Polysystem of Resilience in the Anthropocene. Understanding the Role of Heterogeneity in Human-Nature Systemic Interactions

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Resilience as a metaphor has developed over the years into a scientific concept (During and van Dam, 2019). Originally resilience was used as a concept or metaphor to describe a potential increase in strength in children who grew up in adverse conditions. Resilience in its primitive meaning was used as a metaphor for a recovery process that nobody really understood (During and Van Dam, 2019). Nowadays the meaning is more or less confined to the contribution of the citizens of a society in tackling all kind of wicked problems. The concept is used in an analytical and a performative manner, depending on who is talking. Scientists tend to use it in an analytical way, while politicians see themselves as magicians who can turn a lethargic society into a resilient community.
Resilience is now widely used in Anthropocene discussions of climate change. The Anthropocene, according to Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, implies that mankind has evolved into a form of living that literally changes the geology of the earth. Problems of climate change are worsening more quickly than governmental institutions’ ability to solve them. Beyond the institutional, citizens are called upon to help counter the causes and effects of climate change. Resilience here has the meaning of being prepared for severe changes to living conditions, and it has translocated the ability to adapt from state to citizen (Cons, 2018). Due to this claim, it is now firmly positioned at the point
where nature and mankind meet1. The influential Stockholm Resilience Centre calls this socio-ecological resilience. This position is interesting, because resilience theories in
environmental and social sciences may differ to such an extent that the questions rises whether they should be considered fundamentally incompatible.
In ecological theory, the concept refers to nested processes of self-organization, which keeps the effects of stress within the boundaries of what are termed tipping points. Despite a lot of change in species-species and species-habitat interactions, the identity of a resilient system remains the same. In ecological theory, heterogeneity stands for the evolutionary process of a system towards an ever-increasing complexity in the relations of its constituent parts. Stress may harm that complexity and subsequently affect the biodiversity of a system. Homogeneous systems are (but not always!) considered to be vulnerable: if one species is affected, a whole system may collapse.
Heterogeneity in ecological theory is a system concept that is replaced by biodiversity in fieldwork, which gives a relative measure showing whether one piece of land has more
species than another.
In social theory, resilience is about learning and improving in response to adverse conditions: “that which does not kill us only makes us stronger” is the saying by Friedrich
Nietzsche. In social theory, heterogeneity is often understood as discursive or mental diversity, characteristic of the resource part of dealing with stress. For instance, social
learning yields better results in conditions of dissensus or dissent. Heterogeneity is the driving force behind the source of ideas that never dries up.
Confronting ecological and social resilience theories leads us to divergent views on heterogeneity as a resource and as an effect parameter. Resilience thus has a complex
relationship with heterogeneity. On the one hand, heterogeneity implies more variety in responses to environmental or societal stress. Yet on the other, it also implies more
vulnerability, because the mechanisms of stress leading to changes may also be diverse and complex. We need to dig deeper in this relationship to better understand the
full complexity of the role of heterogeneity in resilience. We will analyse the role of heterogeneity and diversity in social and ecological resilience theories, using both general
systems theory (GST) and polysystem theory (PST). With our focus on heterogeneity,
we will make the argument that in order to understand resilience in mankind-nature interactions, elements of both theories have to be combined. No ecological theory can
account for heterogeneity-based resilience in society and conversely, no social theory really helps us to understand the relation between biodiversity and resilience in nature. To substantiate our theoretical arguments, we will discuss a case in which social and ecological resilience can be found. This case will show the complexity of mechanisms of resilience in ecological and social systems, and how they can interact. We believe understanding the nature of these interactions to be the basics of any theory that accounts for anthropocenic resilience.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCircuits in Motion
Subtitle of host publicationPolysystem Theory and the Analysis of Culture
EditorsDavid Souto, Aiora Sampedro, Jon Kortazar
Place of PublicationBilbao
PublisherUniversidad del País Vasco
ISBN (Print)9788413192888
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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