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21 Oct 2009

Resilience Thinking: an article for the latest ‘Resurgence’

isimg_257The latest edition of Resurgence is timed to coincide with the Copenhagen talks, and looks at resilience as a key aspect of the climate change debates.  Here is the article I wrote for it.

Resilience Thinking. Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability: by Rob Hopkins.

Resilience; “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks”

In July 2009, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband unveiled the government’s UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, a bold and powerful statement of intent for a low-carbon economy in the UK. 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. In view of the extraordinary scale of the challenge presented by climate change, I hesitate to criticise steps in the right direction taken by government. There is, though, a key flaw in the document, which also appears in much of the wider societal thinking about climate change. This flaw is the attempt to address the issue of climate change without also addressing a second, equally important issue: that of resilience.

The term ‘resilience’ is appearing more frequently in discussions about environmental concerns, and it has a strong claim to actually being a more useful concept than that of sustainability. Sustainability and its oxymoronic offspring sustainable development are commonly held to be a sufficient response to the scale of the climate challenge we face: to reduce the inputs at one end of the globalised economic growth model (energy, resources, and so on) while reducing the outputs at the other end (pollution, carbon emissions, etc.). However, responses to climate change that do not also address the imminent, or quite possibly already passed, peak in world oil production do not adequately address the nature of the challenge we face.

Let’s take a supermarket as an example. It may be 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. However, resilience thinking would argue that the closure of local food shops and networks that resulted 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 to get there – has massively reduced the resilience of community food security, as well as increasing its oil vulnerability. One extreme, but relevant, example of where sustainability thinking falls short was Tesco’s recent ‘Flights for Lights’ promotion, where people were able to gain air miles when they purchased low-energy light bulbs!

Some people believe that we can move from our current ‘high carbon’ model, where goods are transported at great distances, to a ‘low carbon’ information economy, where it is ideas that are exchanged rather than goods, and where we operate in a virtual world with few impacts. Yet such an economy still depends on fossil fuels: to power the vast internet servers as we check our morning emails, not to mention the breakfast we eat and the coffee we drink that continue to be sourced from far and wide, often with a disastrous impact on the local food systems that would have supported us in the past. Despite the temptation to believe otherwise, we still operate in the physical world with very real and pressing energy and resource constraints.

The concept of resilience emerged from within the ecological sciences as 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 within communities, for example, depends upon;”

Diversity: a broader base of livelihoods, land use, enterprise and energy systems than at present
Modularity: not advocating self-sufficiency, but rather an increased self-reliance; with ‘surge protectors’ for the local economy, such as local food production and decentralised energy systems
Tightness of feedbacks: bringing the results of our actions closer to home, so that we cannot ignore them

A recent report by the think tank DEMOS, Resilient Nation, raised the question, “Resilient to what?” Are we building resilience in the face of peak oil and climate change, or of terrorism and pandemics? While it is clearly not an either/or situation, I would argue strongly that peak oil and climate change are so far-reaching and destabilising that we really must give them precedence, the solutions that arise being markedly different from addressing terrorism or pandemics. But what would this kind of resilience thinking look like in practice?

For many years, those writing and campaigning on relocalisation have argued that it is a good idea because it produces a better, more equitable economy. Now, as the potential impacts of peak oil and climate change become clearer, an additional and very strong argument has emerged: that as the net energy underpinning society inevitably contracts, so the focus of our economies and our daily lives will inexorably shift, at least in terms of manufacturing and trade, from the global to the local.

It requires a huge amount of cheap oil thundering around the superhighways and shipping lanes of the world to bring to our shops the things we now feel we need, much of which we would have grown or made ourselves not all that long ago. But creating a different way of doing things takes time, resources and proactive and creative design.

Often, climate-change thinking doesn’t question the notion that higher rates of consumption lead to individual happiness – it focuses rather on low-carbon ways of making the same consumer goods. Yet as we enter the world of volatile oil prices, resource constraints, and the need to situate ourselves more within the local economy than the global one, 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 localisation to mean that building resilience in the West – increasing national food security, rebuilding local manufacturing and so on – will by necessity lead to increased impoverishment in the developing world. I don’t believe this to be the case. Will the developing world be lifted out of poverty by continuing to dismantle its own food resilience and becoming increasingly dependent on global trade, which is itself massively dependent on the cheap oil we can no longer rely on? Is the way out of poverty really an increasing reliance on the utterly unreliable? 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.

