Resilience is the inner capacity to bounce back to a healthy state after shocks or continued periods of stress. The term "resilience" was first used in physics to describe the ability of materials to bounce back to their original shape or position after being exposed to external pressures. Since then it has increasingly come to refer to living systems - in particular, the resistance of individuals, communities and cultures to physical, psychological or social trauma.
Natural systems are inherently resilient. That is, they have the capacity to return to balance with little or no outside help. Humans - individuals as well as communities - share this capacity for resilience with other living systems, with the added ability that we can anticipate and plan for the future.
Of course, resilience depends on many factors, and it can be weakened as well as strengthened. For example, toxic pollution can cause ecological systems to break down. Think of Lake Erie. In the 1960s, the lake was declared "dead" after decades of contamination robbed it of oxygen, fouled the water, and killed off its fish. Similarly, communities can lose their resilience for all kinds of reasons: economic shifts, disappearance of jobs, gentrification, abandonment by local institutions, and so on.
But just as resilience can be weakened, it can also be enhanced. In response to public concerns and advocacy, Canada and the U.S. signed and implemented the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, with the result that life is returning to Lake Erie. Troubled neighbourhoods and communities, too, are bouncing back, rebuilding themselves from the inside out. And they are succeeding by building on their strengths, turning first of all to their neighbours and the local citizens' associations and institutions that lie at the heart of their communities.
The key to resilience, in both social and ecological systems, is diversity - the degree of variety that exists within the system. Put simply: the greater the diversity, the greater the resilience. Why? Because the more an ecosystem is the same, the greater its vulnerability to outside attack by such things as pests, diseases or fire, which move relentlessly through the system and destroy everything in their path. In a more diverse system, different species respond differently to these threats, ensuring that even if some elements are lost, the system itself will continue.
Similarly, communities that lack diversity run the risk of withering away as they lack a range of people who can respond creatively to unprecedented challenges. Diverse communities, on the other hand - communities that welcome and integrate persons of different backgrounds, perspectives and abilities - are richer, more balanced, and more capable of responding to changing circumstances. In short: they are more resilient.
Observing resilience at work in nature and in society invites us to re-examine some of the assumptions we hold about how persons and communities function. It reminds us that we are not passive recipients in need of outside support and intervention, but that we have a basic integrity and a built-in capacity to transform, adapt, heal and survive. This, in turn, has far-reaching implications for social action and policy. For example, it suggests that individuals and communities have rich inner resources that are not recognized by our needs-focused social intervention programs, and points to alternate strategies that focus on assets, potential, and the capacity to contribute.
For an in-depth examination of resilience and its implications for social policy and action, please read Dominique Collin's article, Resilience, Social Action and Inclusion: The Philia Perspective.
Many individuals and organizations are exploring the idea of resilience in both nature and society, and looking at ways to foster more resilient communities. Here are some we like:
The Resilience Alliance
Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition
The Resilient Communities Project
If you are involved in or know of others, please share them with us by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org or clicking on the Have Your Say link below.
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