Climate change and emotional resilience: seeking clarity

by Stan Hirst

Resilience has become the buzzword of the 21st century, and its rapid rise to prominence in the media has taken some of us by surprise.  It’s a common enough term in the English language, but it has been applied to a wide number of subjects and themes, possibly not always with the same exact meaning. It is used in physics, ecology, engineering, urban development, military science, psychology and a few other areas, possibly not always with the exact same nuancing or intentions.

Now we have a more recent usage, one which is being promoted by our own Suzuki Elders in relation to global climate change – emotional resilience.  The Elders have defined emotional resilience as “keeping the ability, both personal and communal, to deal with the psychological and social trauma that comes from seeming to lose ground“.

Elder vanity discourages me from admitting I’m not clear on what this actually means, but I’m reasonably sure that I have allies within the Elder ranks when I say that we need some discussion on the concept. This post is my humble attempt at unpicking the concept.

Since I’m old and wise (that’s the definition of an Elder!) a first traditional step might be to turn to a dictionary definition of resilience.  It states resilience to be  “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness“.  Alternately it is said to be “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity“.  That gives us a glimmer of meaning but precious little understanding of the relevance to emotions.

In my own discipline  – ecology – the concept of resilience has been under progressive study for nearly a half-century. Ecologists accept the definition of ecological resilience to be “the capacity of ecosystems to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly“.  Note that ecological resilience typically refers to an entire community or ecosystem.

A common example given for ecological resilience is a mature coniferous forest with stands of several tree species plus understory layers of shrubs, grasses and herbs, the forest occupied by populations of mammals, birds and herptiles. The forest persists for decades in a more or less “stable” state.  Inevitably along comes a forest fire or a major storm or a pest outbreak which destroys huge proportions of  the tree cover, disrupts the shrub and herbaceous layers, exposes the soils to desiccation, erosion and run-off, and kills off a significant portion of the faunal populations. The forest as we knew it is essentially either destroyed or severely disrupted.  However, many of the basic ecological functions such as plant succession, photosynthesis, water retention, energy flow and reproduction remain intact. If left to its own devices the forest will, over decades, regenerate and regain its community structure and functions. Wildlife populations will return.  The whole system might not become be an exact replica of what it was, but we’ll likely accept whatever can be retrieved.

Human sciences have taken on the concept. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes resilience in regard to the individual as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, and other significant sources of stress”. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.  A similar concept is applied to whole communities, towns, cities, agricultural systems, etc. by planners, sociologists and engineers.

The APA points out that resilience in people is ‘ordinary’, not ‘extraordinary’. People have commonly demonstrated resilience, an oft-cited example being the individual and social responses to the 11 September  2001 terrorist attacks in the USA.  Resilience does not mean the non-experience of difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common sequels to major adversity or trauma.  The road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

Psychological studies show that the primary factor in [emotional] resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.  Specific factors that have been linked to resilience include:

  • capacity to make realistic plans and to take steps to carry them out;
  • a positive view of self and confidence in personal strengths and abilities;
  • skills in communication and problem solving; and
  • capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

The science of psychology has laid out some clear strategies for building personal resilience. Developing resilience is seen as a personal journey. An approach to building resilience that works for one person might not necessarily work for others. Various strategies need to be invoked. However, as spelled out by the APA, there seem to be common procedures that work for many:

  •    Make connections.
  •    Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.
  •    Accept that change is a part of living.
  •    Move toward your goals.
  •    Take decisive actions.
  •    Look for opportunities for self-discovery.
  •    Nurture a positive view of yourself.
  •    Keep things in perspective.
  •    Maintain a hopeful outlook.
  •    Take care of yourself.

I can see how this all links in to emotional resilience in individuals and in communities, but it remains unclear to me it links to climate change, either globally or regionally.

We need to remind ourselves that climate change is not the same as a change in the weather, although the two may look the same to an uninformed observer over a short period of time. The difference is that climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over an extended period of time (decades, centuries, aeons). Its still going to  rain along the west coast, it will still be cold in Alberta in the winter, and we will still have dry spells in the Interior; its the frequency, timing, onset, duration and/or severity of all these familiar weather patterns that will change.

Will prolonged winter storms, summer droughts and frequent blowdowns affect me emotionally? You bet they will.  What will I do about it?  Shake my fist at the Westridge Terminal across the inlet? Throw tomatoes at D.J. Trump’s smirking face on the TV screen? I’ll do it but I don’t expect much in return. I will need to be emotionally resilient.

Now if I only knew what that actually meant.

 

 

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4 comments

  • Thanks, Stan. As a city planner (retired), I am aware that cities are constantly adapting and changing. On the other hand, the rule of thumb is that if cities grow at more than 2% a year, people get overly stressed, and have trouble adapting….planning is more difficult.

  • Thoughtful post, Stan, thanks. I have a hard time seeing why you have a hard time 🙂 seeing how the strategies that define resilience link to climate disruption (a better word, perhaps, than change). Seems to me that the links are pretty straightforward. Climate disruption results (we see this already) in losses than most people grieve deeply… coral reefs going down, monarchs and swallows not returning… The ability to feel the grief and take those other steps you list quite clearly will help us adapt and recover “in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, and other significant sources of stress.” Oh, now I see. Perhaps it was tongue in cheek when you said, “Now, if I only knew what that actually meant.” 🙂

    • Resilience is defined as “bouncing back”. If we’re faced with a degraded, overpopulated Earth then to what are we trying to bounce back? A non-degrading Earth? Or acceptance of the alternative? See my problem?

      • Stan – liked your article. My thought is that it is not about “bouncing back” to a degraded Earth: it has little to do with what happens physically to our surroundings. It is about what we do with ourselves to regain, even improve, our sense of balance and stability as functional individuals subsequent to the experience of, or even awareness of, a trauma. And this can only really happen within the context of relationships in a trust-worthy community.

        And, as to not knowing what emotionally resilient means: I am going to assume (dangerous I know) that you are not sure about how to deal with your feelings and reactions. Probably very few of us do. I am convinced that resilience can be a learned skill, and that it needs to be learned in the presence of others with whom one has empathic conversations.

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