Back to Forum

In Defense of Resilience as an Ecological Virtue

The Philippines is currently still reeling from the impact of typhoon Vamco (locally named Ulysses), the 6th tropical cyclone to hit the Philippines in a span of three weeks. Located within an earthquake and typhoon belt, the country has faced repetitive disasters in the past, this time, further exacerbated by warming oceans due to climate change.  Among the six tropical cyclones in a period of three weeks was supertyphoon Goni (locally named Rolly), the strongest tropical cyclone at first landfall in world history, followed only by super typhoon Haiyan (locally named Yolanda) which hit the Philippines as well in 2013.

While the situation is not just, considering that the country has one of the lowest carbon emissions per capita, one would nevertheless expect that the government would have been prepared for these occurrences. Reacting to continued government inaction or inefficiency,  social media users including academics and artists, have  expressed their exasperation in the form of interviews, memes, or art works, that the government is simply relying on Filipin@ resilience to address the disasters. One art work by a popular comic strip artist that went viral shows a dog on the roof of an inundated house with the caption: “Nakakapagod na maging resilient!” (I am tired of being resilient!) Others however, point out that resiliency and demanding accountability need not be dichotomized; it is not a choice between one or the other. Indeed, the baby [resilience] should not be thrown together with the bathwater.

In this brief essay, I wish to contribute to the popular exchanges by clarifying the development of resilience discourses, the dangers of its co-optation, and the sense in which resilience can be considered a virtue, in particular, an ecological virtue.

In the 1970s, the Canadian ecologist Crawford Stanley Holling introduced the concept of resilience in ecology to refer to a system’s capacity in the midst of disturbance to preserve its structure and patterns of behavior. By the 1980s, this biological metaphor of resilience has migrated to other fields as the social sciences.


“Building resilience” has  been employed by the United Nations, donors and NGOs as an important principle in climate change adaptation, especially in areas where more extreme hazards are expected to occur (e.g. Southeast Asia, Pacific atolls, Africa). Thus while in ecology, the term is descriptive, in development circles, it has become a normative concept.

But what does resilience mean as a normative concept? A common image of resilience in Asia is the bamboo which bends with the strong wind but is able to bounce back again.  Resilience however is much more than going back to a former state. It involves creativity to transform and to even become better. Most of the Haiyan survivors I interviewed a year after Supertyphoon Haiyan,  expressed that they now immediately evacuate when there is a strong typhoon warning. Each community/barangay today has a designated relocation area, and an evacuation committee to help in the evacuation process.

Resilience as the ability to bounce back and adapt better is a goal not only for the individual but  the community and its structures as well. Building Back Better, for instance, is a recovery strategy after a disaster that aims to develop community resilience and decrease vulnerability to future disasters in all aspects: infrastructures, communications, health, housing, transport, education, energy, gender, environment, etc.

It is indeed true, as critics hold, that resilience can be used by a government as an ideology to abdicate care in the belief that people anyway can bounce back and self-correct themselves. One can rightly question to what extent our government (local and national) has built back better after each disaster. A facilitating approach by government and other social institutions is necessary for resilience as a virtue to translate to climate resilient communities. For instance, even if the people would now prefer to live in more strongly built houses in safer places, they are still not able to realize this because of lack of resources and government support.

There are also those who  negatively view the focus on resilience as a sort of “surrender.” Instead of reversing our unsustainable practices, we now need to simply adapt to the climate-changed environment. Contrary to this, what is called as climate resilient development model, is founded on the very principle of sustainability of livelihoods that would simultaneously reduce the impact of and adapt to climate change.

For John Barry, author of The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability, another  feature of a climate resilient development model is social resilience meaning it fosters social solidarity and equity. Barry defines a resilient community as “one that has high levels of solidarity, low levels of socio-economic inequality and empowered citizens.”

Both positivist and humanistic psychology likewise speak about resiliency.  The emerging field of positive psychology focuses on positive dispositions and how society shapes these traits, thus the interest in resiliency. It can be critiqued however for judging resilience as a virtue in itself regardless of the context or circumstance. Humanistic psychology, in contrast, adopts a more holistic perspective of resiliency which considers how it is related to other virtues as well as the circumstance in determining whether it is a virtue or not.

In this regard, St. Thomas Aquinas holds that a virtue should interrelate with other virtues in order to become true virtue. Resilience as a character disposition can be linked to other virtues as hope, fortitude, sharing/solidarity, and justice.

For some survivors of Typhoon Haiyan who lost their closest loved ones, it is the thought that they still need to live for the sake of their children, their hope for the future, which pulled them out of their depression to overcome losing their competencies. Working to contain climate change likewise requires resilience’s attitude of hope. A constructive hope concerning the environment as opposed to a hope based on denial of climate change, can lead to a transformative response to the climate crisis.

Resilience is related too to the virtue of fortitude in its two acts: agredi (risk-taking; lakas ng loob) and sustinere (endurance; tibay ng loob or katatagan). Resilience as risk-taking and endurance is needed by ecological activists whose lives are threatened by unjust resource exploiters. Ever since Duterte assumed office, 113 environmentalists have been killed, with at least 46% of these allegedly committed by the armed forces. This has made the Philippines the most dangerous place in Asia for land and environment activists. In the same way, demanding accountability from government requires resilience as risk-taking and endurance.

Resilience is nurtured by solidarity and sharing. The survivors of Typhoon Haiyan recount many tales of sharing and solidarity among themselves like sharing of food, homes as evacuation center during and after the typhoon.  The aid given by the donor agencies (local and international) and the church was a big source of hope for the survivors.

Finally, resilience to be moral has to be guided by social justice. Resilience is required of activists to move governments and corporations to shift to non-carbon or low-carbon energy resources. The Duterte government still has to walk the talk as far as the shift to renewable energy is concerned as it continues to approve and support new coal-fired power plants. Resilience is also needed by both individuals and nations in resisting a consumerist lifestyle and the superdevelopment (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis no. 28; LS 109) that generates this. “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most. (LS 169).

If resilience as an ecological virtue is the mean, the vices or extremes in terms of deficiency or excess, would be on the one hand, indifference/passivity/lack of action in the face of ecological crisis or disaster, and on the other hand, hubris in the form of wantonness/recklessness in terms of our ecological or disaster response.