Fit for Disaster

05/19/2016   Read time: 11 min

“Sustainable development”, at least, was driven by the idea to actively and politically shape the world. Conversely, the concept of resilience is only about making people fit for survival.

By Thomas Gebauer

It should be remembered that today's multiple crises that are affecting the living conditions of a large share of the world's population did not suddenly appear out of the blue. Climate change, rampant food insecurity, the spread of urban slums, increasing risks of epidemics, the loss of social cohesion, ever increasing emotional and psychological stress – all these are the result of a politics that seldom considers the needs and rights of the people most severely affected, but instead follows rules governing the use of political and economic power. The profitable valorisation of men and nature is advancing ever onward. “Growth until downfall” has long become a reality that nearly everyone is aware of.

There are clearly many reasons for the lack of opposition to this disastrous system. One of them is the notable ability of ruling powers to surround all imminent global risks and dangers with an aura of economic inevitability. According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, we are living in a “very, very restless world,” and the only chance we have is to “run on sight.”

Over the past few years, the mix of delusion and de facto loss of sovereignty that is reflected in this political approach have resulted in a whole series of disastrous strategies. These encompass, not least, the promotion of “resilience,” a popular term that is currently echoing around the world.

Resilience – a new panacea?

Originally, the concept of resilience derived from physics, more precisely from material engineering. It describes the properties of materials that enable them to respond to disturbances from outside without suffering permanent harm. The Latin word “resilire” means more or less: to bounce back, spring back. Whoever enters the search term resilience in Google will find more than 500,000 entries: resilience in educational counselling and trauma treatment, resilience in relevant advice columns of the Yellow Press. Resilience is also a key word in the establishment of health services in West Africa, in management training programmes, in protection against burnout, climate change and military force. Resilience is a concept used in talking of disaster prevention, economics and even security policy. The idea of resilience seems to be connected to an almost magical quality that has become an increasingly common aspect in nearly all fields of practice. For many people resilience is the response to today's challenges, a kind of panacea against all the threats that societies and the systems they have created are facing today.

In view of future expectations characterised by chaos and threat scenarios, it seems reasonable to take precautions to weather disturbances originating from outside. In the long run, there is probably no reason we cannot strengthen human resilience, and it is, of course, necessary to support people in their efforts to protect themselves against disasters. Yet, it becomes absurd if efforts to develop resilience serve as justifications to abandon the fight to eliminate or control the root causes of disasters. This is, however, more and more the case. For a policy that “runs on sight” and no longer strives to develop alternatives to the prevailing dynamics of crises, the resilience concept seems to be a made-to-order solution.

Trend researcher Matthias Horx, one of the buzzword-coining apologists of the neoliberal transformation of living conditions, has openly confessed: “Resilience will replace the nice concept of sustainability over the next years.” According to Horx, “the concept of sustainability is built on an obsolete harmony illusion, but living, evolutionary systems are always moving on the brink of chaos”. Therefore, the focus will no longer be on permanent, sustainable development but on disaster management.

Away from disaster prevention towards disaster management, away from a policy that urges changes towards “running on sight”? What Horx condemns as the “harmony illusion” is the normative dimension inherent in the idea of sustainability. However the concept of sustainability is used (and it has provoked a lot of reasonable criticism), it implies values that define guidelines for political, economic and technological decisions. The idea of sustainable development focuses in particular on the idea of creating decent living conditions and reducing risks by actively shaping the circumstances of life.

The idea of resilience lacks such a normative concept. It is no longer about social ideals but only about how people and systems can protect themselves against disturbances, in short, about how to survive in a profoundly unbalanced world. Joint efforts no longer focus on correcting destructive conditions, but instead only on adapting to the continuing process of destruction. While initially the Modern Age was inspired by the dream to create a better future by reducing the risks threatening people, the current project concentrates on upholding the Status Quo, including the associated social inequality. The utopian ardour that still accompanied the founding of the UN has given way to a pragmatic realism that no longer strives for change and, finally, leaves it up to people to cope with their circumstances on their own.

“…when things go wrong”

The promotion of resilience is connected with a vast network of special interests. Resilience provides business opportunities, helps to overcome legitimation deficits and thus to stabilise long-standing unjust conditions.

Countless consultants seem to focus on developing a market-oriented response to the rampant fear of loss that has emerged from the neoliberal revocation of sociability. The titles of handbooks speak for themselves: “Resilience: What Boosts our Defences against Stress, Depression and Burn-out,” “Resilience, the Art to Get Up Again.” For 25 € you can quickly test your personal resilience on an online test; for 1,220 € you can participate in a seminar offered by an institute for manager development to learn the secrets of so called “get-up people” who emerge from difficult situations and defeats even stronger than before.

But it is not only commercial interests that are reflected by this hype, the strong emphasis on resilience also facilitates the legitimation deficits of states. If resilience is considered a fundamental characteristic of every person and every system, a characteristic that may need some training and technical improvement, public institutions can increasingly evade their socio-political protection obligations. From this approach a completely new conception of statehood may evolve that shifts responsibility to tackle poverty, the impact of climate change, the consequences of rampant global violence onto sub-systems such as families, communities, neighbourhoods, therapists, pedagogues, aid organisations, private companies and eventually to every individual person. And thus, resilience, as charity before it, turns out to be part of the very neoliberal hegemony whose main purpose is pushing social responsibility into the world of private life. Actually, this is possible only on the basis of an ideology that has penetrated deep into the consciousness of many people, even into the convictions of those that suffer most from the consequences: the ideology of a neo-liberally transformed concept of individual responsibility: when each cares for him/herself, everyone has been taken care of.

