The Intersection of Resilience, Climate Change and Aging

by Martha Paterson-Cohen
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climate change, martha cohen, aging, critical gerontology,

Gerontology is a relatively new field of study, which recognized the challenges of the coming population aging (longevity plus baby boomer demographics). Although originating as a field of studies in the 1940s, in the United States, gerontology gained an institutional foot-hold with the Administration on Aging in 1965, and the National Institute on Aging in 1974, just as neoliberal austerity policies were gaining ground. The study of aging and related assistance programs have been in a maintenance mode ever since, to keep that foot-hold and build the profession.

While I am not a climate change expert or activist, I do consider myself a Gerontologist. The framing of issues in both gerontology and climate science can be misleading. Using a recent Monthly Review article about climate change as an example, this blog highlights that there are similar, core issues hidden in both respective fields.

Aside from a few advocacy groups, gerontologists (academics and practitioners) have generally functioned conservatively. Political resistance to anything but minor public reformist responses to aging have left harmful systems of care in place, and have resulted in piecemeal social programs and an erosion of Medicare coverage over the years. Yet an “aging enterprise” has evolved, which has placed too much emphasis on individualistic rather than systemic approaches to the various challenges of aging in society, as well as sustained an emphasis on professionalizing and profit-making solutions to age-related social and public health issues (see Estes,1979). This has been partially due to the initial fragmentation of programs for older people created by the Older Americans Act, each competing for special interests and funds. Individualistic approaches to social problems are often characterized as a need for individual “resilience” or “success”, thus detracting from socially structured causes and collective responsibility in finding solutions. Aside from a few prescient sociologists such as Carroll Estes[1], few scholars have considered such lines of thinking (see also: Baars, Dannefer, Phillipson, and Walker, 2006; Estes and Phillipson, 2002, Vincent, 2003; Walker and Deacon, 2003).

Critical Gerontologists have a wealth of material to use from critiques of political economy found in reliable journals such as The Monthly Review, New Left Review, and the radical press that gives voice to left-leaning thinkers and writers (e.g., VERSO, Haymarket, PM Press, to name a few). My life-long interest in gerontology has taken a radical turn in recent years. Political economy perspectives of aging draw from Karl Marx’s rejection of classical economists’ conception of an economy that existed “independently of the mediation of human beings”[2]. For Marx, it is the “social relations between actors” that “constitute the economic structure of society”[3]. And from critical Sociologist, Carroll Estes: “People positioned differently within the political power structure reap different levels of benefits in the redistribution of social goods.”[4] A case in point is that we are now grappling with a reality where the eight richest people on earth own as much combined wealth as half of the human race.[5]

Making Critical Connections With Radical Literature: An Example

To make a seemingly unrelated connection between the predominant approach to “successful aging” and the mainstream characterization of responses to climate change, consider this quote from the editors’ notes previewing the key article, ‘Trump and Climate Catastrophe’, in the February 2017 issue of The Monthly Review:

“The dominant ideology subtly shifted from sustainability to resilience”

By redirecting the discourse to the concept of resilience, it is easier to justify avoidance of more costly sustainable environmental impact measures that are designed to prevent environmental destruction. The focus then becomes the ability to rebuild after an environmental disaster has occurred, in a macro sense, and then find new ways to cope in the face of a disaster in an individual, micro sense. Think of Hurricane Katrina and the opportunities for profit in the privatization of the entire school system while long-time residents of New Orleans were forced to cope with losing housing, losing schools they were familiar with, and displacement. Both responses, privatization of schools, and individuals having to adapt to these changes, can be characterized as resilient. The emerging climate change discourse of resilience is also being applied organizationally:

“The concept of resilience, while adopted by some progressive thinkers and organizations, such as the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is nonetheless being rapidly incorporated into a survival-of-the-most-resilient philosophy, in which poor nations and indeed exploited and dispossessed people everywhere, are told they must simply become more “resilient” in order to survive- but in a world in which such dynamic adaptability is available mainly to the rich, who enjoy monopolies of capital, resources, and technology” (Editors notes, 2017).

They go on to point out that “Donald Trump has declared on his hyperactive Twitter account that:

‘Resilience is part of the survival of the fittest formula’ (Jan 14, 2014).

In this approach, responsibility for “natural” disasters, which strike with ever-greater frequency and intensity due to climate change, is decentralized.

“The poor are offered this message of resilience ostensibly as one of empowerment, yet its underlying ideology is that of a reemerging social Darwinism. [6]

It is not much of a stretch to see the persistent application of this “resilient” concept to aging, for example, by substituting aging vocabulary into the last sentence of the above excerpt:

“The aging population (poor) are offered this message of successful aging (resilience) ostensibly as one of empowerment, yet its underlying ideology is that of a reemerging social Darwinism.”

