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Resilience Thinking

Rob Hopkins

Resilience: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks.

The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, published by the UK government in 2010, was a bold and powerful statement of intent for a low-carbon economy in the UK (HMG 2009). It stated that by 2020 there would be a five-fold increase in wind generation, feed-in tariffs for domestic energy generation, and an unprecedented scheme to retrofit every house in the country for energy efficiency. I hesitate to criticize creative steps in the right direction taken by government. There is, however, a key flaw in the document, which also appears in much of the wider societal thinking about climate change and the social response it requires. It is the attempt to address the problem without also addressing the key issue of resilience.

“Resilience,” I would argue, is a vitally important additional dimension to the concept of sustainability, or to its oxymoronic offspring, “sustainable development.” Without resilience, the terms do not adequately address the nature of the challenge we face. Let’s take a supermarket as an example. It is possible to increase its sustainability and to reduce its carbon emissions by using less packaging, putting photovoltaics on the roof and installing more energy-efficient fridges. It could stock mostly organic produce and have biodegradable packaging on all its products.

However, resilience thinking would argue that the closure of local food shops and networks that result from the opening of the supermarket – as well as the fact that the store itself only contains two days’ worth of food at any moment, the majority of which has been transported great distances – has massively reduced the resilience of community food security while increasing its vulnerability to oil disruptions. Similarly, from a sustainability perspective, installing wind power is highly desirable, but at the moment, most of that infrastructure is installed by large wind energy companies, and the communities that live nearby reap little benefit from them. Were those communities to own that infrastructure and benefit directly from it, even in part, it would greatly increase the resilience of those economies.

The concept of resilience emerged from within the ecological sciences, through the work of pioneers such as C.S. Holling (1973) and more recently, academics such as Neil Adger (2009), Brian Walker and David Salt (2006). It is a way of looking at why some systems collapse when they encounter shock, and some don’t. The insights gleaned now offer a very useful overview for determining how systems can adapt and thrive in changing circumstances.

Resilience at the community level depends upon:

  • Diversity: a broader base of livelihoods, land use, enterprise and energy systems than at present;
  • Modularity: an increased self-reliance (but not necessarily self-sufficiency), with “surge protectors” for the local economy, such as local food production and decentralized energy systems; and
  • Tighter feedback loops: bringing the results of our actions closer to home, so that we cannot ignore them.

Local food economies model this beautifully. The industrial food system has hugely reduced the number of people working in farming, increased its oil dependency, and reduced diversity, in terms of biodiversity, the diversity of work opportunities, and the diversity of land uses. Also, because our food is grown at greater and greater distances from our communities, we have less and less concern or control over the impacts of its production. Local food – the reconnecting of communities to their local farmers, more seasonal diets, and more community involvement in how farms are run and what they grow – greatly increases community resilience.

In a report called “Resilient Nation” prepared by Charlie Edwards for the UK think tank DEMOS, the author raised the question, “Resilient to what?” (Edwards 2009). Are we building resilience in the face of peak oil and climate change, or of terrorism and pandemics? Edwards listed the things he felt we should be preparing resilience to: climate change, floods, pandemics, energy shortages, nuclear attacks, terrorism and a few others.

The UK government Cabinet Office runs “Regional Resilience Teams,” which are charged with creating plans for the emergency preparedness of each region. Yet the main focus of this will most likely be on terrorism and pandemics. This, however, flies in the face of a recent report by the World Economic Forum (2011), which identified the key risks facing the global economy in terms of likelihood of occurrence and potential economic impact. The three leading challenges, it concluded, are economic crisis, energy price volatility and climate change – the very three challenges that Transition Network has been emphasizing for the past five years. While it is clearly not an either/or situation, peak oil and climate change are so destabilizing that we must give them precedence; the solutions they require are markedly different from those needed for terrorism or pandemics.

Therefore, in the Transition movement we have argued that we need to base thinking about resilience primarily on both mitigation and adaptation when it comes to climate change, and more recently to the economic troubles affecting us. Planning for resilience without these concerns at the forefront runs a high risk of missing the point. Indeed, we need a different take on the notion of resilience, one that is less about simple survival when something extremely ghastly occurs than about seeing resilience as a positive, constructive process.

