Tag Archives: resilience

Resilience as an operating system for sustainability in the anthropocene

Chris Turner, author of Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, writing in the Walrus about the Anthropocene and the coral reef crisis in his long article Age of Breathing Underwater:

I first heard tell of “resilience” — not as a simple descriptive term but as the cornerstone of an entire ecological philosophy — just a couple of days before I met Charlie Veron on the pages of Melbourne’s most respected newspaper. I was onstage for the opening session of the Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures in an auditorium at the University of Ballarat at the time. The evening had begun with a literal lament — a grieving folk song performed by an aboriginal musician. I’d then presented a slide show of what I considered to be the rough contours of an Anthropocene map of hope, after which a gentleman I’d just met, a research fellow at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation named Brian Walker, placed my work in the broader context of resilience theory.

I had to follow Veron all the way to the edge of the abyss his research had uncovered before I could come back around to resilience. The concept, it turns out, emerged from the research of a Canadian-born academic named Buzz Holling at the University of Florida, and has since been expanded by a global research network called the Resilience Alliance. “Ecosystem resilience” — this in the Resilience Alliance website’s definition — “is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary.” It’s a concept I encountered repeatedly in my conversations with reef researchers.

…This points to the broader implications of the resilience concept — the stuff Brian Walker likes to talk about. He and his colleagues in the Resilience Alliance often refer to their field of study as “social-ecological resilience,” suggesting that people are as essential to the process as reefs or any other ecosystem, and that real resilience is created in the complex, unpredictable interplay between systems. “With resilience,” Walker told me, “not only do we acknowledge uncertainty, but we kind of embrace uncertainty. And we try to say that the minute you get too certain, as if you know what the answer is, you’re likely to come unstuck. You need slack in the system. You need to have the messiness that enables self-organization in the system in ways that are not predictable. The best goal is to try to build a general resilience. Things like having strong connectivity, but also some modularity in the system so it’s not all highly connected everywhere. And lots of diversity.”

Resilience, then, embraces change as the natural state of being on earth. It values adaptation over stasis, diffuse systems over centralized ones, loosely interconnected webs over strict hierarchies. If the Anthropocene is the ecological base condition of twenty-first-century life and sustainability is the goal, or bottom line, of a human society within that chaotic ecology, then resilience might be best understood as the operating system Paul Hawken was on about — one with an architecture that encourages sustainability in this rapidly changing epoch.

This new operating system will, by necessity, be comfortable with loss. There is, after all, much to be gained from epochal, transformative change. In the midst of chaos and devastation on the scale of a world war, for example, we might discover how to breathe underwater.

Dead Ahead: Similar Early Warning Signals of Change in Climate, Ecosystems, Financial Markets, Human Health

What do abrupt changes in ocean circulation and Earth’s climate, shifts in wildlife populations and ecosystems, the global finance market and its system-wide crashes, and asthma attacks and epileptic seizures have in common?

According to a paper published this week in the journal Nature, all share generic early-warning signals that indicate a critical threshold of change dead ahead. Cheryl Dybas writing for NSF.gov covers a new paper on “Early Warning Signals for Critical Transitions” (Nature, 3 Sept 2009, 461: 53-59).

In the paper, Martin Scheffer of Wageningen University in The Netherlands and co-authors found that similar symptoms occur in many systems as they approach a critical state of transition.

“It’s increasingly clear that many complex systems have critical thresholds–’tipping points’–at which these systems shift abruptly from one state to another,” write the scientists in their paper.

Especially relevant, they discovered, is that “catastrophic bifurcations,” a diverging of the ways, propel a system toward a new state once a certain threshold is exceeded.

Like Robert Frost’s well-known poem about two paths diverging in a wood, a system follows a trail for so long, then often comes to a switchpoint at which it will strike out in a completely new direction.

That system may be as tiny as the alveoli in human lungs or as large as global climate.

“These are compelling insights into the transitions in human and natural systems,” says Henry Gholz, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Environmental Biology, which supported the research along with NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences.

“The information comes at a critical time–a time when Earth’s and, our fragility, have been highlighted by global financial collapses, debates over health care reform, and concern about rapid change in climate and ecological systems.”

It all comes down to what scientists call “squealing,” or “variance amplification near critical points,” when a system moves back and forth between two states.

“A system may shift permanently to an altered state if an underlying slow change in conditions persists, moving it to a new situation,” says Carpenter.

