Why Resilience? Why Now?

Resilience. The capacity to absorb shock and maintain function while at the same time re-organizing and developing. I first heard of resilience as an undergraduate student caught awkwardly between Biology and Political science degree, and it was immediately intuitive to me. All of a sudden my world made sense. The fact that my thoughts didn’t fit into any particular discipline was O.K. I had found my academic home. Importantly it helped me make sense of the seeming conundrum of sustainable development.

“Sustainability is the capacity to create, test, and maintain adaptive capability. Development is the process of creating, testing, and maintaining opportunity.  The phrase that combines the two, sustainable development, thus refers to the goal of fostering adaptive capabilities and creating opportunities. It is therefore not an oxymoron but a term that describes a logical partnership” (Holling, 2001).

In addition to making sense of how we might conserve and develop at the same time, the concept that human-environment, or social-ecological interactions take place across multiple scales, are dynamic and result in emergent outcomes with a huge degree of uncertainty based on initial states were concepts I thought would be intuitive to all, given the turbulent world we live in. So, this blog is about why is Resilience so popular now? What is unique about our point in history?

But HOLD IT! I’m visiting Cambridge for the week, and was just asking this question in the Zoology tea room “why the exponential rise in resilience in the past 5 years?” …and was reminded that I live in a bit of Resilience bubble as PhD student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Speaking with a group of very good ecologists, many of them didn’t know much about resilience, and had never even heard of Panarchy!! Shock-horror. (I am a self-professed disciple). So, taking a few steps back, here are main facts about resilience, from a social-ecological perspective.

A fundamental starting assumptions is that Social-ecological systems (SES) are complex adaptive systems. This means: Non-linear behaviour, self-organisation, multiple scales. I.e. A clock is a complicated system, not a complex one.

From a useful website sustainablescale.org:

Stages of the Adaptive Cycle: Basic Ecosystem Dynamics

Panarchy identifies four basic stages of ecosystems, represented in the Figure below: exploitation, conservation, release and reorganization.  All ecosystems, from the cellular to the global level, are said to go through these four stages of a dynamic adaptive cycle (see below).

  • The exploitation stage is one of rapid expansion, as when a population finds a fertile niche in which to grow.
  • The conservation stage is one in which slow accumulation and storage of energy and material is emphasized as when a population reaches carrying capacity and stabilizes for a time.
  • The release occurs rapidly, as when a population declines due to a competitor, or changed conditions
  • Reorganization can also occur rapidly, as when certain members of the population are selected for their ability to survive despite the competitor or changed conditions that triggered the release.Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 4.25.35 PM

Adaptive Cycles   

The four stages of the adaptive cycle described above (analogous to birth, growth and maturation, death and renewal), have three properties that determine the dynamic characteristics of each cycle:

  • Potential sets the limits to what is possible – the number and kinds of future options available (e.g. high levels of biodiversity provide more future options than low levels)
  • Connectedness determines the degree to which a system can control its own destiny through internal controls, as distinct from being influenced by external variables (e.g. temperature regulation in warm blooded animals, which involves five different physiological mechanisms, is an example of high connectedness)
  • Resilience determines how vulnerable a system is to unexpected disturbances and surprises that can exceed or break that control (see below for more details).

The adaptive cycle is the process that accounts for both the stability and change in complex systems.  It periodically generates variability and novelty, either internally such as through genetic mutations or adaptation, or by accumulating resources that change the internal dynamics of an ecosystem.  These changes are the triggers for experimentation. In the reorganization stage various experiments are tested and resources are reorganized in new configurations, some of which enter a new exploitation stage to repeat the cycle.

Interconnectedness of Levels

Panarchy places great emphasis on the interconnectedness of levels, between the smallest and the largest, and the fastest and slowest.  The large, slow cycles set the conditions for the smaller, faster cycles to operate. But the small, fast cycles can also have an impact on the larger, slower cycles. There are many possible points of interconnectedness between adjacent levels; however, two specific points are of particular interest with respect to sustainability:

panarchy revolt remember color

  • “Revolt” – this occurs when fast, small events overwhelm large, slow ones, as when a small fire in a forest spreads to the crowns of trees, then to another patch, and eventually the entire forest
  • “Remember” this occurs when the potential accumulated and stored in the larger, slow levels influences the reorganization. For example, after a forest fire the processes and resources accumulated at a larger level slow the leakage of nutrients, and options for renewal draw from the seed bank, physical structures and surrounding species that form a biotic legacy.

The fast levels invent, experiment and test; the slower levels stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past, successful experiments.  Sustainability in this framework is the capacity to create, test and maintain adaptive capability.  Development becomes the process of creating, testing and maintaining opportunity.

And resilience is indeed a concept that is catching on. It’s unnecessary to list all the websites devoted to resilience, the swath of donor agencies who have recently redirected their strategies to include resilience, or the environmental ministries around that world that have adopted resilience as a core concept.   Resilience and Dynamism are the two acclaimed buzzwords at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos. But some people resist the temptation to join the band-wagon.

There are some good debates about this, researcher Chris Bene at UK-based STEPS centre questioning whether Resilience is the new Tyranny? These debates are useful in pushing our understanding, but some debates seem to be more about academic turfism. Such as the fight put up by Political Ecologists.The reasons for this divide are multiple, but largely because many other geographers and political ecologists and the like feel they have been doing ‘social-ecological resilience’ research for a long time. But why hasn’t it caught on?

The core idea of the adaptive cycle is not new, and has come up various times throughout the course of history. The ever-present mantra of “birth, growth, death and renewal” can be traced back Ancient Greece, “there is nothing permanent except change.” So wouldn’t it be interesting to analyse the global state we are in now, and why we are so happy to adopt the notion of resilience. After the 2008 economic crisis, the natural disasters which have ravaged the Americas and much of Asia’s coasts in the past 5 years? Have we, as a society, crossed some sort of invisible threshold where we have accepted that the future is uncertain, and the some sort of collapse is inevitable, but we are comforted by the idea that reorganization is just around the ‘corner.’

Likewise, human-ecology, political ecology and geography and arguably also conservation biology have been studying social-ecological systems for at least as long as resilience theorists. So why resilience, and why now? Holling has been promoting his findings since the 1970s within a limited sphere of influence. So what is it about resilience that has captured the imagination of the world? An assumption of crisis and necessary reorganization is certainly one.


One Response to Why Resilience? Why Now?

  1. Another useful website and source of information on adaptive cycles and Panarchy is the organization co-founded by Buzz Holling http://www.resalliance.org.

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