On March 23, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, policy, and society—will hold a live event in Washington, D.C., on the concept of resilience. Academics, policymakers, and other experts will discuss resilience in the environment, business, national security, even the Constitution. Slate’s Matt Yglesias and Emily Bazelon will be there, too. (To learn more and to RSVP, click here.) Ahead of the event, Future Tense spoke to one of the scheduled speakers, professor Sander van der Leeuw of Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, about the concept of resilience.

Future Tense: So what is resilience, exactly?

Sander van der Leeuw: Any system, whether it’s the financial system, the environmental system, or something else, is always subject to all kinds of pressures. If it can withstand those pressures without really changing its behavior, then it’s robust. When a system can’t withstand them anymore but can deal with them by integrating some changes so the pressures fall off and it can keep going, then it’sresilient. If it comes to the point where the only choices are to make fundamental structural changes or to cease existence, then it becomes vulnerable.

Future Tense: At our March 23 event on resilience, we’ll be discussing how to make societies more resilient. Can you give an example from history of how the concept of resilience—or lack thereof—is illustrated by a society?

Van der Leeuw: I’ve worked a lot on the end of the Roman Empire. Let’s go back to sometime before the end. The Roman Empire expands all around the Mediterranean and becomes very, very big. It can do that because wherever it goes, it finds and then takes away existing treasure that has been accumulated over the centuries before. That treasure pays for the army, it pays for the administration, it pays for everything. But there’s a certain moment, beginning in the third century, when there is no more treasure to be had. The empire has already taken in all of the civilized world. At that point, to maintain its administration and military and feed its poor, it must depend basically on the annual yield of agriculture, or the actual product of solar energy. At the same time, the empire becomes less attractive because it has less to offer, because it has less extra energy. So now it has to deal with all kinds of unrest, and ultimately, the energy that it has available for its administration is no longer sufficient to maintain the empire. So between the third century and the fifth century, the empire has to make changes. That is the period when it adapts its behavior to all kinds of pressures. That is the resilienceperiod. At the end of that period, when it is no longer able to maintain that, it quickly becomes vulnerable and falls apart.

Future Tense: Can you talk a little about how the idea of resilience became popularized?

Van der Leeuw: The concept was originally used in materials science and then introduced in psychology. In the form we currently use it, it was proposed by an American biologist called C.S. Holling in the ’70s and the ’80s. The MacArthur Foundation then funded him in the mid-1990s to create the Resilience Alliance, which has worked in biology, in anthropology, policy, management, and a number of other fields. The money ran out, but the alliance kept going. It has centers in a number of academic institutions, among them the Stockholm Resilience Center and ASU. Right now, the concept is being used by the government, by the climate change movement, by all kinds of different disciplines.

Future Tense: What’s one field that has been really transformed through resilience thinking?

Van der Leeuw: Resilience learning and thinking has completely changed the field of ecology. Because people have begun to look at the long-term dynamics of ecological systems and describing those in terms of the resilience dynamics of ecological communities rather than focus on individual species. Increasingly, the work that is happening in this field through the Resilience Alliance is also impacting on managing ecosystems, managing lakes, managing herds, managing fish stocks, things like that.

In anthropology, the concept has been used to recast how people react to different conditions, such as a situation in which resources are plentiful (“the American dream”) and where they are scarcer (Europe, where rules have been established to regulate their use, leading to “more government”).

One of the really important things about resilience thinking is that it links together so many domains that we typically only looked at singly. Our thinking over the last 200 years has become very siloed, in part due to university structures, university careers, but also due to reasons beyond that. I think one of the really interesting things is that resilience crosses a lot of those boundaries between disciplines, because the general concept has applications in business and in the environment, but also in social communities. A really interesting part of resilience thinking is that you bring communities closer together so they have more options and can be more creative in responding to stress.

Future Tense: In one of your lectures, you describe how in prehistoric Australia, the people who lived in richer environments, where there would seem to be easy access to food and water, actually had endured more famines than those who lived in resource-poor environments. Can you talk about that a little? How does it relate to resilience? What can we learn from it?

Van der Leeuw: Australia’s inlands are very dry and have a relatively low yield in edible things. Its forests are very rich and have a very high yield in edible things. What is interesting is that in the prehistoric human bones we find, the remains of people in the inlands never show any sign of having had a famine. The only people who show signs of having had a famine are the people in the rich areas of the Murray and Darling river valleys. What we conclude is that the people in the desert inlands were at all times aware of the precarious situation in which they were living, so they never used their environment to the point of no return.

In the rich areas, on the other hand, people saw a plethora all around, so in all probability, they had more children, they exploited the environment more, and, ultimately, they found out that the environment had degraded to the point where they couldn’t feed themselves any longer. There is clearly a cycle there in the interaction between people and the environment—there is, in wealth situations, a temptation to use too much, and that then creates problems. Societies like those of the Australian Aborigines in the inlands, which actually had to permanently deal with the vagaries of seasonality, the ups and downs of the rain and so on, were in many ways more resilient than a society in a rich environment, which is thus much less likely to adapt to the circumstances.

Future Tense: What can we do to make our thinking more resilient in everyday life?

Van der Leeuw: I think one of the real difficulties of our current society is that we are so heavily invested in particular ways of doing things, because we’ve been doing them for a very long time and because we have invested huge amounts of capital in creating a particular infrastructure, and that decreases our possibility to conceive or create other options for ourselves. It basically reduces our resilience in an important way.

We actually train our kids in school into nonresilient thinking, because we always come up with single solutions, single options. We don’t train people to think in terms of alternatives. And that, after a while, creates a society that actually is fairly single-minded. From that perspective, I would argue that bigger emphasis on creativity in school is really important. I would argue that in order to deal with all the environmental problems that we have, we need to get to a point where people begin to think out of the box in order to change or deal with the challenges that we’re actually facing.

What we’re therefore beginning to do in teaching sustainability is that we basically throw our children in front of a problem. Rather than telling them how to solve it, we tell them, “Go and solve it,” and they come up with different solutions. But that kind of problem-based teaching is not very well-developed in other fields than medicine.

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