Resilience Thinking - What difference does it make?

Rhys & Ute Kelly
Thursday, 21st August 2014

Resilience is considered integral to permaculture and Transition. But what does it mean to you?

In many ways, the idea of building resilience - the capacity to survive and thrive in the face of change and/or adversity - is integral to permaculture and related movements for change (such as Transition Towns).

Permaculture principles point towards resilience, for example, in emphasising the need for ‘each important function to be supported by many elements’, and in encouraging us to ‘creatively use and respond to change’.

Permaculture practitioners are drawing on these ideas to inform their work with both ecological and social systems, at a range of different levels - from designing gardens that can cope with less predictable weather patterns to developing livelihoods with multiple income streams, from community projects that increase local capacities to turn problems into solutions to strategies for physical and emotional well-being.

In many ways, then, ‘resilience’ has served as inspiration for many engaged in attempts to foster creative alternatives to an inequitable and unsustainable status quo ‘from below’ - and if you’re reading this, this may well include you.

Alongside the inspiration that the concept of ‘resilience’ can offer, however, its expansion into more and more areas of life - from policy documents to corporate advertising, from the literature of peacebuilding and development NGOs to sports coaching, from management literature to local community initiatives - is generating critical discussions of its meaning and effects.

Critical analyses of the ‘resilience’ concept have raised concerns about it being used in ways that depoliticise, that do not pay sufficient attention to issues of power, inequality and disagreement, and that reinforce rather than question neoliberal economics and politics. There is concern that ‘resilience’ becomes a demand for stoicism and uncritical adaptation in the face of adversity, limiting or silencing discussion of the causes of the problems people face.

This is an invitation to engage in reflection on what ‘resilience’ has meant to you, and on what it means to you now: What has been helpful about ‘resilience thinking’? What has been problematic?  How has it informed your thinking and practice? What kinds of activities has it encouraged/ discouraged?

For us, these questions have been prompted by the framing of a workshop on ‘Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity’ that is due to happen in London this September. As some of our writing and teaching has been related to resilience, we wanted to take this as an opportunity to consider how people who have found the concept helpful or inspiring have engaged with the idea of ‘resilience’, what difference it has made to their thinking and practice, and whether/how this has included political action.

We are hoping that looking at how people have used the concept will help us identify the positive qualities of ‘resilience thinking’ that might be lost if the concept is discredited. At the same time, thinking about its limitations might sharpen our awareness of how the concept can be used to consolidate inequitable and unsustainable systems and practices, and thus to consider how we might respond to such uses of ‘resilience’.

We hope many of you will be interested in contributing to this discussion. The easiest way to do this is by participating in a survey that we have set up, and that is already generating some interesting contributions:  

Alternatively, we’re also happy to arrange face-to-face conversations with people who live close to us, or to talk via skype with those who don’t.

If you wish to discuss with us more directly, please email us at the following addresses:

[email protected] or [email protected]

We will share our reflections on what emerges with all participants, and really appreciate any contribution you can make.

Ute and Rhys Kelly are part-time lecturers in the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, and are engaged personally and professionally in finding honest and constructive ways of responding to the ecological and energy crises that societies are facing now and into the future.

Further resources

7 Ways to Think Differently

Watch: In Transition 2.0 - A story of resilience in extraordinary times

Is Transition a Trojan Horse for Permaculture? Rozie Apps asks some seaching questions...

Read a review of Rob Hopkins' latest book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff and get inspired

Active Hope: How we can face the mess we're in without going crazy


Exclusive content and FREE digital access to over 20 years of back issues


Trial your FREE digital copy HERE!