Tuesday 14 May 2024

Resilience is an illusion


After much pondering of the question, I have come to the conclusion that resilience is an illusion. This is not to denigrate the work of resilience managers, as there is obviously much to be done to reduce the risk and impact of adverse events. However, the concept of resilience is, I think, suspect.

Many researchers who have adopted the concept when trying to interpret disaster risk reduction have followed the work of Crawford Stanley "Buzz" Holling, as expressed in his 1973 paper (Holling 1973). Some have even stated that the 2100-year-old concept of resilience was invented by Holling. Previously (Alexander 2013), I thought that Holling was wrong about resilience. On reflection, I now believe he was right and the concept itself was suspect.

Holling studied ecological systems at a time when there was much interest in small islands. These are attractive because they are closed systems for mass and open systems for energy. Thus they are 'nice and tidy' for study. No matter how big the shocks that they endure, ecological systems tend towards equilibrium. This is homeostasis, a key feature of resilience, according to Holling.

When, in the early 2000s, resilience began to be embraced by students of disaster, problems were soon encountered with homeostasis, colloquially known as 'bounce-back'. The late Bernard Manyena suggested we concentrate on 'bounce forward', the concept of recovery as a transition to a better reality than the pre-disaster one. However, this does not dispense with homeostasis.

Put bluntly, in disaster risk reduction, these days the goalposts are moving faster than the players.  To start with, the pattern of disaster impacts is highly irregular around the world. Secondly, and more importantly, vulnerability, risk, impact and their controlling factors are all trending. As we move towards the end of the Second Age of Enlightenment (cf. Whatmore 2023), we face a situation in which change is absolutely inherent or ingrained. Strong trends are complemented by instabilities that could tip regional and global systems into an entirely different phase. Hence, public discourse and concerns could conceivably change overnight (as they did in the USA after "Nine-Eleven" in 2001). Migration, conflict, climate extremes, proliferating technological failure and associated consequences all pose this kind of threat.

In conclusion, resilience is an idea, or an approach, that we can usefully promote under certain well-defined circumstances. However, in broad terms it is an illusion. It can only be attained by constant adaptation, which is a case of pursuing an ever receding goal. What can we do instead? I recommend going back to vulnerability and endeavouring to identify, understand and reduce it.


Alexander, D.E. 2013. Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 13(11): 2707-2716.

Holling, C.S 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Reviews of Ecological Systems 4(1): 1-23.

Manyena, B. 2016. After Sendai: is Africa bouncing back or bouncing forward from disasters? International Journal of Disaster Risk Science 7(1): 41-53.

Whatmore, R. 2023. The End of Enlightenment: Empire, Commerce, Crisis. Allen Lane, Harmondsworth, 496 pp.