In climate change science and age studies, the political economy of capitalism affects our thinking and therefore our discourse, and we feel compelled to find solutions within that framework. Yet both climate change and challenges of population aging are each global issues that have reached a truly critical phase, one that their respective fields of expertise saw coming. If climate change, as documented by natural scientific research, has been allowed to get to this dire status, there is a need to look to the social sciences to understand why, and how this has happened. The authors and editors of The Monthly Review discuss this consideration:

“However, as a rule the social sciences are compromised from the start. As shown in particular by the discipline of economics, they are ideologically compelled to answer all concrete issues in terms set by capitalism, excluding any perspective that seriously challenges that system or its boundaries. Social scientists are thus discouraged from questioning–or indeed even naming–the fundamental structures and workings of the historical system in which we live.”[7]

Our failure to systemically discuss and confront problems related to a global aging demographic (inadequate health care, housing, basic income support) is similar to our failure to develop sustainable approaches to climate change. The readily accepted language of individual resilience has provided a discourse that fits a system based on monetized approaches to virtually everything. Aging individuals are offered a whole menu of choices to help them age successfully from mental stimulation activities to well-appointed assisted living facilities, yet how many people really have access to these things? Critical approaches call out this discourse and explain structural realities. From there, it is possible to imagine actual systemic change, for example “green” socialized modes of production to sustain the planet in the environmental sense, and socialized medicine as a critical gerontological response to long term care.

What to Do?

As critical gerontologist Chris Phillipson concludes in his chapter on globalization and aging, from the Handbook of Theories of Aging:

“Globalization… highlights the importance of a macro-level focus within the study of aging. New opportunities are provided for understanding the way structural factors influence the organization of daily life. Analyzing the implications of this for social theory is now an urgent task for gerontologists to incorporate into their research”. [8]

Critical gerontology is positioned to confront the current assault on social programs including social security and medicare. By drawing from critical analysis in other disciplines, gerontologists will be liberated from conventional approaches that end with policy reform and can begin to address aging in society in terms of the basic human right to age with dignity and security. Intersectionality[9] has been embraced in academia because we are beginning to see the connectivity of all social problems based on a structural analysis. When the political economy’s driving ideology is one of “survival of the fittest”, and the focus is on developing mechanisms to increase profit at the expense of society itself, you can be sure that marginalized populations, which include the vulnerable elderly, will continue to be an easy mark for the expendability necessary to prop up a failing capitalist system with “resilient” measures that will benefit the few.

Consider critical gerontology as part of a new Frankfurt School,[10] an interdisciplinary awakening that now includes gerontology. As the social contract between the state and the people is eroded by global finance capital, an intersectional, critical approach will help to clarify the real causes of, and inspire new solutions to the ongoing failure to provide a place for aging with dignity and support.


[1] Estes, C.L. (1979) The Aging Enterprise, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

[2] Marx, K. (1983a). A contribution to the critique of political economy in E. Kamenka (Ed.), The portable Karl Marx. New York: Penguin in The Political Economy Perspective of Aging, (2009)in Bengston, Gans,Putney, Silverstein (Eds) Handbook of Theories of Aging New York: Springer Publishing, p.556

[3] Giddens,A (1971). Capitalism and modern social theory. An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press in The Political Economy Perspective of Aging, (2009)in Bengston, Gans,Putney, Silverstein (Eds) Handbook of Theories of Aging New York: Springer Publishing, p.556

[4] Estes, C.L.(1999). Critical gerontology and the new political economy of aging. In M.Minkler and C.J. Estes(Eds), Critical gerontology: Perspectives from political and moral economy Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing (pp.17-35)


[6] Foster, Yates, Vanderburg, (eds) “Notes from the Editors”, p.65, February 2017, Monthly Review

[7] Foster, John Bellamy, ‘Trump and Climate Catastrophe’, p.4, Monthly Review, Vol. 68, No.9, Feb. 2017

[8] Phillipson, Chris (2009) ‘Reconstructing Theories of Aging: The Impact of Globalization on Theories of Aging’, in Bengston, Gans, Putney, Silverstein, (eds)Handbook of Theories of Aging, p.626

[9] Wikipedia: “Intersectionality or Intersectional Theory is a term coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and scholar of critical race theory, Kimberle Willams Crenshaw.”

[10] For more on the Frankfurt School see Carroll Estes, Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage Publications, p.31 and Scott Bass, Handbook of Theories of Aging, Toward and Integrative Theory of Social Gerontology, p. 356.

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1 comment

Stephen Katz December 9, 2017 - 11:36 pm

Thank you Martha, lots to think about here!


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