Undesired Resilience: Common pitfalls in resilience thinking

By Patrick Keys

Let me start by saying that I think the concept of “resilience” is a very useful one, but that it has also sort of spun out of control.

Brief rant on “resilience” and its definition

As one of the many buzzwords that is getting a lot of air time (e.g. resilience to climate change, resilience to flooding, resilience to drought), resilience has started to conjure the same warm and fuzzy response as “sustainability”, “organic”, and “free beer”. All the while, I think  the meaning of resilience has become diluted. The definition that a water resource scientist may give is likely to be different from a rural health worker, which is likely to be different from a development economist.

Flooded stairs in Hue City, Vietnam (Copyright: Patrick Keys, 2012)

Resilience refers to the ability to remain in a stable state regardless of perturbations. Thus first and foremost, resilience must be used relative to something else, as in “resilience of X to Y”. For example, a farm (X) can be resilient to drought (Y).

However, what is often missing from discussions about resilience is that it is not always a good thing. For example, a farm (X) can be resilient to water management efforts (Y). This means that the farm is in a resilient and undesirable state. These twin concepts of resilience and desirability both need to be present when talking about whether or not a given project/development/whatever is on track to being a good thing or a bad thing.

To sum up: when someone talks about Resilience, remember to consider:

a) Resilience …of what (X)… to what (Y)

b) Is this resilience desirable?

Here is a figure from a recent book chapter entitled “Watershed management through a resilience lens”, by Barron and Keys (2011). Note that the “stability” axis can be considered a proxy for resilience.


The arrows in the figure indicate where a system moved after a “watershed managment” intervention was taken. The take home is that a system can occupy both a stable (resilient) or unstable (unresilient) state, while also being either undesirable or desirable. Are we on the same page? Great.

Talking about resilience and poor people – the big pitfall

If you thought I was going to mention the awesome 80’s Atari game, not that Pitfall! But, similar to the digital traps in the game, there are mental traps regarding resilience that are easy to fall into – particularly when thinking of communities in the developing world. Here are some important pitfalls:

The two phrases that make my skin crawl are:

“Poor people are the least resilient to climate change”

“Poor people are the most resilient to climate change”

Fisherman in Hue City, Vietnam (Copyright: Patrick Keys, 2012)

The problem here is that both are right and both are wrong. For example, imagine two families living along a river. The ‘poor’ family lives below the river bank, right along the river. The ‘rich’ family lives on the river bank, above the river. When the river floods, the poor family can move quickly and adapt to the changing conditions as the flood levels rise (because they don’t have anything!). The rich family is stuck in their concrete house as it gets flooded. When the flood recedes, the poor family goes back to the river, and the rich family mops up their house.

Both families return to their way of life pre-flood. Is the poor family more resilient than the rich family? Is the rich family more resilient than the poor family? [Discuss]

I’m not going to answer that question. My point is that the pitfall is thinking of this in purely “resilience” terms. The question isn’t weather the poor people are resilient or not, its whether they want to be or not. The desirability of the state is every bit as important as the resilience.

Moving forward – “Desirable Resilience”

I don’t really like that phrase, but right now its what I can think to write. The idea that resilience researchers (and everyone else that is working in this field – if only not in name) need to get into their heads is that without attaching the desires of the system they are looking at – which often happens to be poor people – then resilience is neither a good thing or a bad thing, its just a thing.

Does anyone have thoughts on a better way to phrase the idea of desirable resilience? Am I totally reinventing the wheel here?