More resilience, please! A plea to rethink in the current crisis

Thomas Streifeneder, economic geographer and head of the Institute for Regional Development and Location Management of the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano/Italy (EURAC Research).

It is quite surprising to see that there is one aspect we are not reading anything about in these days. Most of the articles telling us about the consequences of the coronavirus do not mention one word: resilience. Shouldn’t it be written somewhere?

More resilience, please! A plea to rethink in the current crisis
“Our living environment and our economic system are only partially prepared and capable of reacting to crises”. Image: Basil Huwyler


Resilience, where are you?

Until a few years ago, and especially during the financial crisis of 2008, the topic of ‘resilience’ dominated the scientific world, especially in regional studies and could have almost been defined as a scientific buzzword. It was about analyzing why certain regions coped with the economic crisis better than others or about finding out how regions could become less prone to crisis. Even if many people, including researchers, perceive ‘resilience’ or ‘being resilient’ as bulky, the concept behind it exactly catches the spirit of this time. In fact, resilience is about the following aspects:

  • The short-term adaptability to disasters and crises, i.e. the rapid restoration of economic and social systems.
  • The resistance to crises, i.e. how existing structures bounce off the impact and the system being able to reconstitute itself (according to Hahne 2013 [1]).

Our unstable system is too prone to crises

If there is one thing that the corona-crisis is showing us it is that our living environment and our economic system are only partially prepared and capable of reacting to crises, in some cases it is not at all.

A few weeks are enough to plunge an already fragile economy into existential crises. Various aspects are responsible for this instability and all of them are connected to each other: high debt and low liquidity rates in many sectors, no or only little savings, leasing contracts for everyday goods as a normal state, investments focused on constant growth and hopefully-everlasting scenarios, high dependency on supra-regional and international supplies and supply chains, externalities in almost all areas, etc. Are we lacking risk competence?

In the accommodation and hospitality sector in South Tyrol, the debt ratio in 2018 lies at 210% and 238% according to the balance figures of the Chamber of Commerce (Wifo).

Corona and the economy – parallels

Can the virus be seen as a metaphor for a seriously ill, outdated and not very resistant system in this Anthropocene, which is actually what caused it? Does it show an age lacking not only in expression, but also in effective answers to the many current challenges, such as climate change, migratory flows, social inequality, loss of species? Shouldn’t our economic system have long since been overtaken by much more resilient and sustainable systems? By more ‘humble’ structures, such as the ones of a post-growth society that relies, among other things, on sufficient local/regional cycles, agroecology, social innovation, which are research topics that Eurac Research has been focusing on for years? Countless promising approaches have been developed and successfully implemented worldwide. Therefore, regarding resilience, there is one question:

Will we now learn something from this crisis?

Despite the omnipresent discussions about rethinking and reconsideration, I have serious doubts. Decision-makers should especially now, in this stagnant phase of the crisis, come up with resilient and sustainable measures. After that, the capitalist system, trimmed for efficiency and economization, which does not even stop at basic service provision (health system), will be started up again and we will probably go on as before. After all, we have to make up for the economic losses, don’t we? The C02 savings will certainly be made up for. There will hardly be any money left for climate protection projects. In which areas can qualitative changes be initiated based on scientific findings? Massive efforts are urgently needed now, also considering the dramatic consequences of climate change, millions of refugees, the gap between rich and poor and the incredible loss of species. Can the current crisis help us to learn our lessons for other crises, to become more risk-competent? To ensure that everyday life and the economy will be different, more resilient, social and environmentally friendly in the future? Now is the time to ask the right questions and to draw smart conclusions from existing knowledge.

[1] Hahne, U. (2013): Regionale Resilienz – Eine neue Anforderung an die ländliche Entwicklung und die künftige Regionalpolitik der EU. Der kritische Agrarbericht 2013, S. 155-160.