But what would this kind of resilience thinking look like in practice? If breaking our dependency on cheap fossil fuels and creating more economic resilience were to be seen as an opportunity, then our thinking shifts. Making our communities more resilient becomes a historic opportunity to rethink how it feeds, houses and heats itself. The whole idea of “localization as economic development” comes into its own. Localization by itself is not necessarily something that builds resilience. You could imagine a feudal, patriarchal form of localization, for example, that might have a lower carbon footprint but would also stifle diversity, creativity and innovation and not build resilience in many of the ways outlined above.

DuPuis and Goodman (2005) distinguish between “reflexive” and “unre­flexive” localization. Unreflexive localization, they argue, “can have two major negative consequences. First it can deny the politics of the local, with potentially problematic social justice consequences. Second, it can lead to proposed solutions, based on alternative standards of purity and perfection, that are vulnerable to corporate cooptation.” Localization, in the sense Transition talks about it, is a “reflexive localization,” one that would build resilience by focusing on social inclusion, economic innovation, community ownership and a valuing of entre­preneurship and diversity.

These two concepts, resilience and localization, are central and vital ideas in moving forward. The Transition movement has catalyzed a hugely insightful “dry run” of thinking through what all this would look like in practice. It is the practical embodiment of Tom Homer-Dixon’s assertion, in The Upside of Down, that “if we want to thrive, we need to move from a growth imperative to a resilience imperative.” (Homer-Dixon 2007). But the reality we live in is different: the UK governments Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2006 argued that the just-in-time distribution model on which our food system depends actually increases our resilience, a position which is still largely in place. In 2011, this is still the official government position.


Creating resilience takes time, resources and proactive and creative design. Often, sustainability thinking doesn’t question the notion that higher rates of consumption lead to individual happiness; it simply focuses rather on low-carbon ways of making the same consumer goods. Yet as we enter the world of resource constraints, we will need to link satisfaction and happiness to other less tangible things like community, meaningful work, skills and friendships.

When I give talks on this subject, there are always some who interpret the concept of increasing resilience in the West as something that will necessarily lead to increased impoverishment in the developing world. But the developing world is not likely to be lifted out of poverty by continuing to dismantle its own food resilience and becoming dependent on the fluctuations, insecurities and energy vulnerabilities of the globalized economy.1 Amartya Sen has shown that famine and inequality occur more from the way in which food is produced and distributed than from food shortage. (1. See, for instance, the essays by P.V. Satheesh on GMO seeds and by Liz Alden Wily on land grabs.)

But even that analysis now needs to be revisited from a “resilience” perspective. In fact, tying developing-world food producers into the globalized system leads to their exposure to both food and money shortages, and leads to their becoming increasingly dependent on global trade, which is itself massively dependent on the cheap oil, something we can no longer rely on. Is the way out of poverty really an increasing reliance on the utterly unreliable?

Resilience thinking means that rather than communities meeting each other as unskilled, unproductive, dependent and vulnerable settlements, they would meet as skilled, abundantly productive, self-reliant and resilient communities. It is a very different quality of relationship, and one that could be hugely beneficial to both.

If you were to step outside your front door today and ask the first ten people you met what your town or city might look like in ten years’ time if it began today to cut its emissions by 9 percent a year, I imagine most people would say something between how it looked in the 1950s and some science fiction future in which society has collapsed and is living in its wreckage. We have a paucity of stories that articulate what a lower-energy world and what resilient communities might sound like, smell like, feel like and look like. It is hard, but important, to be able to articu­late a vision of this world so enticing that people leap out of bed every morning and put their shoulders to the wheel of making it happen.

Resilience thinking can inspire a degree of creative thinking that might actually take us closer to long term solutions. Resilient solutions to climate change might include community-owned energy companies that install renewable energy systems; the building of highly energy-efficient homes that use mainly local materials (clay, straw, hemp); the installation of a range of urban food production models; and the re-linking of farmers with their local markets. By seeing resilience as a key ingredient of the strategies and approaches that will enable communities to thrive beyond today’s economic turmoil, huge creativity, reskilling and entre­preneurship are unleashed.

