The words we use matter, even — or perhaps especially — in transdisciplinary research programs like Planet Texas 2050 where numerous disciplines and departments meet at one table for a common purpose. Although all Planet Texas 2050 projects share a focus on climate adaptation, it can sometimes be challenging to connect our efforts to build new knowledge and apply real-life application, given the dozens of varied experts involved in this multi-year effort.
Since our grand challenge launched in 2018, we have named this as our goal: to make Texas more resilient. In the years since, we have tried to define what we mean by that, sometimes finding the word lacking or problematic but without a better word to summarize our objective — which is to ensure that Texans are able to respond, recover, and thrive in the face of the numerous challenges that are occurring and will occur because of climate change and population growth.
We even considered changing the tagline at one point when we thought it raised more questions (and problems) than answers.
The word “resilience” forges a connection among many of our projects, in part because many academic traditions use this word to describe the ability of a system to recover. For example, our engineering colleagues consider resilience to be a characteristic of materials that can return to equilibrium after experiencing a potentially damaging event. In a similar way, ecologists describe a resilient ecosystem as one that can return to a stable state after a disturbance, whether caused by small change, such as a treefall in a forest, or a large event, such as a wildfire burning hundreds of acres of prairie.
But things get trickier when we begin to use the term resilience to describe human systems. That’s partly because the people make up a critical part of the systems that Planet Texas 2050 researchers study — whether a coastal Texas town, a neighborhood in Austin, or a group of high school students — often don’t consider their “pre-disturbance existence” after a flood or drought as one they’d like to rebound back to. If you lived in neighborhood without good schools, affordable housing, or safe streets, would you want to return to this “equilibrium” after recovering and rebuilding from a flood?
We’re still working, both in our individual projects and in the grand challenge as a whole, to find better ways to define resilience so the discussion hasn’t ended by any means.
In response, social scientists often qualify this by saying that “resilience” means not just bouncing back but bouncing back better. That, as we rebuild after climate-related disasters, we do so in a way that addresses the existing inequalities that many Texas residents face in terms of infrastructure, services, and opportunities.
Even with the qualification that resilient human systems should not just bounce back but bounce back better, “resilience” can still be a problematic term — one that some humanists, social scientists, and community members critique as sharing intellectual space with neo-liberal and racist frameworks. Why are some people asked to be — or expected to be — resilient, while other people have access to resources that buffer disaster and damage in the first place? Tulane historian Andy Horowitz reflected on this dynamic in an essay he published on the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina:
“We’re told to be resilient, which usually means that we should attempt to find individual solutions to our structural problems.”
As researchers and as humans, how do we reconcile the physical characteristics of resilience (e.g., the ability of a building frame to withstand an earthquake, or an estuary to continue carbon cycling after a winter freeze) with direct or unspoken expectations that people and their communities meet societal-scaled disasters with individual-scaled resources?
Although we likely can’t bring together these two ideas, the conversations about these different facets of the word “resilience” can help us move toward more productive transdisciplinary research outcomes. For example, several Planet Texas 2050 project teams partner with Go Austin, Vamos Austin! (GAVA), a community-based organization working on issues related to climate and health in the Eastern Crescent area of Austin. GAVA and the residents with whom it works developed new words to use for “climate resilience,” a term used by researchers and city staff that did not resonate with residents.
They now frame this work around “response” and “responsibility” — for example, the residents’ responses to flooding (e.g., moving safely out of harm’s way) or the city’s responsibilities before, during, or after a flood (e.g., creation of an equitable floodplain buyout program), or helping residents prepare for the next storm. Using this framing helps to think about how individual residents can simultaneously come together to weather a storm while also expecting that after the storm recedes, the city will rebuild with infrastructure that more equitably and holistically serves the public good.
Here we see an example of how involving residents in research can push us to grapple with how shared words such as resilience can be useful in some contexts while also obscuring urgency and responsibility in others.
After much discussion, we opted not to change our tagline — for now — for lack of a better word. We’re still working, both in our individual projects and in the grand challenge as a whole, to find better ways to define resilience, so the discussion hasn’t ended by any means.
It’s not that we need to abandon the use of the word resilience — it’s a useful way to describe a building or an ecosystem’s return to normal after a shock. But there likely are better words to describe the futures we want for ourselves and our fellow residents: safe, fair, and thriving are a start. And as Planet Texas 2050 research teams continue to work with residents, governments, and community groups, we’ll likely learn others.
Please join us on this journey.
Planet Texas 2050 is a research grand challenge at The University of Texas at Austin. We’re a team of more than 150 researchers across all disciplines working together over the next decade to find ways to make our state more resilient in the face of extreme weather events and rapid population growth. Follow us on Twitter, visit our website, and come back to our blog for updates.
Katherine Lieberknecht, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Architecture. She researches urban water resources planning, metropolitan-scaled green infrastructure planning, and urban climate planning. Lieberknecht teaches courses on sustainable land use planning, water resources planning, and urban ecology.