Beyond Divides: Prospects for synergy between resilience and pathways approaches to sustainability

What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities?

These are some of the questions friends and I at the Stockholm Resilience Centre ask in a new paper “Beyond Divides: Prospects for synergy between resilience and pathways approaches to sustainability” (led by Simon West) which we think will be useful for young interdisciplinary scientists beyond the scope of resilience and pathways. We explore how resilience thinking and a pathways approach address such questions, untangling similarities and differences in their ontologies, epistemologies and areas of strategic action. Through examples such as the debate between Johan Rockstrom and Melissa Leach (documented here and here), as well as examples from our own research, we find that the most exciting areas of sustainability research lie in the boundaries between emerging trans-disciplinary research communities such as the SRC and STEPS centre.

Here are some highlights from our conclusions:

In this paper we discussed how the ontological commitments of resilience and pathways lead us to see the world differently. While both work within systems frameworks, the willingness in resilience research to draw firmer system boundaries enables researchers to establish functional relations and identities. In contrast, the emphasis in pathways research on the production of system boundaries enables researchers to uncover the discursive (and contingent) mechanisms that enable us to establish identities and relations in the first place. Given these ontological stances we then examined the epistemological strategies of resilience and pathways. We established that, generally speaking, the resilience emphasis on functionality leads to questions of ‘what works?’. In the pathways approach the emphasis on distribution leads to questions of ‘who’s losing, who’s benefiting?’. Therefore, while participatory governance structures are encouraged in resilience research primarily as a means of increasing the pool of knowledge available, in pathways oriented research they are promoted to facilitate deliberation and contestation between different knowledges. These epistemologies, supported by distinct methods, frame the role of the trans-disciplinary sustainability researcher in different ways. For resilience-oriented researchers, appropriate action for sustainability, conceived as maintenance of biophysical processes, may take the form of empowering ‘system-level’ resilience, engaging with a wide range of actors from the private sector, civil society and the state. Pathways researchers, conceiving of sustainability in terms of social inequity and inequality, are more likely to see their role as highlighting marginalised perspectives and subaltern narratives, in which case engaging with powerful private sector voices may not be so relevant. However, at the same time, we see pathways and resilience researchers acting in the same policy arenas, and, in some areas, supporting each other’s agendas. This suggests that these two visions for the role of the sustainability researcher may not be mutually exclusive but actually beneficial. The problem remains, however, how to work across these perspectives and produce trans-disciplinary, rather than simply multi-disciplinary, spaces.

We found the STEPS summer school to be an incredibly enriching experience, and are really happy to see a newly formed Alumni Association in which we hope to continue these dialogues.

Download the pdf by clicking on it

Download the pdf by clicking on it



What would you do with this rock?

We recently had a ‘Stockholm Resilience Centre’ Marathon, where we spent a day learning about each others’ research. It was an incredible day, at the ethnographic museum in Stockholm. Our instruction was to NOT use powerpoint. So we had role plays, songs and videos… and our group, the Landscapes Theme (because our centre is based around cross-cutting research themes) presented objects. Mine was a rock. And here is my 1 minute blurb:

What would you do with this rock? What productive function would this rock have to you?

In the high desert steppe Pamir mountains of Central Asia,  people make soil from rocks. With their own hands, they break the rocks with hammers, dynamite or other, bigger rocks, until they can throw them off their land and build a stone wall with them.  They then flood this field, once, twice, three times, usually over three seasons with the silt-laden water of the Amu Darya. After three years, they may have a mulch that is just good enough to grow some fruit trees, or if the silty flood is particularly rich, perhaps even some grains.

This landscape, is barren, difficult and desolate. One might even ask why anyone decided to live here. Increasing population and severe food production restrictions indeed beg the question why anyone still lives here at all. And it’s true, living here is difficult. But the life that does grow, is unique and astoundingly resilient. Drought resistant crop varieties, endemic fruit varieties prosper in micro-niches and the food tastes so much better.


Afghan farmer in the Wakhan Corridor clearing his land of large rocks. 3 seasons from now he may use this field of rocky mulch to grow fruit trees, or even grains. August 2011 (r) Jamila Haider

A scientist might look at this landscape and see only limits that must be overcome with technocratic solutions. But let’s take for a moment the perspective of the people who live in this valley; who have co-evolved with this landscape for thousands of years. This spirit and courage is ever present in the Afghan farmers who work hard on their land, as in this photo here where rocks are cleared before being smashed to mulch.

