Bouncing Back: Resiliency in Specialty Coffee – 25 Magazine, Issue 10

Bouncing Back: Resiliency in Specialty Coffee – 25 Magazine, Issue 10

IIf “sustainability” became the buzzword of specialty coffee towards the end of the twentieth century, then “resilience” is fast on its way towards earning the title in the twenty-first.

ERIKA KOSS explores the many ways in which we define “resilient” and why it matters in specialty coffee.

An explosion of “resilience research” – noted by Swedish scientist Dr. Carl Folke – has seen 250 scientific publications on resilience in 2006 increase to more than 6,000 in 2016. As the Co-founder and Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at the University of Stockholm, Dr. Folke is among the global leaders of “resilience thinking.” While this center’s simple definition of resilience is “the capacity to deal with change and continue to develop,” a deep complexity lies beneath this word.[1]

It’s not just academia – the focus on resilience is a global movement. Regularly yoked with other terms like “planning” and “policy” or alongside themes of sustainability (“climate resilience”), resilience is presented as something that must be promoted, built, enhanced, sustained, developed, and – alas – funded. Global initiatives[2] and new job titles (“Resilience Officers,” “Climate-Resilience Specialists,” and even “Professors of Resilience”) are becoming more and more common.

In specialty coffee, we see a similar rise in the rhetoric of resilience fueled by some global non-governmental organizations, as well as some in science. For example, Lutheran World Relief defines resilience as an approach that includes the ability to “absorb the impacts of shocks and stressors; adapt to changing circumstances; and transform amid uncertainty” as a result of a disrupting event such as a disaster, disease, or conflict.[3] To Catholic Relief Services, resilience is a “lens” through which “people and systems mitigate, adapt to, and are prepared to respond to, and recover from, shocks quickly.”[4] And World Coffee Research now focuses its efforts on creating “climate resilient” coffee varieties.

All this matters, because how we define and apply this term in specialty coffee will impact the human actors of coffee’s complex supply chain. Can we really “build” resilience from the outside?

Tracing “Resilience” as a Concept

Historically used only as verb, the word we now use as “resilience” derives from Latin and, as used by poets beginning in the seventeenth century, is based upon the idea of a powerful, sensual pull towards an object of origin.[5] Fast forward to the twentieth century, and a new use occurs in the field of psychology: a person is resilient when they recover quickly from intense adversity. Psychiatrist Steven Southwick summarizes a dominant medical view of resilience as “the ability to bend but not break, bounce back, and perhaps even grow in the face of adverse life experiences.”[6] As resilience later moved into the discipline of engineering, a resilient object is considered “buoyant, adaptable, robust, hardy” and can therefore return to its original form or shape when stretched.

The implication that resilience is a desirable and positive thing is rife through literature on the topic. But there is a point across all three of these uses – in literature, psychology, and engineering – that resilience isn’t something to be built. It’s inherent in the very property of the object, entity, person, or experience in question. At what point did the focus shift from encouraging resiliency to building it?

Part of this answer came when “resilience” entered ecological discourse in 1973, when Canadian Theoretical Ecologist C. S. Holling published an article in the annual Review of Ecological Systems that would become the foundation of an interdisciplinary academic and global movement. The article, “Resilience and the Stability of Ecological Systems,” defined resilience in contrast to “equilibrium” or “stability.”[7] The dominant view at the time assumed that the natural world is homogeneous over space and time, but in trying to model the behavior of dynamic systems without equilibrium, Holling tested for the opposite. What if it were instability that “introduce[d] a resilience and capacity to persist”?

He ultimately discovered – and argued – that, not only do all systems experience disruptions, but that these were vital to the very capability of the system to return to an “equilibrium state” after a disturbance. He even went so far as to assert, for example, that a forest cannot be resilient without an occasional fire to burn it all down and therefore “absorb change.” In other words, Holling questioned: How much “disturbance” could a system absorb without changing?

Resilience Now: Where Does it Bounce from Here?

Holling, and many scholars that followed him, were not looking at systems of people. They analyzed natural ecosystems of things like forests and fish populations. But humans are neither forests nor fish. Since Holling’s 1973 article, scholars in dozens of academic disciplines have endorsed various definitions and applications of resilience, providing a lexicon for diverse twenty-first century global challenges.

Resilience thinking claims to approach complexity, networks, causality, and agency in innovative ways. In the areas of political science and international development, “resilience” is employed as a way for some to help others avoid and escape chronic poverty in the face of myriad stressors and shocks. What was once considered “underdevelopment” or “poverty” is now labeled “vulnerability.” Modernists focused on “development” and “poverty alleviation”; now post-modernists emphasize “resilience” and “building capacity.” It is here in these re-definitions that we can begin to see the shift from bolstering resilience to building it.