In any event, work by people such as Mike Davis in his book Late Victorian Holocausts shows how the impact of famine was enormously magnified by the forced introduction of India into the international money/cash-crop nexus. As Amartya Sen has shown, famine occurs more from the way in which food is distributed, and inequality, than from food shortage. Even that analysis now needs to be revisited from a ‘resilience’ perspective. Over the last few years we’ve started to see clear impacts of tying the developing world into global commercial food webs, as food prices rose in step with oil and fertiliser prices. In fact, I’d argue that tying developing-world food producers into the globalised system leads to their exposure to both food and money shortages.

The need to cut carbon emissions is even more urgent than the government’s Transition Plan acknowledges. NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, now argues that we have already passed the climate tipping point at our current level of 387ppm, when the safe level of carbon in the atmosphere is at most 350ppm. While the UK government argues that we need to stay below 450ppm, it is clear that even that is a huge ask. 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% a year starting today, I imagine most people would say something between the Flintstones and Mad Max! We have a paucity of stories that articulate what a lower-energy world might sound like, smell like, feel like and look like. What is hard, but important, is to be able to articulate a vision of a post-carbon 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 solutions that will succeed in the longer term. Resilient solutions to climate change might include community-owned energy companies that install renewable energy systems in such a way as to generate revenue to resource the wider relocalisation process; the building of highly energy-efficient homes that use mainly local materials (clay, straw, hemp), thereby stimulating a range of potential local businesses and industries; 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 economic strategies that will enable communities to thrive beyond the current economic turmoil the world is seeing, huge creativity, reskilling and entrepreneurship are unleashed.

The Transition Movement is a rapidly growing, ‘viral’ movement, which began in Ireland and is now under way in thousands of communities around the world. Its fundamental premise is that a response to climate change and peak oil will require action globally, nationally, and at the scale of local government, but it also needs vibrant communities driving the process, making unelectable policies electable, creating the groundswell for practical change at the local level.

It explores the practicalities of building resilience across all aspects of daily life. It catalyses communities to ask, “How are we going to significantly rebuild resilience in response to peak oil and drastically reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change?”

By putting resilience alongside the need to reduce carbon emissions, it is catalysing a broad range of initiatives, from Community Supported Agriculture and garden-share schemes to local food directories and new Farmers’ Markets. Some places, such as Lewes and Totnes, have set up their own energy companies, in order to resource the installation of renewable energy. The Lewes Pound, the local currency that can only be spent in Lewes, recently expanded with the issuing of new £5, £10 and £20 notes. Stroud and Brixton are set to do the same soon.

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 (and 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. What underpins these responses is the idea that meeting our climate emissions responsibilities and 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 in Living Within Our Means, 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. A friend of mine who works as a sustainability consultant in the North West 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 aeroplanes and the financial services sector. Do you have anything else up your sleeves?” As 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’, an optimistic exploration of the practicalities of relocalisation, creating, as Jeremy Leggett puts it, “scaleable microcosms of hope”.

However, resilience is not just an outer process: it is also an inner one, of becoming more flexible, robust and skilled. Transition initiatives try to promote this through 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 most skilfully maximise your 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.

Rob Hopkins is co-founder of the Transition Network and is the author of The Transition Handbook. You can download the pdf (with wonderful illustrations) of this article here .  There is also a great booklet which is a mini version of the latest edition, which you can download as a pdf. here.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Corrina GordonBarnes and Rob Hopkins, Transition Louth. Transition Louth said: RT @robintransition Rob's Resurgence article looks at the need for resilience thinking in the climate debate. [...]

21 Oct 12:50pm

Thanks Rob, the international perspective particularly appreciated there. Resilience is an even more important concept for developing countries – when the oil shocks come, poorer countries will be the first to go without.

PS – Just noticed the link to the pdf of the article and its illustrations isn’t working.

