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Between suffering and survival – the quest for Ecoresilience

Authors: Björn Wallén Published:

Adult education needs to shift the focus from individual resilience onto multidisciplinary, systemic approaches, writes Björn Wallen. The text is a column written for issue 4/2021 on Redefining Resilience.

Life is survival. This instinct is shared by all living creatures – human and non-human.

The driving force behind this could be called ecological resilience, but what does that mean in practice?

Resilience is a fancy word that boomed some years ago and became mind-blowing newspeak in politics and popular psychology with its simplified self-help advice.

Now, as writer and traumatherapist Soili Poijula points out, there is already a fifth wave of resilience studies emerging, shifting the focus from individual resilience onto multidisciplinary, systemic approaches.

In natural sciences (such as ecology and anthropology), this systemic approach has been known for decades. Ecological niches, a concept describing the role each organism plays in a community, was introduced by anthropologist Fredrik Barth as early as in the mid-1950s in Northern Pakistan.

Are we pushing the limits of resilience way beyond the limits in the important case of preserving diversity?

The value of Barth´s study is its explanatory power concerning ethnic diversity and cultural resilience in various environments, although this relationship is not automatically causal.

Another famous anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, in his classical work Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), wrote, “The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.”

We can see this happen with our own eyes, facing the sixth wave of mass extinction all over planet Earth.

WHAT CAN BE LEARNED from the fifth wave of resilience studies and the sixth wave of mass extinction?

Firstly, we need to acknowledge the difference in using the concept of resilience in natural and human sciences. As an anthropologist, I use ecological resilience to refer to natural ecosystems that respond, resist and recover from the damage caused by, for instance, climate change.

My own definition of ecological resilience is as follows: the inbuilt mechanism of evolutionary wisdom for any species to find the best adaptation in harsh and stressful environments.

This definition identifies local ecological niches and adaptations, but the question remains: Are we pushing the limits of resilience way beyond the limits in the important case of preserving diversity?

Nature is seriously suffering, causing immense human suffering too, and there is no Planet B.

As adult educators, one thing we can do is strengthen the emerging force of ecoresilience.

FIRSTLY, ECORESILIENCE MEANS taking concrete steps out of silence, by listening to and learning from social movements that promote systemic change.

Popular adult education in Finland and other Nordic countries is linked to civil society organisations, which is a good start.

Bildung alone cannot fix this enormous planetary challenge.

Recently, a lot has happened in the mobilisation of young people – the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion campaigns are good examples of this. Many of these activists were also present at the recent COP26 – UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

The critical question is what happens after the conference when the delegates have flown home.

Secondly, ecoresilience means being a vital part of building sustainable communities.

There is a wide range of activities that can promote ecoresilience, both in urban and rural areas. In Finland, we are having a discussion about ‘Ecosocial Bildung’ as a driving force behind collective action, but let’s be clear: Bildung alone cannot fix this enormous planetary challenge.

However, I do believe that adult learning and education can function together with other multipliers of change in society.

Focusing on adult population is important because we are slow learners and adaptors in this rapid transformation from a fossil-based to a circular society.


Further reading:

Soili Poljula: Resilienssi. Muutosten kohtaamisen taito. Kirjapaja (2018)

Fredrik Barth: Ecologic relationships of ethnic groups in Swat, North Pakistan. American Anthropologist (1956)

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Björn Wallén is the chairperson at Vapaa Sivistystyö ry, a Finnish Adult Education Association. Contact: Twitter@Aforismbear, email Show all articles by Björn Wallén
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