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Resilience Validates Political Ecology

It occurs to me that my observation in the previous post is essentially a restatement (albeit in a more idealist rather than materialst mode) of what might be called the Second Law of Political Ecology*: "natural" disasters entrench the status quo. The early political ecologists pointed out that disasters always hit the have-nots hardest, knocking them further down the ladder. And disaster relief is structured in such a way that it perpetuates their vulnerability.

At first glance, this seems incompatible with the idea of resilience and the adaptive cycle, which I also find to be a compelling theory. After all, the central idea of the adaptive cycle is that any system will eventually build toward a collapse, and that after the collapse the system is indeterministic, open to being dramatically shaped by contingency. But that seeming incompatibility is because the Second Law of Political Ecology is multi-scalar, while the basic presentation of the adaptive cycle is only at one scale.

In Panarchy, Gunderson and Holling describe how adaptive cycles at different temporal and spatial scales interact. In a "revolution," an Ω (collapse) phase of a smaller-scale cycle provokes an Ω in a larger-scale cycle. For a revolution to occur requires either a very large Ω collapse in the smaller system, or a very rigid and non-resilient larger system (i.e. a very advanced K phase vulnerable to disturbance). On the other hand, "remembering" occurs when a larger-scale K phase stabilizes a smaller-scale α phase, sending the smaller-scale system back along the same track as its previous cycle.

The political ecology of a natural disaster has basically two scales -- the smaller scale of the local area directly affected by the disaster, and the larger national or global political economy. At the moment, the capitalist world political economy is still fairly resilient (indeed, one of the key elements of capitalism is its ability to renew itself on short timescales, thus avoiding -- at least for a time -- the kind of huge Ω that Karl Marx thought was just around the corner). Thus it would take a very big disaster -- much larger than Hurricane Katrina -- to provoke an Ω that would fundamentally alter the basic structure of the global political economy. Instead, the global system acts as a giant flywheel to stabilize and recreate the social, economic, and ecological relations at the smaller scale.

*The First Law of Political Ecology, which is in some sense just a more emphatic and critical restatement of the First Law of Risk/Hazards, is "there is no such thing as a 'natural' disaster."


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