Thwarting adaptation’s potential? A critique of resilience and climate-resilient development

Michael Mikulewicz*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)
221 Downloads (Pure)


Over the last two decades, resilience has steadily gained traction in discussions on the theory and practice of adaptation to climate change. The concept is widely considered useful for explaining how coupled social-ecological systems (SESs) resist climate-related stressors or undergo change. At the same time, however, there has been an upswell of critique on resilience and climate-resilient development, stemming most prominently from the quarters of political ecology and human geography. This article seeks to contribute to this literature by using the analytical lens of post-politics to critically evaluate resilience and climate-resilient development in a local adaptation context. Four major critiques are lodged against resilience: (1) its inability to sufficiently recognize the large-scale political, economic, and social forces affecting and effecting change, (2) its oversight of the analyzed systems’ internal dynamics, (3) the depoliticized, techno-managerial nature of resilience-centered solutions, and (4) the theoretical vagueness of resilience as applied by development actors. The paper presents a grounded critique of the term based on empirical evidence collected through a quasi-ethnography of a climate change adaptation project implemented by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the national government in São Tomé and Príncipe. It is argued that resilience, despite its theoretical attractiveness and growing popularity among donors, continues to dehumanize development and renders adaptation post-political. The article also discusses alternative, more human-centered approaches rooted in vulnerability and climate justice, which offer a more nuanced lens through which to analyze climate impacts and the associated challenges that they pose at the local level.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)267-282
Number of pages16
Early online date4 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019


  • adaptation
  • resilience
  • vulnerability
  • climate justice
  • climate change
  • development


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