Lancaster University: ‘Trade-offs’ between wellbeing and resilience

Efforts to increase human wellbeing and improve the resilience of vulnerable societies and ecosystems can undermine each other if their effects are not properly understood, researchers say.

Wellbeing and resilience to environmental changes are key goals of sustainable development, and they are often seen as linked or even interchangeable terms.

But a new paper – by an international team of researchers and development organisations, involving researchers at Lancaster University and the University of Exeter – says the two don’t always go hand in hand.

This is especially the case if wellbeing and resilience are understood too simplistically – but appreciation of the complex links between the concepts can help to find win-win scenarios.

Lancaster University’s Professor Christina Hicks, one of the paper’s authors, said: “The problem is practitioners and academics often focus on either improving wellbeing, such as addressing food shortages, and assume resilience will follow. Or they focus on building resilience, by increasing capacity, and assume wellbeing will follow.

“But, often these efforts can undermine one another. For example, projects focused on increasing food supply can undermine local communities and farmers ability to respond to shocks, such as financial, or environmental events.

“It is possible to support both resilience and wellbeing, but it is not a given. This is particularly important now as the sustainability challenges we face, such as addressing climate change, can significantly affect wellbeing, but if we pay attention to how resilience and wellbeing interact we can develop strategies that support both resilience and wellbeing.”

Lead author Dr Tomas Chaigneau, of the University of Exeter, said: We want to highlight the vital distinctions and connections between wellbeing and resilience ahead of the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow next week so that policies can be better designed and ensure that addressing the climate crisis does not harm people’s wellbeing and livelihoods.”

Nathanial Matthews, one of the co-authors and CEO of the Global Resilience Partnership, said: “Wellbeing and resilience both feature heavily in policy targets, especially those relating to sustainable development.

“Assuming that the two automatically go together is not helpful. When this mistake is made, it is often the poorest and most marginalised people who suffer.”

Dr Chaigneau added: “For example, after the 2004 Asian tsunami, new legislation in India and Sri Lanka prevented homes and businesses being rebuilt close to the coast, in order to create buffer zones and build resilience to future tsunamis.

“This forced people who depended on the sea for economic, cultural and social reasons to move to isolated villages inland, undermining wellbeing in diverse ways.

“If these trade-offs had been thought through more thoroughly, then measures to ameliorate them could have been implemented alongside them.

“Our website (www.navigating-complexity.com/home) provides an opportunity to explore some of these complex trade-offs.”

Dr Chaigneau also said that understanding and pursuing wellbeing in simple economic terms is driving the climate crisis, and therefore undermining resilience in potentially devastating ways.

Professor Hicks said: “If we are to build long-term resilience, while addressing contemporary environmental challenges, it is vital we pay attention to an inclusive vision of human wellbeing.”

The research team – which includes Northumbria University, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Global Resilience Partnership and Practical Action – say a more inclusive interpretation of the concepts can lead to better outcomes for people and the planet.

“A narrow focus on achieving resilience and wellbeing locally and in the near future, can lead to trade-offs elsewhere or in the future. We need to consider resilience and wellbeing at regional and global levels, and on timescales spanning generations,” Dr Chaigneau said.

“We need to think of wellbeing and resilience as processes rather than simple outcomes.

“We hope our paper will provide food for thought ahead of the vital COP26 talks.”

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