Just on the other side of the river, this spirit of ingenuity has been all but lost. Replaced by modernization schemes, Tajik farmers will tell us that they have forgotten how to work the land.

Monumental efforts have been made to overcome these barriers, first the Soviets, and then development organisations have tried: fertilizer inputs, massive irrigation schemes, riparian stabilization, improved crop varieties.

But most do not work. The fields are too high, the soil to difficult. People are incredibly poor with some of the worst human well-being indicators in the world. Traditional development has failed. Efforts to increase food production have in fact done the opposite. Improved wheat varieties have failed after 1 or 2 seasons, depleting the soils which cannot fallow, or not withstanding drought. These interventions have done little more than create new traps, dependency on a state (the Soviets were for a while flying in fodder), or development organizations introducing seeds that requires fertilizers. How can we regain the resilience of this landscape based on the ingenuity of the farmers and break the dependency trap?

What is a Failed State?

The Failed State. A concept I started to look at in the context of global sustainability at the the annual Balaton Group Meeting two months ago. The Balaton Group is an international group of researchers and practitioners in fields related to systems and sustainability. The topic of this years meeting was “Successful Societies” and I was asked to present on the “How to Create a Successful Society from a Failed State.” What an easy topic! I felt a little bit like Miss <Insert-Country-Here> asking for World Peace.

I didn’t know much about Failed States, other than having lived in one, so had some reading to do. The Earth Policy Institute recently released a new book “The World on Edge” by Lester Brown, which includes  a Chapter on how to rescue failed states and recognizes a shift away from isolated military action to combat the root causes of State Failure.

What are the characteristics of state failure? German sociologist, Max Weber describes a failed state as one which “fails to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders.” Noam Chomsky included in the definition a state which “fails to provide security for the population, to guarantee the rights at home or abroad, or to maintain function of democratic states.” The Fund for Peace& Foreign Policy has created an index system that quantifies a dozen aspects of state failure:
1. Physical control of its territory and erosion of legitimate state authority to make collective decisions
2. Inability to provide reasonable public services
3. Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community
4. Extensive corruption and criminal behavior
5. Inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support
6. Large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population
7. Sharp economic decline
8. Group-based inequality
9. Institutionalized persecution or discrimination
10. Severe demographic pressures
11. Brain drain
12. Environmental decay

Still, this list of indicators contrasts to indicators of successful societies: education, health indicators and overall “well-being.” How is it that visions of success and failure have become so disconnected? Is it time to re-think what a Failed State is, and what the drivers of failed or successful societies are? The blurry dichotomy between the two is illustrated through a comparative case of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In Badakhshan province, the two countries share a watershed which is inhabitated by Pamiri people with a common language, religion and culture, separated only by the Amu Darya River and 70 years of a divergent development path. Tajik Badakhshan benefited from Soviet development of infrastructure, education (99.5% overall literacy rate), health care system and access to markets. In stark contrast just across the river, Afghans still walk up to 12 days along donkey trails to the nearest market, and have severely limited access to healthcare (maternal mortality is highest at the world, at 6,507 deaths/ 100,000 births) and education (18% and 36% literacy rates for women and men respectively).

Flying over border between Tajikistan (left) and Afghanistan (right). June 2009

Despite these stark contrasts in development and traditional indicators of success, many Tajiks will say that Afghans are better off, because their livelihoods are independent of external inputs, and they are not affected by global price fluctuations. So success, or failure, depends not only on the scale of analysis, but also on who you talk to. Identifying the systemic role of State Failure requires a break away from the dichotomy presented by these indicators, and asks us to question what are the processes that provide resilience in as system ridden with political rigidity, corruption, and violence.

There are examples of “success”, even within Failed States, which need to be scaled up. One approach to reduce the global risk of failed states may be to identify sources of resilience at the local scale, which may or may not align with conventional indicators of success. Resilience of what to what?

Harvest in Vanj, Tajikistan. Photo by Teo Kaye

Harvest in Jomarj, Afghanistan. Photo by Teo Kaye.

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