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



Dialogue Advance

Like many things do, it started on the shore of Lake Balaton. A small group of us were discussing some of the particular challenges we face as young interdisciplinary researchers/practitioners who are interdisciplinary to the point that we don’t feel like we have any discipline to fall back onto. In could have been any topic of discussion, but at some point we felt a transcendence of some sort into a different space of conversation, where we all felt we were building something new, rather than amalgamating disperse ideas together.

So over the next months, we talked about creating a space to have these types of conversations on any topic that we mutually cared about. We knew we wanted an open, creative space in which ideas could fester and have the chance to grow. And a place in which we could experiment with a small group. A few of the ideas we initially started with were: 1) Improving dialogue between humanities + natural sciences, 2) Learning for sustainability / Sustainability Literacy, 3) Storytelling/framing (as a meta-theme). What is the underlying story that we are living by? Do we need a new one/new ones? What do they look like? 4) Context (how does it affect our mental models/worldviews? or the way we think?), 5) Scale (what is appropriate scale when it comes to various cultural, social, technical, economic solutions for sustainability?), 6) Interplay between arts/science/spirituality in context of sustainability.

We had a few ideas of how we wanted to go about this. Quite early on, thanks to the suggestion of another Balaton member, we were inspired by they work of physicist David Bohm, who wrote a book called On Dialogue.

Some other ways of conversing we were inspired by:

Dialectic Reasoning


Accountable Talk

The location was a remote cabin in the North of Sweden, built by one of the co-conspirators for the dialogue’s grandfather who was an artist. The three of us invited a few more people, so we were seven in total who made the trip.

What follows are some snippets from my diary on the experience.


Day 1

The walk to the in melting May snow was treacherous. One meter high deep snow… we were drenched by the time we reached the cabin. But at last, after taking off rubber boots in vain, in a mosaic of birch trees, we stand. It’s stunning in it’s isolation. This place. An artist’s creation, full of haunted masterpieces. Some dead, others alive.

In the atelier, we sat on giant colourful pillows on the ground, encircling candles, chocolate and tea. It was a safe space, full of energy. We began just by chatting about any issues close to our hearts, not in any formal way. In fat, we spent most of our time talking about time. And the double edged sword it is. On the one hand, we feel we have too many time constraints and too much discipline in our lives and yet on the other hand, most of us are craving some sort of disciplined space. Space in which we mediate, exercise, write, make something creative, do something with our hands everyday. A discipline. Have we become anti-disciplinary?

In the spirit of not giving away thoughts that are not my own and shared in that space, I will skip to my own reason for wanting to have this dialogue.

… I went next, in our circle of no or endless direction.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to say until I opened my mouth. But unlike lately, I actually felt I had something worthwhile to say. It came out coherently and meaningfully.

I started at the lake. The moment of insight the three of us had shaped. The need to push beyond an amalgamation of ideas. We really are among the first generation of thinkers who come from many angles, to solve increasingly complex and global problems.  But I am often overwhelmed, by which angle I should take. And get impatient with one, and jump to the next because I can. Maybe a matter of discipline.

But if a group of 6 people, each looking at a problem in a different way, can change that thought productively rather than chaotically, maybe we can come with something great. Where are the points of fusion? Where ideas fuse before they tackle the problem? How do we create new ideas and synergies in this spaces?

The second point I made was the path-dependency of ideas. And I thought of a tree. How you choose what path you want to take. Once you take that path, there is no turning back.

The way we, or at least I, was educated and trained is to have a discussion by responding to everything everyone says. Even when I don’t have anything meaningful or productive to say. I should say something because they main goal is to keep the conversation going. This is what creates Bad Ideas. I think it was Bateson who coined the term The Ecology of Bad Ideas. Maybe that’s how an ecosystem of bad ideas starts. And it happens so often.

Because new ideas are the buds of new branches on a tree. And they grow slowly, and they take time—rather than following the path of an idea already traveled.

So what I would like to learn from this Dialogue is how to STOP.

Someone else mentioned:

“The types of solutions we need to solve some the most complex problems come precisely at moments when we are not thinking about them.”

Format: we listened, allowed for silence. We did not steer the process which was difficult and confusing at times. Often ideas would spring up in my head and rather than assert them, I would keep them in my head… most them long forgotten.

Day 2

Improve, research questions, experimentation. A lot of moving in many different directions!

Day 3

Convergence, divergence, convergence.

