Posted: November 10, 2022

This article addresses the concept of scale: do we think about resilience as individuals, in communities, or at the city scale? And what happens to our thinking on resilience if we conceive of humans as integrated within the environments and ecologies we inhabit? Thinking about humans as a part of the natural world rather than outside of it (or trying to control it) lends a very different perspective to how we think about and build resilient communities.

by Justine Lindemann

The Food for Thought article in the last Urban Resilience Report described the demands that climate change, economic instability, and other crises often place on individuals across time and space to become more resilient. The focus in that article was on questions of social or spatial justice as they relate to resilience. The discussion of social and economic relations presented the possibility of non- or anti-capitalist socio-economic relationships to be more socially and spatially just than those inherent in capitalist-oriented social systems. Individual agency over how one relates in this world (socially, economically, spatially ) is an important focus of study and concern for practitioners and scholars across issues and disciplines. I do not pretend to have definitive answers to the question about the extent to which individuals have agency in the context of powerful structural forces." However, I am interested in and will discuss in this short article questions of agency and resilience in the context of inevitable change, in the face of changes we cannot control and even those we cannot imagine but we know will occur.

Sharon Van Zandt writes, "Resilience becomes important in an era of climate change because it reflects an understanding that we're no longer in a position to stop change from occurring, or to completely avoid impacts” (p27). Emphasizing the certainty of climate change, Van Zandt continues that to survive current and future impacts, “we must learn to bounce back from them” (p39), but also to adapt. “It suggests a need to change ourselves; change the way we live, the way we use the land, or what we put on it” (p39); become stronger in the midst of disruption

This understanding of and approach to resilience, when applied at the scale of the individual, reflects a discourse of personal and individual responsibility for dealing with and adapting to problems not of one’s own making. Critiques of the concept of resilience tend to highlight the tendency of narratives around resilience (who is resilient to what) to ultimately land on an expectation of individual resilience, which in effect excuses the state of its responsibility for the wellbeing of citizens.

The scalar mismatch between individual resilience and systemic disturbances (that is, demanding individual solutions to systemic problems) demands either a different approach to resilience or a different understanding of the individual’s role as a resilient subject. If we jump scales to think about neighborhoods, communities, or entire cities, Van Zandt’s framing of resilience is more easily refracted through a collective and collaborative lens, where it can become an expansive and potentially liberatory project. Van Zandt’s writing suggests we might “change ourselves” and our behavior on and across the land. This can be interpreted in many ways, through many epistemic framings. One way to think about resilience is through a "more-than-human" or multispecies understanding of agency and action. This allows for a collective reimagining of how all beings live in, experience, and move through the spaces around us. That is, it decenters humans as the protagonist of the story to consider how all creatures relate to and with the larger socio-natural environment.

Returning to Van Zandt’s perspective on resilience, and her position that we must adapt and change ourselves or change the way we live. As individuals, this is a daunting task that may not actually make a huge difference for that individual. However, taking on both a scalar shift in perspective (acting not just as individuals, but at a community scale) and an epistemic or ontological shift in perspective (humans as an integrated part of, rather than separate from, the natural world and environment) allows for resilience to be built from connections and collaborations between and across humans and the nonhuman natural world.

The concept of an integrated totality of nature (humans not as separate from nature but an integral part of it) is embedded in knowledge systems across the world, including Indigenous ways of knowing help by many Native American and First Nations people. Enacting multispecies resilience is fundamental to the culture and ways of being for many of these groups. That said, understanding humans as integrated with the environment and ecologies where we live is not unique to Indigenous ways of experiencing and being in the world.

A farmer who I got to know well while I was living and doing research in Cleveland, Ohio described his understanding of connection as a sameness between and among all forms of nature: plants, animals, and people, who all “share the same air every day.” Another farmer also situated humans as integrated in the landscape, commenting that “we are soil ourselves,” with the same need for nurturing and care. If humans work the soil, if we are soil, if we come from and return to the soil, if there is truly a sameness between people, plants, animals and all forms of nature, then the relationships we build in this expansive natural world including relationships of care and nurturing are essential to the adaptations and resilience we build to inevitable change. In this multispecies scenario, we are not facing these changes as individuals who must brace and adapt on their own. Individual resilience depends upon collaborations with and across the more-than-human communities we inhabit. We must find ways to strengthen ties within and between communities and build resilient more-than-human relationships with the plants, animals, soil, and other beings in the environment in which we live.

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