The Thing About Resilience…

  • Kasia Paprocki Associate Professor in Environment
    Department of Geography and Environment
    London School of Economics and Political Science

If resilience suggests the ability to bounce back to some prior state, what are the implications of resilience when the prior state is one of entrenched inequality? Who has the power to determine the state to which a return is most desirable? How is that power exercised?

The thing about “resilience,” as an idea or a way of thinking about the vulnerability of people to climate change or other threats to communities and the built environment, is that it directs our attention away from power and inequality. It suggests that it is the responsibility of individuals themselves, perhaps some intrinsic quality within them, an effort they have made or achievement they have accomplished that has made them so. To focus on a person’s resilience to flooding, for example, is to avoid talking about the housing or land market that made their house less likely to flood than houses in a neighboring community, or the implications of their resilience to their less resilient neighbors. Why do we care about the resilience of an individual or a community instead of the conditions under which their resilience has come to matter in the first place? How can we shift the focus of resilience planning to refocus on equity and the power dynamics that shape the need for resilience in the first place?

Indeed, the conditions under which any individual or community come to be resilient to climate change (or not) are shaped by power dynamics from the local to the global scale. What I mean by this is that it is power – whether one has it or doesn’t and the way it shapes one’s relationship with the built environment – that plays the most significant role in shaping one’s vulnerability to any kind of shock. Inequality in these power relations makes some more vulnerable than others, and thus more or less “resilient.”

I have elsewhere written about what I call an “adaptation regime,” a configuration of power that governs the planning and practice of adapting to climate change. The adaptation regime shapes the vulnerability of individuals to climate change; some individuals are more vulnerable than others within their community, and in turn some communities are more vulnerable than others. Directing our attention to this adaptation regime helps us to see that vulnerability is shaped by broader political and economic structures, as opposed to being an intrinsic quality of individuals. Focusing on these structural dynamics in planning efforts might also lead us to different strategies for addressing this vulnerability.

Let me give an example here. In New York City after Hurricane Sandy, Liz Koslov has written Liz Koslov; The Case for Retreat. Public Culture 1 May 2016; 28 (2 (79)): 359–387. doi: about how some groups of homeowners on the coast of Staten Island recognized that the growing threat of catastrophic flooding was too great for them to stay where they were – they had to mobilize to retreat from the coast, which they could do through demands for voluntary home buyouts from the city and state government. Yet, not all coastal homeowners were successful in demanding these buyouts, and more starkly, only homeowners and not tenants were able to benefit from this government support for retreat. Kraan, C.M., Hino, M., Niemann, J. et al. Promoting equity in retreat through voluntary property buyout programs. J Environ Stud Sci 11, 481–492 (2021). While homeowners were in a position to advocate for compensation for lost or threatened property, buyout programs contained no provisions for renters who were displaced by flooding or redevelopment.

Thus, in Staten Island, Koslov finds that it was class and race more than any intrinsic quality of individuals that shaped their ability to respond to the threat of future shocks – or what we might call their “resilience,” even as their retreat was often framed as a kind of defeat or lack of resilience. How might attention to these structural inequalities lead to greater equity in resilience and adaptation planning?

Similarly, in Bangladesh, where I have conducted research for well over a decade on development and adaptation planning in rural communities, I have found that power dynamics within communities are not only one of the most important factors in shaping people’s vulnerability to environmental change, but they are also one of the most important factors in shaping planning efforts to respond to these changes. In coastal farming communities, elite land owners are often able to benefit from shifting land uses that make them more “resilient,” in the process damaging livelihood opportunities for the vast majority of rural residents. For example, some development agencies have promoted a transition from traditional rice agriculture to commercial shrimp aquaculture as a climate change adaptation strategy, a move that entails the dispossession of vast numbers of sharecroppers and landless day laborers whose work is no longer required for growing shrimp. Unequal power relations within these communities are the most important dynamic in shaping this uneven distribution of “resilience.” Again, attention to these structural dynamics instead of resilience may lead to deeper understandings of what shapes vulnerabilities. Perhaps this is what we should be talking about when we talk about resilience. This attention to power and inequality may also lead to different strategies for planning how to mitigate these vulnerabilities.

