Resilience is the key watchword of Transition Initiatives. Ordinary dictionary definitions of resilience include the physics aspect – “The power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc. after being bent, compressed or stretched; elasticity” – and the human aspect, including phrasing such as “an ability to recover from, or adjust easily to, misfortune or change” or “ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.” The physics definition is irrelevant to Transition. A composite of the two definitions concerning human aspects might be “an ability to recover quickly from misfortune, change, illness, depression, adversity, or misfortune.”

I believe that the vast majority of Americans would intuitively understand and accept this definition. However the resilience term used by Transition seems to go far beyond the common usage. To understand the Transition Movement requires understanding the significance and broadness of the word resilience as the movement uses it. It may be that many Transition supporters are assuming the common definition and are content with it, unaware of the more complex meanings. If so, this could be problematic later.

Ecological aspects of resilience

Transition founder Rob Hopkins defines resilience as:

“Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.”[1]

This definition is just the first phrase from a more complex definition:[2]

“Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks—in other words, stay in the same basin of attraction. Resilience has multiple attributes, but four aspects are critical for these definitions:

  • Latitude: the maximum amount the system can be changed before losing its ability to recover; basically the width of the basin of attraction. Wide basins mean a greater number of system states can be experienced without crossing a threshold.
  • Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; related to the topology of the basin—deep basins of attraction (R, or more accurately, higher ratios of R:L) indicate that greater forces or perturbations are required to change the current state of the system away from the attractor.
  • Precariousness: the current trajectory of the system, and how close it currently is to a limit or “threshold” which, if breached, makes recovery difficult or impossible (Pr).
  • Panarchy: how the above three attributes are influenced by the states and dynamics of the (sub)systems at scales above and below the scale of interest (Pa).”
  • This is a highly complex definition that may assume an understanding of ecological science that is beyond the capability of the average person. It may be perceived as having little to do with the common definition of dealing with bad events, accidents, job loss, recovery, etc. Words and phrases in this definition that are not in common useage in the U.S. include “basin of attraction”, latitude, resistance, precariousness, panarchy, “topology of the basin”, and “scale of interest”.

    Resilience and the U.K. Government

    Apparently the term resilience is in common use by the U.K. government. The following statement is a U.K. government definition of community resilience which defines it as follows:

    “Community resilience is about communities and individuals harnessing local resources and expertise to help themselves in an emergency, in a way that complements the response of the emergency services.[3]

    The U.K. Cabinet Office leads a program of work to help build and enhance community resilience across the U.K.[4] The Civil Contingencies Secretariat leads the development of national guidance on community resilience and individual resilience. Its program aims to:

    • Increase individual, family and community resilience against all threats and hazards;
    • Support and enable existing community resilience, expand and grow these successful models of community resilience in other areas;
    • Support effective dialogue between the community and the practitioners supporting them;
    • Raise awareness and understanding of risk and local emergency response capability in order to motivate and sustain self resilience;
    • Evaluate the success and articulate the benefits of community resilience; and
    • Provide a shared framework to support cross sector, regional and local activity in a way that ensures sufficient flexibility to make community resilience relevant and workable in each local area/community.

    An important U.K. perspective is found in a manual Resilient Nation[5] written by Charles Edwards in 2009 which defines resilience (page 18) as “The capacity of an individual, community or system to adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of function, structure and identity.” A reference says that this definition was created by the Resilient Nation Advisory Group in December 2008. The Manual asks the question “Why is community resilience important?” and answers:

    • Emergencies happen, preparing yourself and your family will make it easier to recover from the impacts of an emergency.
    • Being aware of the risks you might face, and who in your community might need your help, could make your community better prepared to cope with an emergency.
    • Local emergency responders will always have to prioritize those in greatest need during an emergency, especially where life is in danger. During these times, you need to know how to help yourself and those around you.

    It is surprising to see the extent of the concept as developed by the U.K. government. It may explain part of the significance of the term to the Transition Movement although it does not appear to be used in the same manner by the government and Transition. But the important thing is that the term has roots in the U.K. culture, possibly much more so than in the U.S.