The Scottish government is using its Climate Challenge Fund to fund Transition Scotland Support, seeing Transition initiatives as a key component of the country’s push on climate change. (Thanks also to that fund, a number of Transition initiatives have received substantial financial support. For example, Transition Forres received £184,000 and has become a real force for local resilience-building.) In England, Somerset and Leicestershire County Councils have both passed resolutions committing themselves to support local Transition initiatives, and many Transition initiatives are forming very productive working partnerships with their local councils. What underpins these responses is the idea that preparing proactively for the end of the age of cheap oil can either be seen as enormous crises, or as tremendous opportunities.

It is clear, as Jonathon Porritt argues, that attempting to get out of the current recession with the thinking that got us into it in the first place (unregulated banking, high levels of debt, high-carbon lifestyles) will get us into a situation that we simply cannot win (Porritt 2009). A friend of mine who works as a sustainability consultant in the Pacific Northwest talks of a meeting he had with a leading local authority there. Having read their development plan for the next twenty years, he told them, “Your Plan is based on three things: building cars, building airplanes and the financial services sector. Do you have anything else up your sleeves?” As US blogger and commentator John Michael Greer says, we’re in danger of turning what could still be a soluble problem into an insoluble predicament. Transition is an ex­ploration of what we need to have “up those sleeves.”


Resilience is not just an outer process; it is also an inner one, a personal transformation of becoming more flexible, robust and skilled. If we imagine that Transition on the scale being discussed above will happen purely as an external, material process of solar panels and electric cars – one that doesn’t require any growth in our abilities to communicate with each other, support each other through uncertain times and to build our own personal resilience – then we are missing a large part of the picture. Transition initiatives try to promote the “interior” changes that we need by offering skills-sharing, building social networks and creating a shared sense of this being a historic opportunity to build the world anew.

Navigating a successful way through climate change and peak oil will require a journey of such bravery, commitment and vision that future generations will doubtless tell stories and sing great songs about it. But as with any journey, having a clear idea of where you are headed and the resources that you have at your disposal is essential in order to maximize our chances of success. If we leave resilience thinking out, we may well end up an extremely long way from where we initially thought we were headed.


  • Grow food everywhere.
  • Ask “how would this [development, business, community] function if oil cost $200 a barrel?
  • Underpin new developments of energy, building or food, with the principle of community ownership and management.
  • Identify key local needs and how they can be met more locally
  • Involve everyone.
  • Tell a powerful story. This is a cultural process, not an environmental one.


  • Adger, W.N. 2009. Neil Adger: Research Interests, Projects and Publications: Resilience 22 July 2010.
  • DEFRA [Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. 2006. Food Security and the UK: An Evidence and Analysis Paper. Food Chain Analysis Group. 2006.
  • DuPuis, E.M. and D. Goodman. 2005. “Should We Go ‘Home’ to Eat? Towards a Reflexive Politics of Localism.” Journal of Rural Studies. 21: 359-371.
  • Edwards, Charlie. 2009. Resilient Nation. London, UK. DEMOS.
  • Homer-Dixon, Thomas. 2006. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization. Island Press.
  • Her Majesty’s Government. 2009. The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan: National Strategy for Climate Change and Energy. London, UK. The Stationery Office.
  • Holling, C.S. 1973. “Resilience and the Stability of Ecological Systems.” Annual Review of Ecologicy and Systematics 4: 1-23.
  • Porritt, Jonathon. 2009. Living Within Our Means: Avoiding the Ultimate Recession. Forum for the Future.
  • Walker, Brian and David Salt. 2006. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Island Press.
  • World Economic Forum. 2011. Global Risks 2011, Sixth Edition. Executive Summary.

This essay is based on a longer version published in Resurgence, November/December 2009, p. 12, at

Article Source: The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State 

Cover Photo Credit: "Voices of Transition Rob Hopkins" by Nils Aguilar, - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -


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