?
It’s interesting that resilience is part of the remit of local government, at least in the UK. But a lot of that comes from the Civil Contingencies Act and there are regional Resilience Forums and the like. There is also Scottish Resilience, part of the Scottish Executive, which on the face of it sound absolutely fantastic, but actually they have a very specific and rather narrow remit to deal with emergency management and emergency planning.
Perhaps resilience is a more publicly acceptable word that assumes proactive government and is slightly less scary than ‘emergency management’ or ‘dealing with crisis’. But that’s a start. It’s good that there’s a lexicon and ideas of resilience are within local government, even if they’re narrowly defined at the minute. In terms of overall principles in how local government can facilitate resilience, I don’t have anything very specific, but a couple of things I would say: I think local government needs to be able to identify, in terms of responsibility, who, where and what the vulnerabilities are in the system because that’s what collective action and what governments are for. One of their primary roles of government is to protect its vulnerable citizens. And so, to make sure that processes don’t leave parts of communities or places behind, and actually make them more vulnerable to change I think is a first step.
The second thing is that I don’t there’s any such thing as an optimal government to promote resilience, but clearly they need to be able to promote flexibility. Of the key parameters of that are two things: one is to let civil society flourish and to provide the resources that allow civil society groups to flourish within a local region. A second principle is to have the democratic accountability and open forums and new ways of gathering information that allows government itself to take on board new ideas.
It seems that there’s never any shortage of ideas of what can promote resilience but, without sounding too vague about this, it’s actually about democratic structures but also the synergistic relationship between civil society and government at all levels but local government level as well. Governments need to promote social capital and promotes social learning between civil society and government. That all sounds very at the principle level but I don’t think I’ll go beyond that at this point.
Well it certainly goes beyond the Civil Contingencies Act which actually is about suspending the rule of law – it’s quite a scary piece of legislation when you read it.
Yes. But nevertheless I do see a glimmer there – the idea of flexibility and resilience are at least within the remit of what the responsibility of governments and even local governments might be. There may be ways for those ideas around short term emergencies to say actually, ‘we need to address some longer more structural crises’. In those circumstances the language and the ideas of resilience are actually something that could be taken forward.
Is there not a danger with resilience that it could actually, in the wrong hands, be used as a concept for unpleasant things that fly in the opposite direction of a social justice agenda? Could one also distinguish a healthy resilience or an unhealthy take on resilience? I’m thinking of the DEMOS report, Resilient Nation, which actually….if we say it’s about being resilient to terrorism and pandemics then the approaches that we put in place are very different from when we’re talking about resilience to climate change and peak oil.
Yes. Now clearly, all these terms, even sustainability can be used in broad senses for example, to sustain your transnational corporation is a sustainability goal for those organisations. I don’t think any intellectual community can define resilience and capture it and say, “this is what resilience is”. I’m a little bit more sanguine about this. I think even the national security strategy from the Cabinet Office and other documents – the IPPR’s National Security in the Twenty First Century adopts a lot of the language of resilience and this is a positive development.
But I think that’s actually a platform for debate of what resilience actually means. In a lot of that language and in a lot of those debates and the issues that are being applied to, is an engineering view of resilience. It’s more actually about robustness – let’s make critical national infrastructure like our power stations be able to stay the same. But I don’t think that takes on board the work over the last twenty years that refines resilience, and looks at the distinction between resilience and robustness, i.e. the ability to (change vs. the ability to stay the same). I think that actually opens up space for direct intellectual debate about
a) what we mean by resilience and
b) what it is that we have at the minute that we want to stay the same and what it is that we have at the minute that we want to change.
I wouldn’t agree with you Rob about healthy and unhealthy resilience. I think having resilience in the public domain in terms of the goals of public policy is just a good thing in general, even if much of the community doesn’t agree with the terminology being used.
How might we measure resilience at a community level?
Resilience – it’s difficult to measure directly because it is an emergent property of a system, if we’re into the positivist view of what resilience is. We know from the ecological literature that there are various determinants that make an eco system resilient in terms of its abilities to retain its stability domain and either its singular or multiple equilibrium state, and you can measure that by looking at the populations and the interactions between the interactions within an ecological system and characteristics that tend to make ecological systems include things like diversity – diversity of species, diversity or eco system function within an eco system and that sort of thing.
So it’s a challenge then to say, “do those same characteristics that you can measure in an ecological system translate into a social system?” I would say you could take those analogies so far because societies tend to have other characteristics than eco systems, and clearly for communities I think some of those things still hold. The structural equivalent of eco system function are things like diversity of skills, diversity of values within communities and those sort of things and those can be measured. You can see parallels between eco system resilience and social system resilience.
I think it also measures the autonomy of an economy or a community, in other words its ability to have some say or have some voice over it – all those things are parallel to how we’d measure eco system resilience as well as social resilience. Let me say two things: first of all you need to be able to look at both together. Clearly we’re all dependant on the ecosystems in which we sit and our global interdependencies with those, so the key research challenge for which I don’t think we’ve got an answer at the moment is how do you measure the resilience of a socio-ecological system, the combination of the two. Secondly of course is that resilience is a relative concept. It’s not something you can observe directly but you can show that something can become more resilient over time or more or less resilient compared to other referent cases. So it’s a complex area: it isn’t something that there’ll be a set of Newtonian laws for.
One of the things in the paper I was reading was when you said, “social psychologists have long made a link between perceived vulnerability and marginalization and that actual ability to take positive adaptive action”. What do you see as being the link between well being, happiness and resilience? Can we argue that people who are more resilient are inherently happier?
Let me start with the first bit and the quote. The reason why social psychology is of interest to our research group is because we have been directly interested in perceptions of vulnerability and perceptions of marginalization. There has been some very good work in social psychology by Terre Satterfield at University of British Columbia with Paul Slovic and others (and also by Tony Patt at IIASA in Austria). Their work basically showed that if people perceive themselves not to have the capacity to adapt, then that perception actually acts a barrier to their action.
So perceptions of low marginalization and self-efficacy as it’s known, actually in itself becomes a symptom of vulnerability and means that people perceive themselves as unable to act. We’ve been testing this through looking at populations vulnerable to heat waves in the UK and the direct impact on extremes in the population, primarily the elderly, and we were able to document such effects. Perceptions of low self efficacy are a barrier to actions in itself, even if these actions to make people less vulnerable are relatively straight forward and not costly.
Interestingly, we also found that issues of identity are incredibly important within those apparently vulnerable populations (i.e. people with poor health status and therefore likely to suffer impacts in the context of heat waves or have increased levels of particular types of illness or even mortality). For those populations we also found a small sub group whose identity was all about their independence. These were elderly people who basically told us, “I’m not vulnerable to the impacts of heat waves because I’m not elderly!” They have very high self-efficacy and actually their whole identity was about being independent and therefore denying the risk of, “Oh, this doesn’t relate to me, because this is actually about my independence”. So the lessons from that research do speak across to those ideas of well-being and resilience because resilience is clearly something that a community has, and a resilient community is likely to have high levels of social capital, high levels of interaction and collective action and community and people looking out for each other.
Therefore in those circumstances, vulnerable populations are less likely to feel marginalized, or they’re going to have more social interaction and actually more of a sense of community and therefore going to be able to cope better with shocks that come along. Clearly I’ve talked about extreme weather and those sorts of short term things, but I think you can see from the sociology and social psychology experience and findings that a resilient community is actually likely to have higher levels of self-efficacy and lower levels of people who feel excluded and marginalized. I think that’s good in a collective sense. So I can see how evidence about personal well-being can be translated into high community resilience.
Here is an interview with him done by someone else too!