Tag Archives: Carl Walters

Why Bother with Walters? Revisiting the “classics” of resilience science

Classic Resilience Readings

Recently at the Stockholm Resilience Centre I’ve been working on update our suggested reading list for our PhD students based on recent research, critiques of various aspects of resilience, and the diversity of research in our centre’s research clusters.  However, I also thought it was important to not just identify the most interesting recent papers but also to identify a set of older (>10 years old) key papers and books that could provide some of the roots of resilience research.

Partly inspired by SRC researcher Wijnand Boonstra’s great initiative to produce a PhD course on the lessons from classic social science for social-ecological research, but also recognizing the shorter history of resilience research, I gave the first of several brief ‘speed talks’ to advertise some of the neglected classics of resilience research that many researchers center are not directly familiar, and explain what useful insights that could offer to them.

Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources

The first key reading I suggested, was Carl J Walters, classic book 1986 Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources.  Below, I describe the book and why it is a classic.  I’ll follow up with some other books and papers over the next few months.

Carl J Walters is a professor at University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, and while he is a leading fisheries scientist, he has also worked on many non-fisheries related problems, ranging from land-use and logging  in British Columbia to the complex social-ecological problems of the Florida Everglades.

His 1986 book is one of the three key early texts in adaptive management.  Walter’s book is practical, technical and empirical.  While the other books Adaptive Environmental Assessment & Management, edited by CS Holling, and Kai Lee’s Compass & Gyroscope are respectively more diverse, and more theoretical and more focussed on social learning.  While the other books are good, in many ways I think Walter’s book is the key adaptive management reference.

So what is the book about?  In Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources, Carl Walters motivates his approach by arguing that because the world is complex and continually evolving it is essential that resource harvesting, management & environmental policies explicitly confront uncertainty.  When the book was written, his argument that management is improved by an explicit focus on uncertainty was unusual, and continues to be unusual in practice, even though adaptive management has been widely adopted in name, but often not in practice or in only an extremely shallow form that misses the deep engagement with the unknown that Walters advocates.  Indeed while quantitative approaches to risk assessment and hedging have greatly expanded over the past several decades, there has not be an increase in thinking about structural uncertainty, unknown, and surprise.

Walters also proposes that science, practice and policy have a lot to gain from mutual engagement, and he has an early and strong advocate of large scale ecological experiments, and noted that such experiments are often required to build strong ecological policies, and to advance large-scale scientific understanding.  While not highlighted in the book, this perspective also opens the way to ecological models that include models of resource harvester behaviour or management or policy processes

Finally, and indeed in many ways the main part of the book, Walters provides a diverse set of soft and hard methods for actually practicing adaptive management.

So why does this book matter today?

I think that sustainability scientists should read this book, or at least parts of it, for several reasons:

  1. It provides a practical primer on how to think about decisions when considering there is both variation in the world and uncertainty about the rules by which the world works.  Such type of thinking is at the centre of sustainability, because sustainability absolutely requires an increase in our ability to build robust strategies for navigating a turbulent world and for planning how and where to invest in monitoring or learning.  While Walters barely mentions resilience in the book, such approaches are essential to the development of resilient strategies, plans, or policies.
  2. The introductory chapters, especially Chapter 3, provide really useful practical advice on how to think about and run participatory modeling workshops.  Walters focuses on participatory modeling workshops but such approaches are equally useful for thinking about planning scenario or assessment workshops.
  3. The bulk of the book provides a solid, clear introduction to a set of methods for linking data and dynamic models using Bayesian statistics.  These approaches quickly get quite technical and are developed primarily for a fisheries context, but for people who are trying to link models and data in a variety of situations they provide a useful toolbox.
  4. Finally, while resilience and optimization approaches can complement one another in theory they are often presented as conflicting in practice (see: Fischer et al 2009  vs.  Holling & Meffe 1996).  This book, clearly links optimization approaches to resilience, and demonstrates by changing what variables are the focus of optimization, optimization approaches can be useful for improving decisions about how to invest in resilience and can provide an good understanding of tradeoffs.


Holling, C. S., & Meffe, G. K. (1996). Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conservation Biology10(2), 328-337.

Fischer et al (2009) Integrating resilience thinking and optimisation for conservation. TREE24, 549–54.

Walters, C. 1986. Adaptive management of renewable resources. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, NY374. (note the book was out of print for a long time and is now reprinted by Blackburn press.)