Eutrophication in lakes, shifts in climate, and epileptic seizures all are preceded by squealing.

Squealing, for example, announced the impending abrupt end of Earth’s Younger Dryas cold period some 12,000 years ago, the scientists believe. The later part of this episode alternated between a cold mode and a warm mode. The Younger Dryas eventually ended in a sharp shift to the relatively warm and stable conditions of the Holocene epoch.

The increasing climate variability of recent times, state the paper’s authors, may be interpreted as a signal that the near-term future could bring a transition from glacial and interglacial oscillations to a new state–one with permanent Northern Hemisphere glaciation in Earth’s mid-latitudes.

In ecology, stable states separated by critical thresholds of change occur in ecosystems from rangelands to oceans, says Carpenter.

The way in which plants stop growing during a drought is an example. At a certain point, fields become deserts, and no amount of rain will bring vegetation back to life. Before this transition, plant life peters out, disappearing in patches until nothing but dry-as-bones land is left.

Early-warning signals are also found in exploited fish stocks. Harvesting leads to increased fluctuations in fish populations. Fish are eventually driven toward a transition to a cyclic or chaotic state.

Humans aren’t exempt from abrupt transitions. Epileptic seizures and asthma attacks are cases in point. Our lungs can show a pattern of bronchoconstriction that may be the prelude to dangerous respiratory failure, and which resembles the pattern of collapsing land vegetation during a drought.

Epileptic seizures happen when neighboring neural cells all start firing in synchrony. Minutes before a seizure, a certain variance occurs in the electrical signals recorded in an EEG.

Shifts in financial markets also have early warnings. Stock market events are heralded by increased trading volatility. Correlation among returns to stocks in a falling market and patterns in options prices may serve as early-warning indicators.

“In systems in which we can observe transitions repeatedly,” write the scientists, “such as lakes, ranges or fields, and such as human physiology, we may discover where the thresholds are.

“If we have reason to suspect the possibility of a critical transition, early-warning signals may be a significant step forward in judging whether the probability of an event is increasing.”

Co-authors of the paper are William Brock and Steve Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jordi Bascompte and Egbert van Nes of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Scientificas, Sevilla, Spain; Victor Brovkin of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany; Vasilis Dakos of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Potsdam, Germany; Max Rietkerk of Utrecht University in The Netherlands; and George Sugihara of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

The research was funded by the Institute Para Limes and the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies, as well as the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research, the European Science Foundation, and the U.S. National Science Foundation, among others.

A Novel for the Long Now

Imagine that we wanted our descendants to persist for 10,000 years. How could we help that to happen? This question motivates most of the research on resilience, as well as initiatives such as Clock of the Long Now < http://www.longnow.org/> and policy-oriented initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment <http://www.MAweb.org>. Many insights about resilience have come from research on native cultures, such as an influential volume by Berkes, Colding and Folke on Navigating Social-Ecological Systems, and many other works cited in this blog and in the journal Ecology and Society.

In Girl With Skirt of Stars, Jennifer Kitchell draws a sharp contrast between modern society and a culture that has occupied the southwest of North America for thousands of years.

Lilli Chischilly is a Navajo lawyer with a full brief of problems. Someone arranged mutilated carcasses of sibling coyotes on the hood of her battered Dodge pickup truck – no doubt a message, but of what?. Her old flame has returned to Indian Country, yet somehow he is connected to an inexplicable murder. Then she is assigned to escort a powerful politician through the Grand Canyon for a publicity stunt – obviously a set-up for a hydropower dam in a national landmark that will drown sites sacred to her people. In the shadowy background a mysterious sniper, motivated by a century-old massacre, stalks the politician. This meticulously-crafted debut novel weaves Navajo ethnography, sexual tension, political power, and the beauty of Grand Canyon country into a fast-paced story. Kitchell’s voice is confident, reflecting her deep knowledge of Navajo culture and the physical beauty of the Southwestern US.  The novel’s ending foreshadows more stories to come. I’m eager to read them.

At one moment in the novel, Lilli brings the politician into an ancient cave with petrographs that hold the key to a culture that can last for ten millennia. Will it be drowned by the dam? This encounter with deep-time resilience is the key to the novel, and perhaps the key to human persistence through the current environmental crisis.

This novel is fun to read. It evokes questions that are central to resilience thinking. It will appeal to students who are interested in natural history, ancient cultures, and connections of native people to modern life. Once you open it you will read it all the way through.

