The Story of Us: Resilience or Resurgence?


Image from the film 'Get Low' (2009)

Image from the film ‘Get Low’ (2009)

In this morning’s national newspaper The Irish Times the front page headline reads:

“Economic activity returns to pre-crash levels”.

Is this evidence of the resilience of the Irish economy-are we bouncing back? The headline bares reading again; you could easily read it either as a report on the net result of Irish resilience against harsh economic winds, or a warning that some amongst us are returning to similar reckless activities that precipitated the crash in the first place. It could as easily be read as a compliment, as an insult. The irony is both delicious and disturbing. Margaret Heffernan’s book ‘Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious’ offers an excellent explanation as to why a return to harmful behaviours in spite of the evidence cautioning against it and the pain endured, could well be the case.

Resilience is not simply about bouncing back, it is I think best understood as the ability to continue to make public meaning with others. What Marshall Ganz describes as the capacity to create a positive “public narrative,” where as he explains “the story of me” gains greater coherence and hope because it is actively connected to “the story of us”, and the “story of now”. In Ganz’s helpful framing the “story of now” is not stuck in the past or present, nor is it fearful of generating hope for the future, but rather is grounded in the context of the given situation, rooted so to speak. It is therefore a narrative that is not shackled by critique, it deals what is, not with assumptions about what should be. Rather than argue about the way things ought to be, it honestly narrates the way the world is (the good, the bad and the ugly, but also the beautiful) and from there calls on us to organise differently so as to create a more compelling future than the past: for us, by us, with us. Why? So that we can co-create the world as it should be, not as it is.

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
(Maya Angelou)

Resilience in my mind is not about the capacity to endure the meaning that external forces impose on us, but about our collective power to produce our own meaning. “Still I’ll rise” in spite of oppression, not just to defy the oppressor, but so that I may take my place in narrating the story of us, here and now, and for the generations to come.

Is this resilience or resurgence?

A story of collapse: the limits of resilience

According to Jared Diamond in human communities ‘resilience’ in the face of disturbance is neither inevitable nor indefinite. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond sets out a five point framework to explain how societies collapse, noting there is no single factor that leads to societal collapse; there are multiple factors at play. He’s five-point framework is as follows:

  1. Human impact on environment: people inadvertently destroying the resource base on which they depend.
  2. Climate change: climates can get warmer or colder, dryer or wetter.
  3. Relations with neighbouring friendly societies/allies that prop up that society economically etc.
  4. Relations with competitors and hostiles.
  5. The Political, economic, social and cultural factors in the society: that make it more or less likely that society will perceive and solve its own problems.

Through a number of case studies ranging from the Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula to modern day China and Rwanda, Diamond seeks to illustrate the five-point framework at play. While he notes that not all five play an equally significant role in all collapses, indeed some may not even feature, human impact on the environment always does.

Where Diamond’s grand theory frays around the edges in my view is in the lack of clear definition regarding what he means by ‘collapse’ and ‘society’. Using the term ‘society’ to describe an island, nation, a state as large as China and a Viking settlement is problematic, as is his use of the term ‘collapse’ to compare and contrast genocide and civil war (Rwanda) with population crash (Easter Island). Notwithstanding, his commentary on the collapse of the Greenland Norse is truly illuminating, especially when set against the survival of the Inuit communities and in helping shed light on what resilience means.

In hindsight it is clear that the Greenland Norse ‘died the death of a thousand cuts’ and by their own hands (or should I say at the hands of their leaders). The Norse followed a number of non-sustainable practices including:

  • Chopping down forests to use wood for fuel, furniture and houses, and charcoal
  • Using cleared land for grazing cows
  • Building houses out of 6-foot slabs of turf, which meant a home, consumed about 10 acres of grassland
  • In acts of dedication to their faith they erected sites of worship. Facsimiles of those in Norway but non-sustainable for the Greenland environment.
  • Fractured relations with Inuit communities, which meant they didn’t trade, exposed them to attacks when at their weakest, and cut off the possibility of secure import channels.

Consequently, the Norse like many other ‘communities’ of one scale or another sabotaged their chance to prevail and prosper.

Important to note that while the Greenland Norse perished, the indigenous Inuit communities that they made ememies prevailed.

The Greenland Norse, had:

  1. A story of us (superior) and them (inferior)
  2. A story of the past (of the home country and the colonial imperative to replicate it)

They exploited the natural resources and made enemies of the indigenous people, because they were devoid of a ‘story of now’ and a ‘story of us’, there was no welcome for the stranger at the edge and in that harsh environment they paid the ultimate price.

But I can’t help thinking that on balance there must have been some dissenters, some among them must have been the equivilents of todays environmentalists, peace makers, and outliers. If there were, in the end they failed. The question is did they fail to win their particular argument of as Ganz suggests did the community as whole and it stewards fail to create a public narrative? The answer in my view is the latter.

What have we learned about change?

The evidence that we are in process of committing ecocide seems compelling to me, and the evidence that we are living in the most unequal societies that the world has ever known is undeniable. Alongside this a growing body of global citizens believe our economic model is both morally and fiscally bankrupt. So why then are we not seeing sufficient change?

Just as with the Greenland Norse I believe it is because we don’t as of yet have a compelling and inclusive public narrative. And the reason we don’t is because the kind of public narratives Ganz is calling for can only be built through relational processes, not hierarchal ones, and we are at a very early stage in realising that institutional and technocratic narratives stifle relational ones. The story of Us is a story of inclusive community building, where dissent and difference are welcomed in and celebrated (e.g. the Greenland Norse would have likely respected and welcomed Inuit wisdom in a relational inclusively networked culture).

Are we likely to get to a place where relational capital is valued in this way in time to stem the ireversable damage we’re causing each other and planet, and to prevail? Well I don’t know, but I suspect if we had the conversation the answers would form a whole other story. And I think its time for a new story. Don’t you?

Cormac Russell.

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