Convergence: we meditated. An interesting thing happened. I didn’t think: oh, I need to be better at mediating, I’m so rubbish at this and everyone else around me has spent time in monasteries and must be so good at this. Instead, I found myself at times succeeding in some sort of transcendence, but most of the time I was just happily reflecting on ideas and conversations.

Align attention with intention.

Meditation is not about transcendence, it’s about allowing things to be the way they are.


We silently took off in our own directions, walking, collecting, creating something.

I sit and look at the slender birth tree. Swaying, in silence.

Inside. Five around. All is still.

I look out the window at the tree and it sways gently in the wind. But I hear nothing.

What is the silent world? Where are all the unspoken words?

How much of life happens without me having a clue?

My world is tiny and all that matters is today and tomorrow and how I feel in this day. How I make others feel in this day.

… and my haikus…


We then had lunch on the porch in scorching sun with the snow melting all around. Have you ever heard the snow melt? We had each created divergent pieces of art. Here is a summary of a few of the discussions:

  • to create and not to conserve. The courage and power of letting go of something we have created.
  • Medium: Charcoal… it’s nice not to have an undo.
  • Bauhaus sketch: Placement of elements makes the background active; making the white space active.  Slow and fast thoughts. What is behind the object? What are the things in between? As an act of design. Trust as white space… what do we have to build to keep the trust? Hurrying slowly. Can we fabricate flow?
  • Usually when we do things, the why is overwhelming. Use a typewriter, and just do it.

Through our convergence of art exchange, we came up with questions, somehow. They looked like this:



We then just rolled a dice and chose one: What is the source of action?


We had an incredible discussion. The conversation went one way and then another for a couple hours and we ended up with a surprising conclusion we all agreed we never would have ended up with on our own, or in another forum. It’s really too difficult to reproduce here, but here are some thoughts on method:

  • Purest democracy I have ever seen. We all put an idea into the centre of the circle but didn’t necessarily feel the need to respond to it in anyway. After a while, certain ‘towers’ or collection of ideas were built. Some ideas gained more traction than others and we stuck with those.
  • Often when we built two towers, we would jump between them and eventually one would fall.
  • Pre-cooked thoughts are often the ones that win people over. But in this case, that did not exist. Here we really entered with incomplete thoughts and other people completed them.
  • We were able to sneak things into the heart space.
  • It would be interesting to experiment with speed and structure. We had a very slow discussion, because we didn’t want to jump in and we wanted ideas to grow on their own without interrupting with our own experience. It may have been interesting also to experiment with the speed of conversation.
  • Ideas picked up without acknowledgement and become one.

Escaping the Inferno

Mark Mykleby‘s paper “National Security, Sustainability, and Citizenship” in January’s special edition of Solutions asks the fundamental question:

Why should sustainability, essentially an ecological concept, serve as the centerpiece of a twenty-first-century American grand strategy?

In sum, Mykleby promotes sustainability as a strategic mindset, which looks beyond current risks and threats with a positive focus on converging interests in response to emerging global conditions. A critical approach, it seems, in an ever complex, uncertain global geopolitical playing field. I’ve been working on understanding the systemic role that Failed States (particularly Afghanistan) and corresponding slower pervasive variables play in regional level management of common pool resources. See also earlier post on identifying agents of change in Afghanistan.

Slide from my presentation on Transformation of Failed States at the Balaton Group Meeting

More importantly though, in my mind, is who is responsible? and where are the leverage points? Is a future strategy to be defined by the masses, such as the Occupy movement? or great leaders? I will not make this case here, but see an interesting debate between Juan Carlos Rocha and Henrik Ernstson at Resilience Science Blog on collective action vs. key-individuals. My point is that individual agency (simply to act either as a leader or as part of the crowd) is an impetus we mustn’t forget.

Powerful quote from the paper inspired by Calvino:

So what does this all mean? What is the “ask” of all of us, as citizens? Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, first written in 1972, frames it quite nicely. In this fictional story, an aging Kublai Khan sits in a garden with Marco Polo, lamenting the demise of his empire. In the course of their conversation, Marco Polo makes an astute observation: “Yes, the empire is sick, and, what is worse, it is trying to become accustomed to its sores.”Clearly, such a comment does not assuage the anguish of Kublai Khan. But it does establish what is wrong. In the end, Marco Polo offers a way out:

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

Resist the inferno, and keep asking questions!

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