Theme 2017: Resilience

What is fragility?

- af Ole Fogh Kirkeby

It’s an interesting word to look at, because we often speak using completely different hard-sounding words when it comes to climate change and the environment. Concepts such as robustness – which is similar to the terms resilience and sustainability that are often used in the climate debate – while the opposite of robustness and resilience, fragility, is often not taken into account. However, much suggests that it is precisely our sensitivity that affects how well we humans fare in the world, especially when our surroundings are undergoing change. Development and sustainability, robustness, fragility and resilience.

In order to understand the concepts of sustainability, robustness, fragility and resilience from the perspective of development, we must figure out what kind of ability to resist they characterize.

Looking at the development concepts we mentioned before, sustainabilitycan be the same as biological aptitude created through natural selection. Robustness can refer both to sustainability and resilience, i.e., to the ability of an organism to adapt to a particular environment. One is robust when one does not change its own basic characteristics in the process and resists the environment rather than encompassing it, while the concept of resilience is characterized by strong adaptive features, where one understands how to utilize changes in the environment to their own benefit.

Fragilitycan be divided into positive fragility and negative fragility. The negative means that the organism declines due to a lack of adaptability, while the positive characterizes organisms that are able to adapt to new and difficult conditions through inventive transformations. The creativity of the organism is at the heart of this, which causes the organism to succeed in exploiting its more difficult experiences and to exploit what you still do not know that you know.

Where robust cultural history is about survival power within environments that maintain a heavy status quo and whose survival characteristics have been dictated by the environment, sustainability is a result of strategic analysis, planning and chronicling where both state and industry have recognized the need for a transformation in order to survive climate change.

The concept of resilience is not so easy to use in planning, as it is more connected with the positive aspects of fragility, where the fragility of the human organism is utilized to establish a protection against vulnerability. An example could be the doctor Ignaz Semmelweis, who in the mid 1800’s rescued many new mothers from post-natal death by getting doctors to wash their hands before delivering the baby.

Positive fragilityThe concept of positive fragility can be understood from the similar word sensitivity, that is, being sensitive and a consciousness phenomenon that has an especially reflective content. Positive fragility uses distinctive mental potentials because it knows that it doesn’t know everything, yet at the same time it has the ability to activate what you do not know that you know. An example of this may be when Alexander Fleming accidently discovered penicillin.

Actually, the researcher had given up on the solution for how to kill staphylococci. He instead went on vacation, but when he got home, the petri dish of the bacteria was infected with penicillium mushrooms that had killed the bacteria. By using his ability to observe and combining it with the sensitivity of the experience to something with which he had no objective, he utilized his non-knowledge productively, and instead invented penicillin.

This is an alternative way of finding out something that depends on sensation, imagination, and thinking, and which works not by controlling, but instead giving, benefiting, enriching and conveying joy. In that way, positive fragility is a social category. It is about our perception of others, and thus also about our relationship with ourselves.

Nassim Taleb and the black swans
These thoughts are in many ways related to Nassim Talbe’s term “anti-fragility.” He places fragility up against robustness as something that can transform itself into its opposition by utilizing stress. Taleb says about his term:

“Some things take advantage of shock: They thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, coincidence, disorder, stress factors, and love stories, risks and uncertainties. Let’s call this antifragility. The resilient withstands shock and stays the same, while the anti-fragile improves.”

He continues:

“Antifragility, which is the opposite of fragility, has the unique ability to allow us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them – and do it well. This gives a solution to what I have called the Black Swan issue – the ability to calculate the risk of subsequent rare events and predict their occurrence. Following Taleb, the story of ‘black swans’ is created by major unpredictable events that occur in spite of our attempts to capture them in models. Taleb also comes with concrete examples of the differences between robust, fragile, and anti-fragile in our society: Under the category of professions, academics, private sector leaders, the Pope, and politicians are fragile, while those who are robust are post-office workers, truck drivers and train engineers, while the anti-fragile are writers and artists.

And then there’s the relevant question about global warming: How can the fact that we cannot do anything about sea-level rise be turned into a strength? Said in another way, what is the potential of robustness in our fragility in terms of the climate crisis?

A robust reaction would be to stop all emissions immediately. A fragile reaction would consist of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strategies that, however, will not be sufficient in itself without negative effects. They will face political barriers, and this is where their fragility lies. Technologies such as of 3D printing, robots and artificial intelligence that could help us reduce the resources used for transportation would mean unemployment among those who would otherwise have operated machines. However, it is unclear how such fragility could be turned into a robust benefit, yet we still can learn from Taleb’s terminology. We can stop considering robust as an ideal, and look differently at fragile. This also encourages us to understand resilience as a phenomenon that belongs to a completely different system than sustainability. However, the road there is not without problems: It implies that we have different view of history, vulnerability, and vulnerable populations. Fragility lies not only in our perception, but in what is being seen. In order for us to adapt to them requires great social awareness, as well as an ability to act from this place, and be ready for rejection. It requires a great change of mentality, and the password for this is generosity.


Talking about fragility as opposed to robustness and antifragility, we also talk about human consciousness. It is in the interaction between nature and society that fragility plays out. Nature and society are fragile in relation to what we do to them. The resources that we have available each year from nature are already exhausted after the first 8 months. It is this knowledge of the fragility of nature that can make us change our behaviour. However, the means on this journey are also fragile, as they themselves corrode the resources.

Precisely because robustness, fragility and antifragility are all intertwined in capitalist power structures, we need to analyze these forms of power and gain an understanding of new forms of mentality – including a new generosity towards the billions of victims suffering from capitalism, which an action to save the world requires. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a new ideological travesty.

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