How helpful is resilience as a conceptual framework? – Part 2:

Dr Peter Tangney, Environmental Politics and Policy, Torrens Resilience Institute


In my previous post I discussed the various concepts of resilience and concluded that, although the idea has many meanings, some of which may hinder communities’ adaptation to problems like climate change, it is this variety of meaning that gives the concept a key advantage for effecting public decisions. Allow me to explain why.

Since the 19thCentury at least, scientists, engineers and governments sought to understand public problems of environmental management and infrastructure development through appraisal methods like risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. In recent decades, these methods have been subject to a barrage of criticism for their inability to fully apprehend the potential impacts from human influence in the natural world; or, for their inability to appropriately inform decision-makers for sustainable development. These criticisms have become increasingly pertinent in the ‘information age’.

Describing the full range of criticisms levelled at these techniques is beyond the space available here, but there is a broad issue that I wish to focus on to help explain the worth of resilience-based decision-making. A problem with any of the available methods to appraise policy decisions is that they can never adequately account for the complexity and uncertainties associated with ‘social-ecological systems’, particularly when considering issues like future climate change. These methods must inevitably incorporate subjective judgements concerning what aspects of a problem to focus on, whose priorities and ideals should take precedence when assessing the consequences of human actions, and ultimately, what is valued and by whom. This difficulty is sometimes referred to as decision-makers’ ‘bounded rationality’; we cannot objectively know all the things we need to know in order to be fully rational.

In recent years, decision analysts have attempted to mitigate this limitation through more sophisticated analytical techniques. Cost-benefit analysis, for instance, tries to better account for ‘externalities’; those costs and benefits to which the current economic system has difficulty assigning a dollar-value. Risk assessment, meanwhile, increasingly involves a much wider variety of participants alongside expert judgements about the likelihoods of particular consequences. This combination of expert and stakeholder judgement is now formalized within co-producedrisk assessments, even as governments who sponsor them often still claim the resulting evidence is impartial, and even, scientifically derived.

The difficulty with these methods, however, is that while they cannot justify claims to definitive knowledge of public problems, by doing so they may facilitate the politics of evidence development and use. These methods are often promoted on the assumption that evidence will be used solely to inform and adjust policy settings. Yet, policy process scholars have long advised that evidence is not only (or even mostly) used by policymakers in this way. Evidence may just as likely be used ‘politically’ by subsuming value-judgements – or even significant political priorities – within the evidence itself. This may occur during the co-production process or in the subsequent presentation of its results. Alternatively, evidence may be used symbolically, irrespective of its content, as something to wave at those who are concerned about whether governments have consulted robust evidence in advance of making decisions. We see these alternate uses of evidence, for instance, in the regulation of genetically modified organisms in Europe, and on the question of whether or not to cull Badgers to reduce Bovine Tuberculosis in the UK.

In short, the evidence-based policy process is often (if not usually) a much messier and more political affair than we think it is, or believe it should be. When experts or government assert the definitive status of the evidence they co-produce, this may often mask political influences prevailing upon both evidence development and use.

What, you might ask, has any of this to do with resilience, or my claim that this concept can be a potent means of effecting robust decisions?

Well, because risk or impact assessment when used on their own often make claims toward objective knowledge, governments do not often feel the need to be transparent about what it is they value. Discussion about whatis at risk is often ignored on the basis of some unexpressed status quo. Risk is perceived as an objective assessment of the threat of harm, rather than an assessment that is circumscribed by governments’ values and priorities. This objective stance may thereby avoid important debates about what we, the public, value in the context of transformative climate change and social-ecological disaster. In the face of intractable uncertainties about what the future might bring, however, what we value becomes of preeminent importance when directing public policy.

Resilience, because it is focused on our communal selves, our existing strengths and weaknesses, rather than on an objective external hazard, demands at least some expression of policymakers’ true values and priorities. Nearly any discussion of resilience, by dint of whichever of the varying definitions one chooses to use, must inevitably draw attention to what is valued and by whom. A resilience-based approach can certainly incorporate other methods of empirical analysis including risk, impact and vulnerability to ensure appropriate accounting for future climate hazards. But, a resilience-based framework cannot ignore foundational values in the way that ‘objective’ assessments can and do. And while this expression of values may, at worst, be largely implicit, it is nonetheless more transparent than entirely ignoring the foundational values and priorities of communities and their representatives.

This value-transparency can also be helpful for how we frame evidence to maximize its political appeal. In countries like Australia which have a long history of climate extremes and disaster management, climate resilience presents a far less polarizing conceptual framework to policymakers than has been climate change to date. This is born out in Queensland, for instance, where climate change policies have continually struggled for bipartisan support, but where climate resilience remains a recurring bipartisan ideal. As communication scholars have shown, talk of climate change can often simply reinforce conservative policymakers’ skeptical perspectives about expert alarmism and scientific uncertainty. Resilience, on the other hand, speaks to bipartisan concern for strong economic communities and healthy local environments, irrespective of what the future may bring.

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