At the end of 2014, a book was published in the USA under the striking title “The Resilience Dividend – Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong.” The author, Judith Rodin, is not just anybody, for she is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which some years ago declared resilience a top priority. It therefore comes as no surprise that today everyone is involved in taking precautions against coming crises. Urban planners consider possible terrorist attacks, and top managers of assurances, banks and airlines discuss “incentives for resilient investment” at conferences convened exclusively for this purpose. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls for the establishment of “resilient health systems” based on the consideration that the social and political conditions that fuel outbreaks of epidemics cannot be changed anyway; development experts advise the residents of coastal villages in Bangladesh to brace themselves against future floods by a switch from raising chickens to raising ducks.

In contrast, efforts to stop or at least effectively slow down climate change are currently not on the agenda of development policies. The german edition of the news network EurActive contributed to the issue under the headline: “EU promises more support for climate resilience.” It praised the idea of raising ducks in Bangladesh: “The idea to strengthen resilience is becoming increasingly popular in Brussels.”

And since climate resilience does not mean climate justice, the impact of climate change will hit some harder than others. This is why military institutions are already preparing for future conflicts. Referring to resilience concepts, all units of the US army are currently participating in a “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness” programme. The 125 million dollar training programme, developed by psychologists around the Guru of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, focuses on preparation for traumatic events. Soldiers are supposed to learn that even extreme experiences are challenges for personal development that will help them to develop self-confidence and strength. According to Seligman, the objective is “an invincible army” that no longer knows negative sentiments and repels everything that may disturb its fighting power.

Profitable risk management

Obviously, resilience has become an integral part of prevailing discourse. Researchers can increase their chances for third-party funding if they refer to resilience in their applications. Development experts, who are not especially successful given precarious global circumstances, are pleased that they can offer a new strategy. And relevant enterprises are already looking forward to new business possibilities.

Their business expectations are spurred by the “Global Initiative for Disaster Risk Management” launched by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). This is another initiative that has abandoned the idea of “Disaster Risk Reduction,” which had still been the driving force behind a UN strategy under the same name, and taken up the concept of simply managing misery. The goal of the initiative is not to implement alternatives to the slave-like labour conditions of seamstresses in world market factories of the international textile industry, but to equip factory buildings with modern fire extinguisher systems. On the occasion of the international conference "New Partnerships for Disaster Risk Management" in June 2014, the BMZ proudly announced: “Example Bangladesh: Just one year after the devastating accident in Rana Plaza, a cooperation between German fire fighters and local fire control authorities could be established in cooperation with the ‘Global Initiative for Disaster Risk Management’.” Development policy as mere fire-fighting – that gets to the crux of the self-restriction credo.

Fighting increased social inequality is out-dated. Today the focus is, in cooperation with the international tourism industry, on creating resilient hotels for tourists. The German concept honestly admits it aims at opening the markets of the Global South for technologies “made in and with Germany.” Thus the idea of a “Resilience Dividend” gains a deeper meaning.

Yet, the stated aim to create strength in a world “where things go wrong” (to put this in the words of Rockefeller manager Rodin) will fail – at least for the majority, and in particular for those forced to live at the lowest level of the pyramid. Wealthy managers may succeed in setting up private defensive shields against stress at work and other hardships, but the socially excluded who are denied any kind of recognition and whose living conditions are being systematically destroyed will not be able to brace themselves. The resilience of millions of starving in the Sahel can only be strengthened by promoting small-scale agriculture, which is, however, disappearing, because it stands in the way of international agribusiness.

Neo-liberally oriented subjectivity

Thus resilience turns out to be a kind of hub for a deregulated economy, neo-liberally oriented subjectivity and a state system whose only aim is to preserve the status quo, as profoundly unjust as it is.

Since such conditions inevitably provoke crises, resilience should be seen as “downstream safety.” For example, school children in Israel are conditioned to live with continuing violence. Practicing in the context of simulated terror attacks, they are trained to control their fear with breathing exercises and positive thoughts. Plans for political solutions to the Middle East conflict are not part of their curriculum. Ultimately, such strategies reveal the shocking fact that in the future uncertainty will be the rule and not the exception.

According to the British social scientist Mark Neocleous, “resilience is nothing if not an apprehension of the future, but a future imagined as disaster” Neocleous concludes that even though the anticipation of pending disasters seems driven by instrumental rationality, it is inevitably affecting the consciousness of the people. If everyone assumes that the disaster is unavoidable this will lead to the colonisation of the last remaining spheres of freedom, “the political imagination” (Neocleous), which, in turn, will become the servant of business as usual. If everyone gets themselves “fit for disaster,” the prevailing process of destruction can continue even in times of greatest hardship and threat.

And this is the paradox in current ideals of resilience: It stabilises the very precarious conditions that fuel need for resistance. As long as there are no political solutions to stop the ongoing crises, well-meaning resilience projects will be doomed to fail.

Thomas Gebauer is managing director of the aid organisation medico international in Frankfurt a. M. His contribution is based on an introductory lecture given at the “Fit for Disaster” symposium organised by medico in June 2015.

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