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Resilience as a two-edged sword

By Chris Harries - posted Thursday, 21 April 2011

Let's take a real situation, my home town, Hobart. It has a traffic bottleneck, the feeder road to the southern suburb of Kingston and beyond. Not an easy thing to fix, Hobart is squashed between the mountain and Derwent River. The situation has been made worse by the development of a freeway further south, enabling even more distant residents to attempt to commute into town each day.

There is much debate about this traffic quandary. Some say that every new piece of highway infrastructure simply shifts the traffic bottlenecks to another point. Others are frustrated that their commute is too long. For them, the more highway infrastructure that is built the better. The cost of trying to meet that demand is quite horrendous.

The very same story is played out in dozens of locations around Australia.


For me, an interesting aside to this story is that I've heard the word resilience being used by both the advocates for and against, to support their own cause. So for some, new highway infrastructure enhances their personal resilience – that is, their ability to cope with changing circumstance. For others, reducing traffic demand is the best way to enhance the resilience of our city – that is, its ability to cope with changing circumstances.

Resilience – the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions – is hardly a newly invented concept, but it has come into vogue in a big way in recent times. Barely a lecture is given without the word being inserted at an opportunistic point in the delivery. As words go, this is that word's heyday. For bureaucrats and commentators alike, resilience is the anointed coinage of our times.

But we have a problem. Its abstraction renders the perceived meaning of resilience ever so malleable. Let's throw ourselves back to around 1990 when sustainable development was the then in-vogue term on everyone's lips. At that moment in history there was very good reason for governments and legislators to focus on that concept, because it conveniently described an important contemporary phenomenon. Society was confronting its long-term sustainability, so sustainable development was loaded with meaning.

Yet in no time at all, that well-intentioned meaning morphed into virtual meaninglessness. In official reports, the status quo of the era was largely re-badged as sustainable, thanks to nifty report writing and juggling of data. Impossible configurations, like sustainable mining, were pretty soon passed off without comment. Like, democracy, arguably the most abused word in the English language, sustainable development had rapidly become all things to all people.

Resilience has come into vogue right now for very good reason. In this age of uncertainty and insecurity – as we confront imponderable issues such as oil depletion and climate change – it aptly focuses our collective minds on the best ways that society can adapt so as to withstand threatening circumstance over which we have little control. How to build resilience into our lives, our communities, our cities, our economies, our transport systems, our health systems and our nation should be the chief endeavour of this era.

Clearly, as a society we need to do many things differently, because those aforementioned risks cannot be confronted by business-as-usual. Yet doing things differently means making some hard decisions that offend many people, like re-imagining and re-building our cities so that our living environments may operate in an oil-depleted future, for instance. Humans are creatures of habit and we don't like rapid change.


We are hurtling into heady times, and there is ample scope for debate about what genuinely enhances our collective resilience. I would like to think the term holds authenticity for a little while, before it is reduced to meaninglessness. If we can rationalise repeatedly engaging in bloody warfare to enhance world freedom, then we can do many contradictory things in the name of resilience.

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About the Author

Chris Harries is a Tasmanian based opinion writer and social advocate, and former adviser to Australian Greens senator Bob Brown.

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