Climate change could be one of the most significant challenges of this century, and information about how societies have endured difficult times is crucial to the development of survival strategies. The latter is fundamental to the concept ‘resilience’, the latest catchphrase in the literatures of climate change and global policy-making in the early 2000s. Being resilient in the face of climate change is especially important for island societies, which currently face the consequences of rising temperatures, unpredictable rainfall and wind patterns, and sea level rise, yet there is a dearth of academic literature on the subject.
To date, the majority of studies have used indicators and methods rooted in Western science and neo-classical economics. These, have, however, been criticized as being locally irrelevant and inadequate to address the dynamic nature and social structures of island communities, and their capacity to adapt. This study challenges the current paradigm that defines resilience as a return to equilibrium, by using a non-equilibrium cultural ecological lens and interpretivist research design. The non-equilibrium view of resilience sees the social systems of island nations as highly dynamic areas, constantly undergoing persistent change and environmental disturbance. It is exposure to such disturbances that fosters resilience in people. The study found that island societies are resilient because they continue to adapt and survive despite living on small isolated landmasses and being exposed to physical and socio-economic challenges, including climate-related changes.
A key argument of this thesis is that to understand the resilience of an island society to climate change requires assessment of islanders’ perceptions and actions in the context of their physical locales and their socio-cultural systems. In the case of Samoa, it was found important to situate participants in their villages and investigate what they say and do in response to their cultural position in Samoan society as well as in their responsibilities and obligations to family, village, church and the nation. This approach revealed Samoans’ detailed understanding, awareness and experience of climate-related changes. More importantly, it enabled greater appreciation of islanders’ multiple and multi-layered connections, to take advantage of opportunities and devise ways of managing, avoiding and reducing the risks associated with climate change. These have already proven vital in enabling Samoans to cope with climate change, and are expected to do so in future. The research findings and approach could be used to assess the resilience of people in other places.