The concept of resilience is often positioned as a solution to social challenges, notably the unfolding climate crisis. However, as Benedikt Fecher, Ali Aslan Gümüsay, Stephan Bohn and Anna Jobin discuss, resilience on its own is insufficient without accountability. Linking resilience to the vastly increased powers of digital technology, for better or worse, to track, monitor and visualize human behaviour they suggest resilience can only be effective when linked to deliberate action.
The prominence of the term resilience reflects the zeitgeist of a time that is uncertain and crisis-ridden. Only if we are resilient, can we withstand a crisis, endure and recover from it. However, a weakness of this perspective on resilience is that any disruption can appear like a force of nature to which we are exposed and to which we can only react and adapt. How then can we understand resilience in the context of the climate crisis and digitization? Can we have a proactive approach to resilience, whilst taking into account the enabling and disabling forces at play in digital society?
Passive and Active Resilience
The commonly used notion of resilience for social systems has two drawbacks that render the concept useless in this way as a paradigm for change:
First, resilience understood as a reaction to an external shock tends to disregard the underlying causes of societal challenges. For instance, it implies that the climate crisis is simply something to which we must respond, and for which we bear no responsibility. Of course, there are crises that come unexpectedly and for which we aren’t responsible – climate change is not one. This limited sense of resilience may stem from the origins of the term in physics, where it denotes the ability of a material to spring back to its original form after being subjected to an impulse. However, in social systems, coupling resilience with accountability is crucial, as it links action with responsibility and highlights how human agency is bound to accountability for past and future actions. In other words: We share responsibility for the impulses to which we respond.
If resilience is to act as a paradigm for change, it ought not be conceived of as a reaction, but as a deliberate action.
Second, in its limited sense, resilience can imply a move back towards a previous, possibly non-consensual, good status and order, rather than both a move towards an original state and a move forward. This paradoxical nature of resilience, to offer stability and change, is central to improvement. Simply going back to a baseline, or merely ‘adapting’ is not always a viable strategy of dealing with crises. This is particularly true for the climate crisis, where incremental adaptation is not enough. Such a motivation for change would imply that we simply build higher dams because the sea levels are rising, when in fact we need to slow down global warming that causes rising sea levels. The latter requires a fundamentally different politics, economy and society. A state of affairs the IPCC working group II explicitly notes, when it states resilience must also include the capacity for transformation. Put differently, resilience necessitates accommodating change and informed departure from the initial state.
If resilience is to act as a paradigm for change, it ought not be conceived of as a reaction, but as a deliberate action. Like Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus, beautifully depicted by Paul Klee, resilience looks backward – but moves forward.
The qualifying momentum of digitalization
Digitalization has a qualifying and disqualifying momentum in this context. It can be seen as a technology for establishing accountability and effectively coordinating action between multiple local centres of action, and also a technology that can blur accountability and complicate deliberate action. It affects both, how we monitor and attribute accountability and how we make sense of and coordinate crises.
Accountability is widely recognized as a prerequisite for responsible action, i.e., assigning and accepting responsibility for actions. The Internet has greatly improved people’s ability to hold decision makers in politics and industry accountable and to assign responsibility for actions and non-actions. This emancipatory role of the Internet is evident in movements such as Occupy or Fridays for Future, where digital platforms allow traditional gatekeepers to be bypassed in order not only to inform, but also to create a sense of immediacy and urgency. In addition, digital infrastructures enable accountability based on evidence as knowledge about the climate crisis can be more easily produced and disseminated. For this reason, climate scholars and activists alike demand that measurement data and market information relevant to climate change should be transparently collected, aggregated and made publicly available via digital databases and interfaces, such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative or LSE’s Transition Pathway Initiative.
However, it would be misguided to view the Internet only through a positive lens and not to also consider its drawbacks. Circumventing and questioning gatekeepers is also a tactic used by climate skeptics, extremists and conspiracy theorists. Even when the data is open, potential insights may be reserved for a few experts or resource-rich organizations because of the high computing capacity and specialized knowledge required to analyse it. Further, the Internet itself is a driver for global warming. Digital resilience in this context requires that the solutions to a problem should not create or exacerbate new or existing problems and make accountability the object of public deliberation.
deliberate action requires that scientists actively participate in addressing global societal challenges and co-create desirable futures.
Digital tools like apps or platforms make it possible to connect and make sense – and non-sense – of a situation in real-time and virtually worldwide, while at the same time making all kinds of information sharing, coordination, behaviours, and activities visible to the world. Digitalization thus has the potential for digital co-ordination of climate resilience that is based on an informed global collective action. At the same time, this potential can be misused – to coordinate counter-activities. To achieve resilience through digitalization requires designing and promoting platforms and tools that facilitate collaboration, inclusivity, and regenerative practices. In addition, being resilient entails the ability to anticipate forms of commodification and appropriation.
The climate crisis requires urgent, active and transformative action. The digital potential is central to enable necessary global coordination and communication as well as accountability and responsibility. For this, we need to broaden the notion of resilience to entail both recovery and renewal, a bouncing back but also a moving forward. Resilience can serve as a significant framework for transformation only when it involves conscious change and accountability. To effectively orchestrate intentional change amidst various crises, of which the climate crisis is only one, it is crucial to anticipate and utilize the momentum of digital tools in a humane manner.
Science has a crucial role to play in such processes of change, as it provides knowledge that makes human agency possible. This is especially true for social scientists, who zoom in on efficient information flows and power relations as objects of research. They can provide valuable insights into how exactly the social organization of climate change mitigation could work. Overarching deliberate action requires that scientists actively participate in addressing global societal challenges and co-create desirable futures. This is because there is often both a lack of knowledge about crises as well as of actions that take this knowledge seriously. This includes the responsibility of scholars and academics to reflect on and decide which values they endorse, and to openly act upon them. This kind of self-reflection and intentional action can also be seen as a form of resilience, as it requires individuals to engage with difficult questions and challenges and to take deliberate steps towards promoting positive change.
The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Image Credit: Tina Rolf via Unsplash.
Resilience is how well someone or something tolerates adversity. Anytime someone uses the word “conspiracy theorists” as if it’s a specific type of person to be opposed, it’s a sign that they are operating in an outdated and non-inclusive paradigm. It’s also censorship of a counterproductive nature. We invite people to challenge our beliefs and offer other explanations, as this is a practive we already prioritize within ourselves. We’re open to being wrong, perhaps about everything , lest we become attached to a particular narrative and corrupted with bias. Someone else’s reality is not more or less legitimate than our own. Those with the least robust narrative are easy to spot. They are intolerant of other ones.