    Psychology, Consulting, Coaching and Resilience

    A short history of the use of resilience in psychology as shown on a Positive Psychology[6] website in the U.K. which says

    “When we talk about resilience, most of us use the word fairly loosely. Often it’s intended to mean the same as words like hardy, tough, irrepressible, stamina, ‘stick-ability’ etc. But psychologists use the word with much more precision. For example: ‘Resilience is the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances.’ (Masten, Best & Garmezy 1990) and ‘Resilience is predicated on exposure to significant threat or adversity, and on the attainment of good outcomes despite this exposure.’ (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker 2000)”.

    In 2003 Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte wrote a book called The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. Reivich gave a talk in 2005 at the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being in Scotland [1][7]entitled The Seven ‘Learnable’ Skills of Resilience which are: Emotion Awareness (or Regulation), Impulse Control, Optimism, Causal Analysis, Empathy, Self-efficacy and Reaching Out. Some of the references are linked to the Positive Psychology School of therapy that originated under Martin Seligman, a leader in positivity in the U.S. This may be a link to the history of the positive attitude component of Transition.

    It is useful to see the increasing use of the term in the area of personal growth and coaching, a growing industry in the U.S. The following book titles may more reflect the common U.S. layperson’s idea of the term resilience.

    • Resilience: How to Bounce Back When the Going Gets Tough! by Frederic Flach MD KCHS 1998
    • Resilience by Anne Deveson 2003
    • Resilience: Bouncing Off, Bouncing Back by Robert Wandberg 2000
    • Managing Change with Personal Resilience: 21 Keys for Bouncing Back & Staying on Top in Turbulent Organizations by Mark Kelly, Linda Hoopes, and Daryl Conner 2003
    • The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte 2003Top of Form
    • The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein 2004
    • Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You, Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba 2005
    • The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure, and Bounce Back from Setbacks by Al Siebert PhD 2005 (winner of the 2006 Independent Publisher Book Award in the “Self Help” category at BookExpo America “Top of Form”
    • Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You by Salvatore R. Maddi and Deborah M. Khoshaba March 2005 Top of Form
    • The Resilient Enterprise: Overcoming Vulnerability for Competitive Advantage by Y Sheffi 2005
    • Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World by Brian Walker PhD, David Salt, and Walter Reid August 2006
    • The Resilient Clinician by Robert J. Wicks September 2007
    • Resilience: Faith, Focus, Triumph by Alonzo Mourning and Dan Wetzel September 2008
    • Bounce: Use the Power of Resilience to Live the Life You Want by Sue Hadfield, and Gill Hasson 2009
    • Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities by Elizabeth Edwards May 2009
    • Developing Resilience: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach by Michael Neenan August 2009
    • Bounce: Living the Resilient Life by Robert J. Wicks September 2009
    • Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves (Positive Psychology News) by Senia Maymin and Kathryn (with other contributors) December 2009
    • Thriving Beyond Sustainability: Pathways to a Resilient Society by Andres Edwards May 2010

    There are many organizations offering resilience training and consulting. Noteworthy are the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania[8], the American Psychological Association[9] and the U.S. Army.[10] Resilience seems to be a ubiquitous concept that exists across many different domains of application.

    Sustainability and Resilience

    In the U.S., “green” and “sustainability” have for a long time been used interchangeably. An often quoted definition of sustainability was articulated by the Bruntland Commission of the UN in 1987 as

    “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

    In the U.S. this was extended to the concept of the “triple bottom line” made up of “social, economic and environmental perspectives”, summarized as “people, planet, profit” and sometimes simplified to “folk, work and place”. “People, planet and profit” succinctly describes the triple bottom lines.

