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Friday, December 25, 2015

Sustainability in the local context, and the misplaced critique of resilience

    Sustainability remains ubiquitous. Here on the down east Maine coast, no one speaks of musical or cultural sustainability, although to do so would have relevance, insofar as this area has conserved its culture better than most other parts of Maine. Work, education, even the look of the houses hasn’t changed much in the forty-five years I’ve been fortunate to live here, for at least part of every year. The people exhibit a cultural conservatism, a preference for the old ways.

Stonington Harbor, photo © by Jeff Todd Titon.

     If you’re speaking with folks who’ve moved here from away, sustainability means land put into conservation, through the various non-profit heritage trusts, either as “farmland forever,” or more commonly as a public space for light recreation, nature walks and the like, usually on coastal land abutting the ocean. But if you’re speaking with area natives, sustainability refers to the fishery, traditionally lobsters, clams, and cod, hake, pollock, scallops, and the like. The cod have almost disappeared, and shrimp stock is very low, to the point where government regulations severely limit the catch, making that part of the fishery an example of what happens when resources that had been abundant become unsustainable. Lobsters, on the other hand, have never been more plentiful; yet there is worry that even this fishery is unsustainable, particularly in the face of climate change which, warming the ocean water, will cause the lobsters to move to cooler, more northern waters, just as the birds are gradually moving their ranges north to Canada.
    Some conservationists have formed alliances with the island fishermen (and women), seeking common ground in sustainability. The regional news media includes a very interesting monthly, called Working Waterfront, featuring stories about the populated islands, fishing, crafts, yachting (a pastime that is very old in this area, which supplied the 19th century crews and boats for the successful US America’s Cup racers). Cultural conservation does interest these journalists, as they understand that it is not simply the fishery that is at stake but the sustainability of the culture that supports it, and that it supports. In that regard, the “field notes” editorial by the president of the Island Institute, Rob Snyder, publisher of Working Waterfront, caught my eye last month. “The world is watching our coast: Swedes say Maine lobster fishery among least resilient systems,” read his editorial headline. Snyder reported that Stockholm, Sweden, is home to the Resilence Center, which is taking a resilience approach to sustainability on our planet. He noted that Stockholm is in the center of fourteen islands, so they understand something of what it is to be island-centered, as we are on the Maine coast also. The Swedish Resilience Center, Snyder continues, defines resilience as “the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about the capacity to use shocks and disturbances like . . . climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking . . . [grounded in the] belief that humans and nature are strongly coupled to the point that they should be conceived of as one socio-ecological system.” This is the same understanding of resilience that I’ve been writing about recently, in The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, and elsewhere; and of course, it is neither original with me nor with the Resilience Center. Resilience is a strategy for achieving sustainability.
    Interestingly, Snyder takes issue with the Resilience Institute’s proclamation that the Gulf of Maine’s lobster fishery is one of the least resilient systems in the world. Ironically, Snyder's resistance echoes the usual local reaction to criticism from away. Instead of admitting the obvious, that the lobster fishery is indeed precarious, Snyder opposes resilience theory, on the same grounds that I did a few years ago, even in this blog--namely, that “it takes a defensive posture to living. Resilience seems to assume that we must become resilient because we are always under threat.” But as I studied resilience theory, I realized that this common critique is based in misunderstanding. I changed my mind. Resilience isn’t the same thing as resistance. Resistance indeed does take a defensive posture, but resilience refers to something else: the capacity of a system to recover, to bounce back, from disturbance. Considering yourself, for the moment, as a system, you take defensive measures to resist a cold; but your resilience, on the other hand, will enable you to recover afterwards. Resilience theory doesn’t deal with resistance; rather, it identifies those things that make a system resilient after disturbance and attempts to maximize those so that a system maintains its integrity as it recovers.
    Snyder goes on with his critique of the Resilience Institute, writing that in response to dissatisfaction with resilience theory, “a movement is growing to think about reframing resilience through a language of thriving. The actions that need to be taken would be the same: embrace diversity, operate at multiple scales . . .” and so forth. But resilience doesn't need reframing, except for those who mistakenly identify it with resistance. Resilience is already about thriving. And in this instance, Snyder recognizes that what is under discussion is cultural sustainability; that is, it is the culture of fishing that must embrace diversity, and operate at multiple scales.
    The same can be said about farming and gardening. Maine’s farming has undergone a quiet renaissance in the past fifteen years, diversifying from mainly dairy farming—once the only profitable kind of farming in Maine, now a break-even proposition at best—and operating at different scales. The number of small farms has increased markedly, as more organic farms, local agriculture, CSAs, and cooperative grocers come to supply a public that wants locally grown organic food and is willing to pay a little extra for it, understanding that the real costs of agribusiness-produced food are not reflected in its low market price. Even in the less populated areas, like this one, locally-sourced farmers markets may be visited most days of the week, with some staying open through winter; and two grocery co-ops are located within easy driving distance. Meanwhile, many residents grow kitchen gardens that supply fresh food in summer, and some put food by in containers, root cellars, and the freezer. Frosts have been arriving later as a result of climate change, with fresh food in the garden now available late into the fall. This fall was unusually warm, on account of the El NiƱo effect on the East Coast. As of two weeks ago I still had brussels sprouts in the garden ready for harvest.