Shane Hughes
21 Oct 2:05pm

I’ve just completed the Transition Energy Resilience Assessment course which really brought to my attention just how little we understand and utilise resilience thinking. i have to wonder if in the same way that we have rapidly created a sophisticated climate science and carbon accounting; understanding the metrics, conversions and feedbacks etc, will we manage to develop an equally sophisticated science of resilience, understanding the feedback loops of energy shocks, with methods for calculating levels of systemic vulnerabilities and resilience etc.

Chris Brown
21 Oct 3:02pm

“Because of the delays in the system, if the global society waits until those constraints are unmistakably apparent, it will have waited too long.” – Limits to Growth, 1972. The IPCC models ignore behavioural science, what 100 rats will do when living in a cage for 10. They ignore other environmental pressures described by Bruntland and Limits to Growth. And they fail to include the dependable trend that every prediction brings new, exponentially worse, factors. Surely the tipping point is not a future conjunction of facts in “environmental science” but a sociological milestone we passed decades ago?

21 Oct 4:34pm

great article Rob. Thanks!

an observation, the link you provide for dowloading a pdf version of the article is not working !

Don Hall
21 Oct 6:16pm

Fantastic article, Rob! I will do my best to spread the word about it.

julian duggan
21 Oct 9:38pm

Resilience; “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks”
So,if the system is say capitalism whose function is ‘wealth’creation, structure is of division and inequity and identity is(?)then what is it we would be making more resilient?
Perhaps a ‘transition’ can be made to sound/appear more appealing.

John Mason
21 Oct 10:24pm


Fully agree with all of that, and well-written too.

This sort of thinking got me into the “3 Rs” of Transition concept.

Cheers – John

21 Oct 11:15pm

Hi Norberto,
I have sorted out those links, not sure what was happening with them, but all is well now…

Paul Parker
21 Oct 11:51pm


An interesting read, but why be so down on ‘sustainability’. I once worked with a leading eco-architects who had banned the use of the ‘S’ word in their office. I think it’s just a bit unnecessary. Obviously the Tesco promotion you mention is in no way ‘sustainable’ as I think many people would realise. Similairly fitting PV arrays on a supermarket and making it more energy efficient are ‘more’ sustainable than not doing it i.e. sustainability is a long range objective in the same way that resilience is. I love the concept of resilience as it embodies a different set of values to ‘sustainability’ but there is room for both concepts. I also support localisation, but we need to be clear about what we are trying to acheive, for example (setting aside other considerations)we may at some time in our low energy future discover that shipping a container of bicycles from a production plant in Asia might actually have a lower carbon impact than delivering them by road from the other end of the UK.
Is flexibility an attribute of resilience?

Robert Stanford
23 Oct 10:56am

Thanks Rob for a great article. I think that both resiance and sustainability are equally important and as an IT programme/project manager I have been building resiliance into systems for a long time. The key thing in my mind is to ask the what question? i.e. are we building resiliance and sustainanability into the right thing. I am sure that the govenment would argue that current policies to promote a return to echonimic grown are based on building resiliance. However, I don’t believe that echonomic growth is sustainable based on finite resources.

Hugh Harwell, MRP
28 Oct 5:39am

I concur with Paul Parker’s comment. Rob, I agree with all your ideas, but not your organizing premise for this piece. I view sustainability as about the long-term survival of our species through the development of entirely new forms of culture and economic relationships that use much more diversified and flexible sources of energy and rely more on human labor and skills than machines. While climate change and peak oil are primary and pervasive issues, they are not the only ones needing to be addressed to create a sustainable civilization.

Resilience is a system’s ability to bounce back from a disrupting shock (like having too much cheap oil and then running out of it) and re-establish previous form and function. That is certainly one of the capabilities needed to achieve sustainability, not something different from it.

The operative questions, of course, are: What is to be sustained? and What is resilient? My humble suggestion in response to the last 200 years of totally unprecedented exponential growth in human population and consumption/pollution/depletion rates for all resources and the imminent prospect of major global collapse as we descend from overshoot is that the answer to both is the same: It is simply the human species’ existence as defined by its distinctive genotype, period.

