Resilience 2017, Stockholm, Sweden (August 20-23, 2017)
By Evan Andrews
Before I began my PhD, my Master’s supervisor encouraged me to “find a home” with a community of scholars and practitioners with whom I could share my ideas and engage in discussions. I have heard other scholars mention the importance of their homes, when they say things like, “I am going to this conference because these are my people.” Given that I often work with the concepts of resilience and social-ecological change, I thought to myself, “I am surely going to find a home at the Resilience conference in Stockholm, Sweden.” Considering the myriad calls for resilience research to better address the human dimensions of environmental change, I was positive I was going to hear from scholars who address the real experiences of people and communities, advance novel concepts and methods with social relevance, and provide advice on navigating the social, economic, and political contexts of resilience. I did find a home, but it looked a lot like the one in which I grew up: full of unconditional love and tensions bubbling at the surface.
Some Unconditional Love for Transformations. At Resilience 2017, there was a big emphasis on transformations research. Out of the five thematic tracks for the conference, “Transformations for Social-Ecological Sustainability” was the most popular. The language of transformations and related concepts of policy windows and traps had lots of air time throughout the three days. In the opening plenary, for example, Dr. Katrina Brown (Exeter University) delivered a promising speech that emphasized the need to ground transformations in relation to people’s experiences. Since I am concerned about livelihoods, well-being, and attachments to place, her talk resonated with me. ECGG’s Dr. Jessica Blythe also challenged the language and uptake of transformations, in a presentation titled, “The Dark Side of Transformations.” I found her talk an important reminder that it is easy to get caught up in the novelty of these terms, lose perspective about the politics of language, and forget the real-life stories of people in ‘transforming’ systems. However, there were many well-attended sessions in which there appeared to be room to better ground the concept of transformations in the experiences of people. So, love for ‘transformations’ is perfectly fine as it encourages lots of exploration. But, this love cannot be unconditional because we need to temper this exploration with constructive critique and reflection.
And Some Tensions Bubbling at the Surface. Several opening plenaries argued that to conduct research in turbulent times, we need to consider the governance of communities and to undertake transdisciplinary community-oriented research. There seemed to be great interest in environmental change research about governance and communities. In a session moderated by Dr. Blythe and others, “Beyond Social-Ecological Traps: Fostering Transformations for Sustainability,” several presentations put communities at the forefront. For example, our OceanCanada Partnership colleague, Dr. Natalie Ban (University of Victoria), celebrated the agency of Indigenous peoples in the communities with which she works to transcend social-ecological traps. Presentations like Dr. Ban’s really brought community voices to the forefront. Some well-attended presentations did not consider communities, where discussion about communities seemed relevant, or perhaps did not have enough time to feature community voices in a direct way. This seemed to create some tensions evident after the presentations. For example, I engaged with some audience members who had wished for more attention to community perspectives, and were frustrated that there was not enough time during the question period to foster this sort of discussion. One great way to address some of these tensions, however, was exemplified by Drs. Steven Alexander and Jeremy Pittman who facilitated a debate-style panel amongst adaptive governance scholars in “Big Questions of Adaptive Governance in Social-Ecological Systems”. By adopting a debate format, the facilitators encouraged audience members to reflect on their own case studies and experiences. Audience members seemed to feel safe enough to challenge the ideas of scholars which led to a brilliant integrative discussion about the capacities of communities and governments.
My New Home. There were many other great presentations from outside of Canada that included calls for more community voices in environmental change research. In addition, I recognize that many presenters at Resilience 2017 discussed the importance of global-scale social-ecological research, which often left little time for community perspectives in these presentations. However, like community research, global research has an imperative to put people at the forefront of analyses and use assumptions about human activity that are grounded in people’s experiences. It is this moral imperative that encourages me to believe that in the Resilience research network, I have found a good home suited to my research passions, however messy. As a part of the ECGG and OceanCanada Partnership, we have an opportunity to continue to bring people’s perspectives and stories about change to the forefront of international research networks of which we are a part. I look forward to challenging unconditional love for novel concepts, and critically examining tensions about the human experiences in my own work, and as a part of a larger community of applied scholars and practitioners.