Last month’s UK Government announcement confirming the granting of hundreds of new oil and gas licenses in the UK was defended by the Prime Minister as “entirely consistent” with net-zero commitments and important for the UK’s resilience (despite much evidence to the contrary).
The PM also defended his use of a private jet to travel to Scotland as “the most efficient use of [his] time” arguing that “every prime minister before me has also used planes to travel around the United Kingdom”.*
Sunak rather defensively sought to further deflect the question, arguing (for the British people) that “if you, or others, think that the answer to climate change is getting people to ban everything that they’re doing, to stop people flying, to stop people going on holiday, I think that’s absolutely the wrong approach …. you are completely and utterly wrong, that is absolutely not the approach to tackling climate change”. (Did I miss a memo banning holidays?)
There has been substantial criticism and concern in response to all three aspects of the PM’s announcement. As discussed in various analyses (Andrew Griffiths, The Guardian, Andrew J. Kelly Rebecca Solnit Gary Kendall), questions remain as to whether these actions align with climate commitments or truly contribute to the UK’s long-term resilience, jobs and the Energy Trilemma.
Examining this situation raises a deeper question – what on earth do we mean when we use the term resilience? And how does our current understanding limit our willingness, individually and collectively, to engage in doing the right thing, urgently?
The word resilience is most famously understood as being either a noun or an adjective, describing or naming something or someone who has the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or the ability to adapt well when facing adversity. Its earliest roots carried the connotation of returning to an original state after being disturbed or disrupted. Over time, the meaning evolved out of technical (engineering) domains to emphasize positive adaptation in the face of adversity.
That adaptation in the face of adversity is not always the best way forward for so many begs the question: resilience of what? for who? What or whom are we trying to preserve?
Expanding oil and gas drilling may bring fleeting energy resilience benefits for the UK (a contested claim) but this narrow view ignores the global context in which further fossil fuel extraction is inconsistent with limiting catastrophic climate change.
We have missed something significant in understanding what resilience is all about.
The origin of the word resilience is the Latin resilio meaning to recoil, retreat or rebound. It was first adopted into English as the verb resile meaning “to stop doing or supporting something, to change a decision you made previously” (Cambridge Dictionary) or “to abandon a position or course of action” (Oxford Languages). So, in its earliest roots, resilience carried more of a connotation of changing course. It would suggest that ‘positive adaptation’ was not just about overcoming a difficulty and continuing on the same course, but rather about being willing to abandon a path in light of new facts.
Understanding the action-oriented origins of resilience in the verb resile provides a richer understanding of resilience as a dynamic process. This must include not only bouncing back, but also abandoning, or retracting from a course of action if that reflects a positive adaptation. Certainly, when thinking about resilience on a societal level in response to the current anthropogenic disasters we are witnessing, to ‘resile’ from certain trajectories or behaviours (like drilling the declining North Sea oil and gas reserves) would be both positive and essential for our resilience, collectively. To think that the UK’s resilience can be improved at the cost of other nations or the planet is short sighted and worryingly ignorant of the actual nature of the threat the UK is facing.
Protecting the planet and its people from further impacts of unsustainable human behaviour doesn’t only depend on adaptation to a ‘new normal’. It has to also require our willingness to retract from behaviours that reduce the capacity for resilience in the longer term. Purposefully “resiling”, pulling back from unsustainable lifestyles and policies that are not aligned with ecological limits and social, economic and environmental justice would demonstrate resilience building. (Of course, this could be argued differently depending on what are we wanting to protect – as it is in this instance ‘to protect the UK’s energy and economy’. This might be precisely where we fail – but that is a subject for another post).
Most people – and politicians in particular – are unlikely to think positively about ‘abandoning’ a course of action. Perhaps defining resilience differently, at least going back to its verb – or doing word – might help us distinguish between the seeming oppositions presented by ‘positive adaptation’ and ‘positive abandonment’. We might understand this better by more actively pursuing transformation, systems evolution or metamorphosis.
Following the lead set by the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ sustainability (see David Farrell‘s post on the subject), we might also begin to think about the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ resilience.
In keeping with the distinction in the sustainability literature, ‘weak’ resilience might simply involve enduring disruption through short-term adaptations that keep overall system structures in place. Strong resilience, on the other hand, might demand finding the courage to purposefully resile away from destructive systems and make deep systemic changes to live within sustainable limits. Weak resilience relies on technical adjustments and managerial solutions. Strong resilience demands rethinking core values and patterns of living that contribute to vulnerability. (For more about this distinction, look out for the upcoming post in this series).
To fully understand resilience, we need to understand both adaptability and transformability. We also need wisdom to know when to adapt and when to transform. When change serves the greateer good, we must have the courage to resile, to transform and to take a different course.
Perhaps with this in mind we could define resilience then as
“the capacity to positively respond, recover and evolve in the face of disruption. At its deepest level, it requires having the wisdom to discern when challenges necessitate adaptation within a system versus when they demand transformation of that system entirely. Strong resilience is a blend of both – making adjustments to withstand immediate shocks, while also critically examining what deep changes may be needed to build long-term sustainability and justice. At its heart, strong resilience requires the courage to change course away from harmful trajectories, recognizing difficult yet necessary transitions. It is not about just bouncing back to recover what is good, it is also about withdrawing from what is (ultimately) destructive (even if not in the short term), and creating new ways of living guided by ecological stewardship and social justice”.
Above all, strong resilience requires leadership courageous enough to resile from the status quo and make difficult but necessary decisions. Strong leaders recognise that resilience comes from political will, not rhetoric, from withstanding political pressure to avoid taking action on unsustainable practices and from actively demonstrating bold and tangible commitments to transformation through legislation and behaviour change. When leaders fly private jets while preaching climate action, they undermine collective resilience. When they deflect by stirring public outrage and the spectre of ‘banned holidays’ they support very weak resilience – and very parochial leadership.