Empathy: The cutting edge of sustainability science?

By Rebecca Freeth

I’ve been interested in the Resilience Alliance for many years. I’ve been impressed by the coherence of their conceptual work. This has been a luminous example of natural and social scientists meaningfully bringing their work together. When I travelled from South Africa to Germany in late 2015 to take up my PhD post at Leuphana, my suitcase proved to be many kilograms overweight. I reluctantly extracted one book after the next. But Panarchy stayed in my suitcase.

Since arriving here, and taking up my role as a formative accompanying (FAR) researcher in the team , I’ve stumbled across the work of John Parker and Ed Hackett. They have done a fascinating job of tracking the Resilience Alliance, particularly during the ‘island time’ years. In fact Parker and Hackett’s work is not dissimilar to mine here with Leverage Points, although they are outsiders whereas I am in the infinitely more interesting situation of being an insider-outsider (look out for my forthcoming article on FAR positionality). More recently, I’ve been able to complement Parker & Hackett’s insights with the compelling narrative that Buzz Holling himself creates in his autobiography. He writes that in 1997 the Resilience Alliance “was horizontally organized around a core of five people who delighted in the joys of mutual discovery and in fun.”

As a result, I went to the Resilience 2017 Conference with lots of interest to experience this community for myself, now that it has ballooned over 20 years, from the five described by Buzz Holling, to 1 000 conference delegates. I had a particular interest in whether RA has been able to stay at the cutting edge. I know that runaway success can be the worst enemy of a pioneering spirit.

So I was listening closely when Katrina Brown spoke about frontiers of resilience research in the opening plenary with Carl Folke. She framed one of these frontiers as “perspective taking, and the role of empathy”. Could empathy help to overcome dualism, and create a more interdependent mode of engagement with the environment? empathy for catsKatrina also spoke about us being in an immature anthropocene where awareness of what we do lags behind what we do. The challenge, she said, is to move towards a more intentional anthropocene, more conscious of our role in the biosphere and more capable of acting. Here, she suggested was a methodological opportunity. A more creative, more inviting, more reflective set of research practices would enable us to more fully comprehend – intellectually and emotionally – issues of people’s agency, place, poverty and power.

In the following session, Frances Westley spoke about her recent research to identify which initiatives – out of the plethora of social innovations all over the world – would prove to be transformative. If it were possible to find some patterns, this could help with pre-selecting certain initiatives for additional support. One of the patterns of success they found was that this kind of transformation takes significant time: 60 to 200 years. She acknowledged that this is often dispiriting in the face of a sense of urgency but urged us to think about innovation as a long relay race, not a sprint. “As thinkers and doers, it’s helpful to see yourself as carrying a baton for a period of time, having received it from others and planning to pass on to others.”

So, what does this experience suggest about being cutting edge?

Firstly, Resilience 2017 accommodated many different ways of knowing, ways of thinking, and ways of being. I attended lots of sessions that fed my mind, I went to yoga sessions before lunch each day, and participated in an embodiment workshop on the last day. In that way, the resilience community continues to be relatively cutting edge.

Secondly, and like the Transformations 2017 Conference that followed hot on its heels, the Resilience Conference used the Speed Talks format to good effect. This meant many more ideas could be shared, in a pithy and punch way, and we could move into conversation with particular speakers afterwards, rather than panel Q & A sessions. This was refreshing.

AND, there is a wide-open space now, for a next generation of ideas as compelling and intellectually satisfying as resilience, adaptive cycles and panarchy.

 Any takers?



Frances Westley’s forthcoming book is called “The Evolution of Social Innovation”