    In a 2010 article Sustainability and Resilience Demystified by Dr. Neil McRoberts [11] the terms are compared. The introduction to this article notes:

    “The terms sustainability and resilience occur frequently in science and policy documents and most people have an intuitive sense of what these terms mean in general when applied to agriculture, ecosystems, or rural livelihoods. In common with other terms that originate in science, and are subsequently used in wider spheres, such as in policy discussions or everyday life, the scientific meanings of sustainability and resilience have become augmented by a large, and often less well-defined, set of additional meanings and connotations. ….. the terms encompass so many possible interpretations that each use has to be qualified in order for it to be unambiguously understood….” (italics mine)

    In the article sustainability is defined as:

    “The sustainability of a system is a measure of its lifespan. Sustainability can only be meaningfully defined relative to a known time interval (a fixed number of years, for example). In its simplest form sustainability is a binary property of a system: e.g. survives, does not survive……

    Resilience is defined as:

    “one measure of the potential sustainability of a system; so, resilience is to sustainability what, say, blood pressure is to health. The primary literature on resilience can be confusing because at least two different definitions are widely used and, while they are fundamentally connected, they do not measure resilience in the same way. In the socio-ecological interpretation of resilience it is defined as the amount of disturbance required to knock a system out of its current state into another state. In dynamic systems theory, in contrast, resilience is defined as the time taken for a system to return to its initial state after it is subjected to a disturbance.”

    In his November, 2009 TED talk[12], Rob Hopkins says:

    “One of the things that underpins it (Transition) is resilience. And I think this idea of resilience is a more useful concept than the idea of sustainability. The idea of resilience comes from the study of ecology and it’s really about how systems and settlements stand shock from the outside. ….and they don’t just unravel and fall to pieces. And I think it is a more useful concept than sustainability as I said. When our supermarkets have only enough food for two days time, sustainably seems to focus on the efficiency of the freezers. Looking through the lens of resilience we really question how we let ourselves get into a situation that is so vulnerable. Resilience runs much deeper it is about building modularity – building surge breakers into the basic things that support us”.

    Resilience Summarized

    The word resilience has a surprising number of complex meanings. Resilience describes a much wider range of activities and definitions than the simple common view of “the ability to recover quickly from illness, depression, adversity, change, or misfortune”. I was surprised at the variety of usages as well as the institutions and programs underway by a number of disparate organizations including governments like the U.K., universities, the U.S. Army, the field of psychology, and activist groups. What was intended to be a brief summary of the concept of resilience and how it affects the success of the Transition movement in the U.S. has led more to the question of the definition of the word.

    We should be aware that a use of the term resilience as simply bouncing back from trouble is probably not the resilience definition that is core to Transition. This could well be confusing to its advocates as well as to the average person who is intrigued by the Transition proposal. Resilience could be a replacement term for sustainability which began in the 1980s and which has been used extensively for almost three decades. Yet sustainability has never been adequately defined in terms of real measures such as CO2 generated by human activities. Its definition is extremely simple. Resilience is proposed as a replacement or improvement over sustainability. Its definition is complex rather than simple. Will it have any more success or will movements such as Transition be built around it without an understanding of its meaning or how to measure it? My next paper will discuss the resilience indicators from the Totnes Energy Descent Action Plan.


    [1] The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins published 2008 page 54

    [2] Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social–ecological Systems by Brian Walker, C.S. Holling, Stephen R. Carpenter and Ann Kinzig Copyright © 2004 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. Walker, B., C. S. Holling, S. R. Carpenter, and A. Kinzig. 2004. Ecology and Society 9 (2): 5.

    [3] Cabinet Office: UK Resilience – Emergency Response

    [4] Cabinet Office Community Resilience

    [5] Resilient Nation – DEMOS

    [6] A Short History of Resilience

    [7] The Main Ingredients of Resilience

    [8] Not a Moment to Lose: Today’s Economy Requires Nimble Thinking, Shared Leadership, and Resilience

    [9] The Road to Resilience

    [10] Soldier finds success with resiliency training

    [11] Sustainability And Resilience Demystified published on 4 March 2010 in Sustainability by Dr Neil McRoberts

    [12] Rob Hopkins TED talk