Refining the Resilience Narrative: A Critical Reflective Review of the Current Discourse

Authors:  Marcus Moench, Rachel Norton & Kanmani Venkateswaran

We live in a world shaped by complex webs of socio-ecological systems. Although our survival depends on them, these webs are poorly understood and often beyond our ability to control as individuals, communities and even nations.

The foundational analogy increasingly used to describe complex socio-ecological systems follows the dynamics of natural ecosystems. A resilient ecosystem cycles through phases of growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. As these cycles proceed, individual species within the larger ecosystem grow, decline, evolve and in some cases disappear. Resilience is lost when the cycles are blocked and the ecosystem becomes increasingly structured and rigid. Diversity and flexibility decline and ecosystems can become trapped in states that are highly resilient to change. Tipping points are, however, almost always reached sooner or later that disrupt established patterns. Once a tipping point is reached in such cases, ecosystem change tends to be dramatic, fundamentally altering the structure and function of the system and creating new patterns of productivity, resilience, and vulnerability.

While the above principles can be applied to socio-ecological systems, they do not account for the full range of drivers that create social outcomes. Humans have the ability to act and shape their environment. Complex political dynamics shape relationships and together with institutional rules govern the approaches we develop to manage and shape the world we live in. It is unclear, however, whether the consequences of agency and institutions override the underlying drivers of ecosystem dynamics in determining social outcomes. The purpose of this paper is to explore this question and the implications our understanding of complex systems dynamics have for efforts to address some of the real challenges global society now faces in the context of globalization, rapid urbanization, and climate change. We follow the analogy, explore the questions it poses and, along with the role of agency, ask: What is the meaning of resilience? What is the purpose of resilience and who does it benefit; on what time, institutional, or geographic scale; toward what ultimate objective? What are the trade-offs, who chooses, who loses, and who gains? Can resilience be for everyone?


Moench, M., Norton, R., Venkateswaran, K. (2015). Refining the Resilience Narrative: A critical reflective review of the current discourse. Bouler, CO: ISET-International.

Funded by:

The Rockefeller Foundation


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