The politics of resilience : A qualitative analysis of resilience theory as an environmental discourse

University essay from Stockholms universitet/Sociologiska institutionen


During recent years, resilience theory – originally developed in systems ecology – has advanced as a new approach to sustainable development. However, it is still more of an academic theory than a discourse informing environmental politics. The aim of this essay is to study resilience theory as a potential environmental discourse in the making and to outline the political implications it might induce. To gain a more comprehensive knowledge of resilience theory, I study it in relation to already existing environmental discourses. Following earlier research on environmental discourses I define the discourses of ecological modernization, green governmentality and civic environmentalism as occupying the discursive space of environmental politics. Further, I define six central components as characteristics for all environmental discourses. Outlining how both the existing environmental discourses and resilience theory relates to these components enables an understanding of both the political implications of resilience theory and of resilience theory as an environmental discourse in relation to existing environmental discourses. The six central discourse components I define are 1) the view on the nation-state; 2) the view on capitalism; 3) the view on civil society; 4) the view on political order; 5) the view on knowledge; 6) the view on human-nature relations. By doing an empirical textual analysis of academic texts on resilience theory I show that resilience theory assigns a limited role for the nation-state and a very important role for civil society and local actors when it comes to environmental politics. Its view on local actors and civil society is closely related to its relativist view on knowledge. Resilience theory views capitalism as a root of many environmental problems but with some political control and with changing perspectives this can be altered. Furthermore, resilience theory seems to advocate a weak bottom-up perspective on political order. Finally, resilience theory views human-nature relations as relations characterized by human adaptation to the prerequisites of nature. In conclusion, I argue that the empirical analysis show that resilience theory, as an environmental discourse, to a great extent resembles a subdivision of civic environmentalism called participatory multilateralism.

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