UTDSIDSINewsResilience Reflections #26: Resilience of civilisations?
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Resilience Reflections #26: Resilience of civilisations?

In this week's issue of Resilience ReflectionsAthanasios Votsis shares his insights on the meaning of the term Resilience and its origins in a civilisation’s foundational ingredients. This leads the reader to the more existential questions underlying human sciences.

In this regular series by the Resilience@UT and 4TU Resilience, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The series is just one of many UT initiatives responding to the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. 

Resilience of civilisations? 

In our advanced world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we seem to be excited with the idea of knowing everything—in real-time—and with getting as fast as possible to the next big innovation. We are marching en masse towards more and better data, more connectivity, better scientific models, accelerated innovation, better governance, smarter policy, increased sustainability, and, ultimately, more resilience...

However, resilience of what? What is this thing that needs to become resilient, and asks for so many resources, breakthroughs, and sweeping changes? A proper and easy answer is, of course: the resilience of humans and their lived environment. You may have also heard about the importance of strengthening the resilience of the natural environment. These responses are attractive, but they describe a loose collection of the means for achieving resilience, but not the meaning of it.  

Resilience as a human artefact?

Humans are not mere material organisms. We attach meaning to objects and our environment. We embed our ideas about the world into the world, thereby changing both the world and ourselves. Semiotics—that “old school” humanities scholarly discipline—puts it well: humans evolved to inhabit the world by creating meaning about it, which helps them connect external natural processes to their internal mental world. A resilient settlement is more than that—it encapsulates an idea about inhabiting the world in a very specific way. Such fundamental beliefs, values, and ideas about how we settle in the world, and what we want to get out of it, ultimately come to define a civilisation.

The Journey of Civilisations

My response to my question is that, when we speak about resilience and sustainability, we are concerned with our civilisation’s existential journey into the ages. We look into the immensely large number of cultures that stacked themselves one upon the other, living and perishing in a place without ever being aware of each other’s existence. We wonder what our place is in this game of human existence.

Resilience is an Existential Human Sciences endeavour. It is concerned with how a civilisation’s meaning(s) about the world, ultimately comes to define that civilisation’s very own pathways in scales immensely broader and more meaningful than we usually dare to imagine. We need to understand what our civilisation’s modes of settling the world—our fundamental stances about settlement in the environment—imply for our existential pathways, as a species that is part of, and not external or dominant to, its context. One needs an almost anthropological kind of introspection for this and a critical look into the basic assumptions we have made as settled people. I do not see such questions being asked by resilience scholarship.

* This is a popular version of my theory of Civilisational Semiotics, outlined in Athanasios Votsis. 2023. ‘For a Civilisational Semiotics’. Presented at the On the Roots of Humanism: Symposium of the Academy of Cultural Heritages, Syros, October 2023. https://research.utwente.nl/files/323022993/Votsis2023-ForACivilisationalSemiotics.pdf.

About the author

Athanasios Votsis is a spatial planner, human geographer, and semiotician with expertise in both the Humanities and STEM disciplines. His field of inquiry is complex adaptive human-environment systems, and particularly the spatial patterns of human behaviour and their interaction with their social and physical environment. 

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