Community resilience refers to the ability of human communities to persist and thrive in the face of change, whether of internal or external origin. Its deployment as a practical and rhetorical concept in many fields of both activism and policy predates its formal academic characterisation. Both its scientific and vernacular uses draw on several previously separate areas of inquiry into how complex ecological and/or human systems respond to change.
Resilience is both a process by which communities engage, successfully navigate, respond to and/or anticipate (or even bring about) change, and a quality generated in the process of doing so. Although its use as a practical concept, for example in permaculture and the Transition movement dates from at least the early 2000s, resilience scientists attempted to give it a formal characterisation only later. Both practical and academic treatments draw upon - and potentially create synergies among - at least three previously unconnected strands of resilience research, each with its own limitations, emphases and strengths: ecology and human ecology (social-ecological resilience), human development (psychological or developmental resilience) and disaster studies (recovery or 'bouncing back').
Rather than provide a strict definition, some researchers have sought to identify the key qualities that enable communities to develop resilience. One of the earliest such reviews highlighted capacities for self-organisation and agency, achieved through relationships between people and place; diverse and innovative economic activity; suitable community infrastructure; cultivation of positive outlooks; appropriate forms of leadership; suitable knowledge, skills and learning; supportive values and beliefs; active and responsive social networks; and structures for decision-making and collective action that are engaged with community capacities, interests and needs. A later review, written in the context of the need for climate change mitigation measures consistent with a 1.5°C limit on average global temperature rises and the adaptation needs such a rise would entail, identifies ten essential features: enhanced adaptability, taking account of both transient shocks and prolonged stresses, working horizontally across issues and sectors, working vertically across scales, aggressive emissions reductions, building narratives about climate change, direct engagement with futures, attention to climate disadvantage and reducing inequalities, focusing on processes and pathways rather than solely outcomes,and focus on transformative change rather than notions of 'bouncing back' to 'normal' circumstances that no longer exist.
Community Resilience in Practice
Community resilience is a key guiding concept of the Transition movement, which initially adopted it as a constructive local response to peak oil, climate change and economic instability, later as a more general guiding concept for the rebuilding and/or mobilisation of local community in order to increase local capacities for social, economic and cultural self-determination. Understandings of resilience in the Transition movement draw explicitly on the science of social-ecological resilience, and also emphasise the personal resilience necessary for Inner Transition, the process of psychological adaptation to irreversible changes in the basic conditions of life. In this understanding, a resilient community will be able to envision and bring into being its own low carbon alternatives, to transform the economic and social impacts of decarbonisation into an opportunity for positive change, to adapt to any inevitable local consequences of climate change, and in general increase its level of empowerment and capacity to shape its own future and engage in positive inter-relationships with other communities, both geographical neighbours and those in distant parts of the world.
Action for building community resilience among Transition groups takes many forms, with a key emphasis on relocalisation: shortening supply and production chains in order to maximise local self-reliance, eliminating exploitative and otherwise harmful forms of economic interdependence, and creating feedback loops to allow local retention of value and appreciation of and action upon negative impacts of economic activity. In practice, this involves building community-scale alternatives to activities currently dominated by national and international holders of capital, but more appropriately delivered and operated at local scale, including in food production, energy supply, enterprise, finance, manufacturing, entertainment, health and social care, housing and many other areas.
Resilience and Climate Action
When community resilience becomes a guiding concept for local-scale action on climate change, it changes how people understand and act on it in various ways. It engenders a holistic perspective, where dependence on fossil fuels and low capacity to adapt to changing conditions are not isolated problems, but symptoms of bigger issues such as degeneration of social relationships, alienation of people from nature, economic activity serving profit rather than human needs. Rather than simply reducing carbon emissions by switching to renewably powered alternatives, community resilience implies systematically designing out not just fossil fuel use but all forms of dependence on environmentally and socially damaging economic activity, fundamentally transforming economic, social and political systems.
- Ross, H., 2017. Linking Theory and Practice of Community Resilience. Pp. 59-62 in Henfrey, T., G. Maschkowski & G Penha-Lopes (eds.) Resilience, Community Action and Societal Transformation. East Meon: Permanent Publications.
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- Henfrey, T., Maschkowski, G., Penha-Lopes, G. (Eds.), 2017. Resilience, Community Action & Societal Transformation: People, Place, Practice, Power, Politics & Possibility in Transition. Permanent Publications, East Meon, Hampshire.