In this new way of thinking, however, “resilience” may already be losing its meaning. If it becomes a “monotonous characteristic of everything,” then it risks meaning nothing at all.[8]

Despite this, it’s possible to see how this rhetoric of resilience can be helpful. It provides language for those in pain or suffering so that they are not defined by whatever travesty, tragedy, or stressor appears – whether internal or external. It can encourage individuals, families, communities, and cities to work together. It may even provide some hope that diverse systems mitigate risk.

Resilience in Specialty Coffee

Is resilience really a new approach in the goal to “empower” coffee communities? Resilience is not the same as “sustainability,” but too often these are used interchangeably. Can resilience approaches really accomplish our humanitarian and development goals that will allow the poor and vulnerable not only to “bounce back” but to “bounce forward”? Can resilience measure varieties of “disturbance” and its impact on the “equilibrium” of diverse peoples – especially when so many coffee communities lack a firm foundation from which to bounce?

Resilience discourse centers on a fundamental paradox: The world is beyond human control, yet one group of humans from one part of the world seeks to “build resilience” for another group in a different part of the world. Here, resilience seems to shine like a silver bullet: If a community is given the right amount of flexibility and preparation, each person can control their own level of risk. But without structures to buffer coffee communities against shocks and disturbances in the first place, resilience may become another concept that perpetuates colonial and capitalist legacies.

We may not be able to “build resilience” in the way that our current use of the word suggests, but we can work to build firm foundations to allow coffee communities – already among the world’s most resilient people – to not only bounce back, but bounce forward after disaster.

For example, the “resilient seeds” created by World Coffee Research, and given to smallholder farmers, provide one important way forward from the scientific coffee community. Twin, an NGO that focuses on development through trade, published a robust report in 2017 titled Coffee and Climate Change: Moving from Adaptation to Resilience, and summarized its work towards “climate resilience” with four coffee cooperatives in Colombia, Nicaragua, Uganda, and Vietnam.[9]

But from a political, economic, and social perspective, how can we avoid perpetuating colonial and capitalist legacies in building such foundations?

Being led by stakeholders, along with active listening to those who are regularly silenced, misheard, or dismissed (read: women and youth), will be essential. (Indeed, Catholic Relief Services believes that vulnerable people should define resilience for themselves.)

But for enduring transformation to take place, many twenty-first century structures need transformation: for example, women need the legal right to own land; youth need access to capital for innovations; families need health care. These and other provisions need to exist continually and not only during a drought or after a war. A firm foundation from which to bounce must exist in the first place if we want resilience from which both producers and consumers can adapt, transform, and thrive in the face of internal or external vicissitudes.

For if even one part of our complex, global coffee supply chain lacks resilience, then how will any of us bounce forward towards a strong future with coffee?

ERIKA KOSS is an Authorized SCA Trainer for the SCA’s new Sustainability Coffee Skills program, a PhD Candidate in International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada and a Research Associate at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

Resilience: Origins and Etymology

Words are fuel for enduring change. How do early expressions of the word “resilience” guide our understanding and interpretation of it today?

Historically used only as a verb, the word we now use as “resilience” derives from the Latin verb salio(-ire): “to jump, to leap, to spring.” The poet Ovid regularly employed this verb, salire, as an active, emotive word when describing, for example, how fountains move (in Ars Amatoria) or what fishes and frogs do when it rains (in Metamorphoses).

Adding the prefix “re” to the verb (re + salire) to form “resilient” conveys an even greater elasticity of action – “to jump back from, to recoil, to withdraw” – based on space and time. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the first recorded use of the word “resilience” in a section observing the properties of sound in Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Natural History in Ten Centuries, a posthumously published collection of laboratory notes by Francis Bacon (1561–1626).

More than two hundred years later, an early poetic appearance of the word is found in the 1834 poem, “Hymn to the Earth,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Mightier far was the joy of thy sudden resilience,” proclaims the poet in describing the Earth’s orbit as the wooing of Earth by the Heavens.


[1] Folke, C. (2016). Resilience (Republished). Ecology and Society, 21(4), 44.

[2] The United Nations’ “Resilience for All” comes to mind, or the Rockefeller Foundation’s large grants in their “Resilient Cities” initiative.

[3] Ferretti, S. (2016). “Café Project Evaluation.” Lutheran World Relief Report. Baltimore, MD.

[4] Catholic Relief Services (CRS). (2017) “Understand and Assessing Resilience.” Report. Baltimore, MD.

[5] See “Resilience: Origins and Etymology.”

[6] Southwick, S. M. et. al, (2014). “Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives.” European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5, 10.3402.

[7] Holling, C. (1973). “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4(1), 1–23.

[8] Duffield, M. (2012). “Challenging environments: Danger, resilience and the aid industry.” Security Dialogue, 43(5), 475–492.

[9] TWIN and Twin Trading Report. (2017) Coffee and Climate Change: Moving from Adaptation to Resilience. Published in London by Twin.

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