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As far back as 2013, Time Magazine highlighted “resilience” as the environmental buzzword of the year. Many of the world’s leading institutions, from the World Bank to the United Nations, have taken up resilience as a cause célèbre and a fundamental mantra in their work.
One useful definition of resilience is “the ability of groups or communities to cope with external stresses and disturbances as a result of social, political and environmental change.” Definitions of this type are standard practice, and often go further to emphasize growing stronger as a result of responding to stress. (It’s also worth mentioning at this point that one of the best-known programs in this area, 100 Resilient Cities, recently announced the termination of its program).
Resilience as a concept is to be celebrated but also questioned. It can be a cliche and at worst its imposition can have far-reaching consequences. Indigenous people are of often presented as models of resilience because they supposedly have a proven track record of ‘resourcefulness and response capacity in the face of global climate change’ (Arctic Resilience Report 2016).
This means that indigenous communities are often held up as an example for the rest of the world to follow when facing environmental change. Traditional practices may offer solutions and insight when considering adapting to climate change for other communities that have long since lost contact with nature. This represents a change from previous decades and centuries where governments have dismissed and suppressed indigenous practices. Now they are looking to native people for solutions.
A growing discussion in indigenous discourse, which in many respects applies to all island communities, is the pressure that the “resilience” narrative puts on those people. Yes, some indigenous communities may be more able to adapt to change, but can they withstand the sheer size of the change predicted in the coming century? And should those worst impacted and least responsible for climate change be given the task of responding to it?
One medical definition should give us pause for thought: describing resilience as the ‘trait that enables an individual to recover from stress and to face the next stressor with optimism’.
Of course, resilience has widespread uses with various nuanced meaning, and in many cases is a useful concept. Despite a veil of positivity, it can also be damaging if it is the defining characteristic of islanders or the indigenous, who have long struggled against colonial impositions.
Now a vital buzzword to be used in funding applications, resilience is also a useful tool for analysis. But it can also be reductive and constrictive. Many islanders should be proud of their resilience and resourcefulness, but when we celebrate a concept that arises from the very exposure and vulnerability of climate change, we should also question who benefits the most.
Island Innovation is a social enterprise and digital media company at the intersection of sustainable development and communications, offering specialised services across various sectors. We bring together the private sector, government, utilities, NGOs and universities to advance innovation for sustainability and prosperity in islands worldwide.