While these power dynamics of the adaptation regime within these communities shape the resilience of individuals within them in unequal ways, it is also the case that between these very different communities, the adaptation regime shapes resilience in uneven ways as well. While coastal communities all over the world are threatened by sea level rise along with the growing threats of cyclonic storms and associated flooding, some coastal communities are thought to be more resilient than others, while planning for adaptation to these threats is shaped by an unequal global political economy of development that renders some lives and livelihoods more disposable than others. The resilience of these coastal communities in New York and Bangladesh is a stark example. While the threats of rising seas to New York City have resulted in some voluntary buyout programs, they have also provoked planning for unprecedented new interventions in the built environment, such as a $119 billion proposal for a sea wall Anne Barnard, “The $119 Billion Sea Wall That Could Defend New York … or Not,” The New York Times, January 17, 2020, to protect southern Manhattan while still maintaining its waterfront. Bangladesh’s coastline, on the other hand, is said to be inevitably and existentially threatened by catastrophic inundation that would displace millions of residents. Tim McDonnell, “Climate change creates a new migration crisis for Bangladesh,” National Geographic, January 24, 2019, Even as some embankments across the coast are fortified, planners are in the process of developing strategies for removing these protective infrastructures entirely Kasia Paprocki, “All That Is Solid Melts into the Bay: Anticipatory Ruination and Climate Change Adaptation,” Antipode 51, no.1 (2019): 295-315, and allowing the coast to succumb to the sea. While New York City and coastal Bangladesh are incommensurable in a variety of ways, what this comparison highlights is how uneven structural power and political agency among the residents of these respective regions profoundly shapes the way planners can imagine their futures.

In considering these two cases side by side, we can see that the respective resilience of each community is fundamentally shaped by power. Understanding how this power is unequally distributed between as well as within communities should impel us to place this structural analysis of power at the center of our studies of and planning for resilience.

Can planners, designers, and policy makers working to promote resilience shift their attention directly to these power dynamics? What might this shift look like? It may demand examining existing assumptions about who is, should, or could be resilient. It may also mean making difficult but intentional decisions about promoting the resilience of those with less power over the resilience of those with more of it. It could also mean looking to incorporate different perspectives into conversations about how to build resilience. Increasingly, activists and community groups are highlighting how power   Patrisse Cullors and Nyeusi Nguvu, “From Africa to the US to Haiti, climate change is a race issue,” The Guardian, September 14, 2017, inequality shape vulnerability to climate change. What might resilience planning look like if reimagined from their perspectives? How would this shift transform the strategies pursued to promote the resilience of individuals and of communities? In the absence of widespread social mobilization toward pursuing this equality, even the most well-intentioned planning interventions are likely to fall short of producing resilience equitably. Myles Lennon, “No Silver Bullets,’ Jacobin, April 22, 2019, Practitioners and policy-makers invested in these goals should work to build coalitions with existing movements focused on the redistribution of power in order to achieve real social change.

Further Reading

Baker, S. H. 2019. Anti-Resilience: A Roadmap for Transformational Justice within the Energy System. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 54:1-48.

Paprocki, K. 2021. Threatening Dystopias: The Global Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ranganathan, M., and E. Bratman. 2021. From Urban Resilience to Abolitionist Climate Justice. Antipode 53 (1):115-137.

Sealey-Huggins, L. 2018. ‘The Climate Crisis is a Racist Crisis’: Structural Racism, Inequality and Climate Change. In The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence, eds. A. Johnson, R. Joseph-Salisbury and B. Kamunge, 99-113. London: Zed Books.

Watts, M. 2015. Now and then: the origins of political ecology and the rebirth of adaptation as a form of thought. In The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology, eds. T. Perreault, G. Bridge and J. McCarthy, 19-50. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Whyte, K. 2017. Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene. English Language Notes 55 (1-2):153-162.