Resilience and Diversity

This German winter is quite a mild one: Brownish green meadows, dark green or leafless trees, fog, rain and mud, some harmless frost during the nights, a bit of sunshine here and there. Lots of birds picking rosehips and hawthorn berries – and, after a two weeks surprisingly cold and snowy interplay, the German countryside turns again into looking quite a bit like Ireland. This winter differs quite a lot from what I was used to in my late 1960s childhood, freezy winters with sometimes -20 to -30 centigrade, thick ice on ponds and creeks, and lips and nose frozen to the thick dune blankets when waking up in the morning in my grandma’s stove fired house. But now, far from those frosty times, it seems as you could be fine outside with just some unlined boots and a wool jacket. It is not just me feeling like that. Even some species of migratory birds increasingly make their winter quarters here, like the great egret, enjoying the open ponds, creeks and wet meadows of the area, maybe adopting their annual travel habits to climate change.


Sitting at my desk, observing birds through the window, reading ecosystems research as well as the RESCuE interviews with resilient families in the aftermath of the European economic and financial crisis, I am surprised by some analogies. Ecosystems theory conceives diversity as a source of resilience. Mostly, diversity is understood as a variety of different but functionally connected species, sometimes as a diversity of resources and conditions, not to say options or frameworks of action within a given space, biosphere or the like. If conditions change, even when encountering an external shock, a resilient ecosystem will undergo a transformation of the balance, habits and actions of species, who will even adapt their practices, such as hunting behaviour, reproductive behaviour and diet. This will lead to shrinkage of several species, increase of others, some of which might even have been overlooked before. Their movements and range will extend or contract, they might turn to other foodsources – in extreme cases this might even include to close up to humans and their locations instead of moving away from humans, like the foxes in London, rabbits in Wolfsburg and polar bears in Arctic areas. In general terms, diversity (of species and their habits) allows a ‘system’ to adapt to shocks through a sometimes transformative readjustment of their inner relations, balances and dynamics, and that’s what is called resilience in ecosystems research. Diversity works as a reservoir for actors, practices and life nexuses which might have been hidden, marginal or residual under a first set of circumstances, but become increasingly important when those circumstances are changing. Diversity may also consist of polyfunctionality or polyvalence of one single issue – wild thorny rosebushes provide a safe environment for birds breeding, they grow on stony and infertile land, protect other tree seedlings from deer, their rosehips provide winter food for birds, not to talk about the roses, their beauty and the bees, just one example. Or, when squirrels store nuts in underground holes, they do not only make storage for their own hunger, but spread their favourite food tree species throughout the area.

When we look at the resilient families we have been visiting in the RESCuE fieldwork in 2015, there are some striking parallels in terms of diversity. Many of them had not found just a single solution for their lack of money and formal employment, but show a whole set of intertwined activities. An example family did subsidized minijobs in a public work measure, street busking and tourist guide work, carpenters’ and other construction work in an informal context, was very active in several local cultural associations and part of informal networks of musicians, craftsmen and neighbours. Moreover, they spent a lot of time in the nearby forests, collecting mushrooms, berries, and just spent time with their children out in the wood. The German equivalent of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” was their say to explain their multitude of activities. And, consequently, even as one of them came into a permanent job, she was very reluctant to cease or cut any of her informal activities. She stuck to all of them, not only to be able to shift to other sources of income if one fails, but also for the polyfunctionality of those informal practices beyond income generation.

Interviewing the wife, aged mid 30s, she told us for example, spending time outdoors with her family means to enjoy leisure without having to pay for, enriching the family’s diet for free, and having a good time as a family – plus showing the children some worthy practices. This comes quite close to what is called a ‘mixed economy’ by social historians looking at rural working class households in the 18 century – or by development economists looking at income compositions of African, Indian or Latin American rural households. Whatever we may call it, at the core of it is diversity of resources, practices, purposes and functions, as many activities of our resilient families are contributing some economic support by reducing payments and creating income, but moreover reproduce social relations, ties and networks and cultural patterns – to put this into a Bourdieu frame. Thus, diversity seems to be a crucial aspect of resilience, not only in natural systems of plants and animals, but also in a human socioeconomic sense, looking at vulnerable families in the European crisis. Moreover: We are all very familiar with the lines of distinction which are drawn in a modern labour society: Markets are a sphere of realising profit, rent or wage, but not a source of making personal relations. Formal labour takes place outside the household, and the family home is a place for unpaid reproductive labour and leisure. Giving someone a gift is a matter of custom and status demarcation, but not a primarily economic activity. And bringing a sack of apples or a freshly slaughtered chicken for someones birthday would probably gain more frowns than gratitude from the gifted. The shrinkage of kitchen space and domestic practices, the loss of labour premises inside or around a family home through the last two centuries, the reduction of household work intensity, duration and scope are pointing into the same direction, that the family home has lost its productive function in favour of being almost completely reduced to a unit of consumption. But, to become resilient in times of economic crisis, it seems to be necessary to cross or better re-entangle these lines of distinction which are characteristic for our modern postindustrial market societies, to reintegrate social, cultural and economic functions of our practices, and to be aware of the need for functional and ecological diversity of our own practices.

Markus Promberger



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