- Resilience StoriesNarratives of Adaptation, Refusal, and Compromise
A common way to imagine environmental futurity in the early decades of the twenty-first century is through stories about resilience. At a time when the concept of sustainability has largely given way to a sense of recurrent crisis, narratives of successful adaptation have powerful currency. The United Nations’ Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, is a case in point. While renewing and reaffirming sustainability goals established in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the resolution that emerged from that meeting—titled “The Future We Want”—contains frequent, sobering references to disasters and recommends fostering resilience in the face of their inevitability.1 An easy-to-digest expression of the resolution’s themes can be found on the UN website, where a series of videos, titled “Disaster Resilient Societies,” relates stories of individuals and communities that are managing to thrive in the face of disaster. Together, they present resilience as a strategy of adaptation that will enable us to shape “the future we want” rather than fatalistically succumb to disaster and impoverishment due to climate change and other socioecological challenges. Taking the videos as a starting point, this essay thinks through the affects and effects of resilience as a way of imagining environmental futurity. In particular, it analyzes the function of resilience stories as a way to cope with present disasters and to prepare for future ones.
With this analysis, I hope to contribute to a burgeoning critical discussion about the uses and dangers of resilience thinking. Occurring mostly in the social sciences, that discussion has clearly demonstrated the way the concept of resilience operates in the service of neoliberalism, [End Page 43] ushering in a future that, contra the UN’s optimistic slogan, very few of us will want, let alone be able, to inhabit.2 While this discussion has significantly informed my own sense of the implications of resilience thinking, I seek to extend it here, using insights from the post-colonial environmental humanities, particularly Anthony Carrigan’s conception of postcolonial disaster studies.3 To this end, following a detour into the antiresilience camp, exemplified by Brad Evans and Julian Reid’s Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, I consider Ishmael Beah’s 2014 novel, The Radiance of Tomorrow, as an illuminating commentary on the uses and limitations of resilience stories.4 Beah’s novel offers a more complicated perspective on environmental futurity than the UN’s inspirational videos, and yet its account of a group of villagers in Sierra Leone struggling to survive the “slow violence” of environmental devastation in the aftermath of war also confounds the logic of antiresilience critique.5 In both its hopefulness and its failures, this is a story of postcolonial disaster, which might also be called a compromised resilience narrative. I will return to the significance of compromise at the end of the essay. For the moment, it is sufficient to note that rather than invalidating resilience as a tool for thinking about postcolonial environmental futurity, The Radiance of Tomorrow invites us to engage it, with careful attention to its specifically narrative—along with its psychological, ecological, and political—significance. Rather than providing a picture of the future we should want or not want, I suggest that Beah’s novel compels us to engage with the circumstances that condition our imagination of the future, raising questions about authority, agency, and spatiotemporality, such as: Who is “we”? Who gets to imagine the future? From what location? These questions don’t refute resilience as an idea so much as they invite us to enlarge the scope of critique to consider the uneven terrain from which resilience stories emerge, along with the kind of worlds they allow us to imagine.
Despite their recent popularity, there is nothing new about resilience stories. In a 2001 essay, “Une littérature de résilience?,” Angelo Gianfrancesco describes the emergence of the theme of resilience in nineteenth-centuryliterature.6 In authors ranging from Charles Dickens to Victor Hugo, he traces the recurrence of narratives focused on [End Page 44] characters’—generally children’s—transformation through adversity. In...