At Resilience 2017

Acting locally, but perhaps not thinking enough globally…

I attended the Resilience Conference in Stockholm this past week. Just what is that, you may wonder. Well, it’s put on by the Stockholm Resilience Institute. Knowing that probably doesn’t help. 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. These are the folks that brought us the notion of planetary boundaries–the concept that humanity has prospered the past 10,000 years because of a set of favorable geological and ecological conditions, that need conditions need to be maintained, and the assessment that several conditions have already been crossed, perhaps irrevocably.

The conference, which is triennial, was back in Stockholm, and it was a mix, I have to say. This is the first Resilience conference I have attended, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. There were 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 was 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 was 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 was clearly to try to achieve agreement with parties and stakeholders whose value systems may be in conflict. Collaboration was a major theme. Necessary work, to be sure.

As far as I could tell, the number of finance people here could be counted on one hand, but I may be wrong. I may have been the only one. 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 didn’t appear to receive much attention.

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 were 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. 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. Much of this was pretty inspiring, and the dedication of these folks is to be applauded.

There was 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. 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 became used to session titles with “meta” in them. It still sounded 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 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 was slightly concerning is what was absent. This was a big conference, after all–nearly 900 people from, I think, 70 countries. And they reflected a wide range of academic and government disciplines. (There was, unsurprisingly, no shortage of graduate students.) And yet there was little economics, and virtually no finance, other than some occasional discussion at some local level. There were 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 global level seems odd on the face of it. The folks behind these conferences, as mentioned, 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–adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals actually does seem to be bringing benefits on a global scale. On the other hand, the international track record on climate was pretty poor prior to the Paris Agreement, 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 interesting and dedicated people, for one thing–I’m hoping that the next one will have at least token, if not substantive, 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.