The population size, distribution, forms of social organization and economic relationships, and means of selecting and using natural resources to fulfill basic survival needs and create the next phase of evolution are all malleable variables that must change to adapt to the new environmental conditions.

Given that understanding, the next key question is: Will we make those changes at least somewhat proactively by conscious intention and cooperative design, or will we only make them reactively under duress and random chance with no forethought??

I suggest that choosing the former path as best our intelligence, insight, instincts, imagination and intuition can provide is a higher spiritual, ethical, creative and optimistic, life-affirming calling than choosing the latter. So let’s stop playing these petty word games to compete about who is better than who, and just get going to be the best we each can be with the opportunities we find before us!

Mary Saunders
29 Oct 1:31am

I like the notion of resilience because sustainability has been over-used and because resilience seems more scaleable on a small scale.

Alas for individuals, we are not really sustainable, but we can be resilient.

In terms of getting to scale, sustainability may approach the abstraction level of infinity, which for so many people is too far out for them to feel they have much to contribute.

We are often dealing with fairly serious demoralization and immediate challenge.

The research on resilience and challenged children is hard to read, but it is inspiring concerning the possibilities of recovering from trauma. Such stories provide a literature of beating daunting odds. When I worked with abused kids, I remember being astonished as I saw the changes gifted caregivers could bring about with ways I did not expect.

We need concepts that clearly call for different patterns in different locales. We also need to be able to credit ways of doing things that go back thousands of years, for example many traditional healing ways, and to understand the benefits of allowing individuals to choose these ways as primary if they wish, with Conventional Western Medicine as a choice adults can be referred to by traditional healers if everyone agrees.

It’s a petty name game if it is about sustaining the same songs with the same choirs.

If using new words are necessary for recruiting new singers, then I don’t see it as a petty word game at all, especially if we want to use seduction and cooperation above mandating stuff.

How to parcel out change so people want to get up in the morning to get to the community center to do their schtick , that is the hard part.

Supermarkets could be turned into meeting places and small-business incubators if need be, though it is a complicated negotiation.

In Portland, many retail locations get left by big companies when leases expire and the companies build elsewhere, after the depreciation tax advantages are used up.

Re-purposing such places may require zoning changes and other issues that could demonstrate resilience, but not sustainability with respect same purpose they started out with.

I found this an interesting exercise and not petty in the least. We must recycle words and phrases if they become shop-worn.

1 Nov 9:24pm

I had translated this article into chinese. Would like to share to people in Taiwan and other mandarin reading area. I whish more people can read about the idea “Resilience” and “Transitioning”.

Comparing to sustainable, transitioning for me is more like an action/ process to make something practical happening.

[...] Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability: by Rob Hopkins. [...]

[...] magazine.  The definition of resilience from the RA’s wesbsite  starts his article Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resili… Resilience; “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing [...]

Philip Booth
9 Nov 8:40pm

As a local District councillor I welcome this discussion – we have for some time sought a greater awareness of this issue here in Stroud – one, as yet unsuccessful, move is to rename and refocus the Council’s Regeneration Department to a Department to build Resilient Communities – I’m sure a catchier title can be found but basically shifting the focus away from looking at economic growth to ways of ensuring more resilient communities.

[...] reports mentioned from NEF, PCI and SDC all refer positively to the Transition Town movement. It borrows the term from the ecological sciences, so there is a history of the term ‘resilience’ [...]

Ben Brangwyn
28 Nov 12:16am

Message to Monique Chen,

Re your translation, can we link to it from the Transition Network forums and “translated materials” pages?

Please email “”.

Thanks. Ben.

[...] In a recent article for Resurgence Magazine, titled “Resilience Thinking: Why ‘resilience thinking’ is a crucial missing piece of the climate-change jigsaw and why resilience is a more useful concept than sustainability,” Hopkins mostly expands on this earlier definition of resilience as a strategy for responding proactively to impending crisis. However, in his second to last paragraph, he also hints at a broader, more inspiring vision of resilience: “resilience is not just an outer process: it is also an inner one, of becoming more flexible, robust and skilled. Transition Initiatives try to promote this through offering skills-sharing, building social networks, and creating a shared sense of this being a historic opportunity to build the world anew.” [...]