Climate change theatre

There has been a lack of art that addresses climate change, and this lack reduces the ability of people to envision possible futures and consequently make better decisions today.  This appears to be changing.

Playwright Steve Waters double play – Contingency Plan: On the Beach/Resilience focuses on science and politics of climate change.  The Observer writes Writers and artists are getting warmer

It is a striking stage experience. A group of cabinet ministers and scientific advisers, part of David Cameron’s newly elected government, gathers in a Whitehall basement to monitor a storm of unprecedented violence that is sweeping Britain. High seas, engorged by melted ice caps, threaten the country. Reports of gales, flooding and stricken communities pour in. Then, abruptly, the emergency telephone lines go dead and the lights fail. The tiny upstairs theatre at the Bush, London, is plunged into total darkness. Outside, a nation is drowning.

It is riveting stuff, though it is not climate change itself that forms the core of Steve Waters’s Resilience. It is the human and cultural reaction to it. “Who supplies us with electricity?” demands an infuriated minister in the pitch black. “EDF! Christ, I have got fucking shares in EDF.” Thus a national crisis becomes a battleground of self-interest, political ideology, buck-passing and bungled responses to scientific warnings.

According to Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington, Resilience has no theatrical rival for its emotional intensity at present and I am sure he is right. The play, with its partner work, On the Beach, is absorbing, intelligent, daringly imaginative and superbly performed. What really intrigues, however, is the fact that this is the London stage’s first serious attempt to tackle the issue of climate change and its impact on society.

Resilience: the Next Big Thing in Foreign Policy

Jamais Cascio, who is really writing a lot on resilience these days, writes in Foreign Policy magazine The Next Big Thing: Resilience.  He provides a good summary introduction to resilience, using definitions very similar to those we use in the Resilience Alliance.

Sustainability is a seemingly laudable goal it tells us we need to live within our means, whether economic, ecological, or political but it’s insufficient for uncertain times. How can we live within our means when those very means can change, swiftly and unexpectedly, beneath us? We need a new paradigm. As we look ahead, we need to strive for an environment, and a civilization, able to handle unexpected changes without threatening to collapse. Such a world would be more than simply sustainable; it would be regenerative and diverse, relying on the capacity not only to absorb shocks like the popped housing bubble or rising sea levels, but to evolve with them. In a word, it would be resilient.

Resilience … accepts that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, focusing instead on the need to be able to withstand the unexpected. Greed, accident, or malice may have harmful results, but, barring something truly apocalyptic, a resilient system can absorb such results without its overall health being threatened.

Like sustainability, resilience encompasses both strategy and design, guiding how choices are made and how systems are created. Stripped to its essence, it comes down to avoiding being trapped or trapping oneself on a losing path. Principles of resilience include:

  • Diversity: Not relying on a single kind of solution means not suffering from a single point of failure.
  • Redundancy: Backup, backup, backup. Never leave yourself with just one path of escape or rescue.
  • Decentralization: Centralized systems look strong, but when they fail, they fail catastrophically.
  • Collaboration: We’re all in this together. Take advantage of collaborative technologies, especially those offering shared communication and information.
  • Transparency: Don’t hide your systems transparency makes it easier to figure out where a problem may lie. Share your plans and preparations, and listen when people point out flaws.
  • Fail gracefully: Failure happens, so make sure that a failure state won’t make things worse than they are already.
  • Flexibility: Be ready to change your plans when they’re not working the way you expected; don’t count on things remaining stable.
  • Foresight: You can’t predict the future, but you can hear its footsteps approaching. Think and prepare.

Ultimately, resilience emphasizes increasing our ability to withstand crises. Sustainability is a brittle state: Unforeseen changes (natural or otherwise) can easily cause its collapse. Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.

Stockholm Whiteboard Seminars

Fredrik Moberg from Albaeco and Stockholm Resilience Centre has developed a new video seminar concept with Sturle Simonsen called the “Stockholm Whiteboard Seminars”. He says:

The idea is to get away from seminars loaded with lengthy and flashy PowerPoints and go back to basics. So, take the opportunity to get a short and close encounter with a top scientist in the field of sustainable development, who uses the whiteboard to explain an important concept or recent research insight just for you! So, what is this Whiteboard Seminar concept all about? The criteria we use are:

• The scientist has a maximum of 7 minutes to present
• The presentation must be done in an as easy, clear and convincing way possible
• It should be related to people’s everyday life or a current topic in media/politics
• The presentation should evolve around a simple model or a drawing
• The presenter is only allowed to use a black whiteboard pen

The first two videos in the series are below the break…

Continue reading

A regional resilience assessment of the Goulburn-Broken Catchment

Earlier this month one of the first integrated assessments of regional resilience based on the workbooks developed by the Resilience Alliance was published in Ecology and Society.

Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in the Goulburn-Broken Catchment, Australia, by Brian Walker, Nick Abel, John Anderies and Paul Ryan uses an approach that follows and also builds upon the workbook guide.

One important aspect of the approach used by Walker and colleagues was to deal with both specified and general resilience. After identifying ten thresholds in the Goulburn-Broken catchment the authors go on to consider the overall resilience of the social-ecological system and offer the following explanation and word of caution about responding solely to specific and known potential system shocks:

“Because of uncertainty about the specified thresholds, regions must be prepared for a wide range of disturbances. By building targeted resilience, regions may inadvertently be reducing other kinds of resilience. It is well known that in feedback systems (of which social–ecological systems are an example) increasing robustness to disturbances at a particular frequency range may reduce robustness to disturbances at another range. It was shown long ago that this is necessarily the case for linear, time-invariant systems (Bode 1945). This idea has been extended to more complex systems recently. For example, Carlson and Doyle (2000) illustrate that biophysical systems that become robust to frequent disturbances become necessarily less resilient to those that are very infrequent. Anderies et al. (2007) have applied these ideas to simple, nonlinear, renewable-resource management problems and illustrated fundamental robustness trade-offs to different types of disturbances. It is, therefore, sensible to consider, in addition to resilience to specified thresholds, whether general resilience is declining.”

Reflections on urban resilience

Two recent reflections on resilience in cities, which use different definitions of resilience than the resilience alliance.  The first focuses on resilience as social trust and while the second on resilience as persistence.

Arjun Appadurai on the Immanent Frame writes: Is Mumbai’s resilience endlessly renewable?

Many well-meaning observers have stressed the “resilience”, the mutual generosity, the quotidian heroism and the remarkable resistance of Mumbaikars to jump to quick conclusions or hasty reprisals. I too congratulate and celebrate these facts. But I fear that all resilience is historically produced. And what history gives, history can take away. Yes, we are all Mumbaikars now. But in a world that links Mumbai, Kashmir, Karachi, Madrid, Peshawar, London, Wall Street, Washington and Faridkot, that is not necessarily a source of comfort. Resilience is a public resource. But, unlike terror, it is not indefinitely renewable.

In the Detroit Free Press columnist Sarah Webster quotes Steve Carpenter on resilience to explain why Detroit will come back in Detroit: Not a town of quitters:

If you’re from Detroit, you probably already know how much resilience has been fused into your bones.

This town is full of it.

In a YouTube video (Watch Carpenter explain it )posted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Professor Stephen Carpenter, who specializes in ecosystems at the University of Wisconsin, said resilience explains how things can “change and persist at the same time.”

“A resilient system could be able to withstand a shock without losing its basic functions,” he said. “A resilient system is able to transform to a different way of life when the current way of life is no longer feasible.”

But where resilience comes from – and why some people get it, while others don’t – isn’t a subject that’s very well understood. …

Like much of America, Detroit is full of immigrants. Those who came to Detroit, however, came to work in the factories at a time when factories weren’t so clean or safe, and there was a lot of competition for those $5 a day jobs. Factory work was for thick-skinned men who could breathe smoke, slog away near blazing fire pits of molten steel and assemble heavy car parts with their bare hands.

Wimps were not needed. Only the strong survived.

As somebody who came to Detroit just a decade ago, it seems to me that children of these immigrants – many of whom still work today in Detroit’s factories, or as engineers, designers and managers throughout the region – still know how to fight for what they believe in. And they seem to know that sometimes fights are best won in the final rounds, not in the early ones.

From time to time, I think it’s a good idea to remind folks what makes them so special — especially when they’re feeling down, as Detroit seems to be lately.

So, Detroit, know this: This is not a town of quitters.

And it’s why I feel so sure that Detroit, and its auto industry, will make a big comeback someday.

STEPS Centre Reframing Resilience report

Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre, has written and posted a report on the Reframing Resilience symposium the centre hosted in Sept 2008 (Re-framing Resilience: A Symposium Report – pdf 484kb).

The symposium aimed to address questions such as:

  • How does resilience intersect with development and debates about it?
  • What insights does resilience thinking bring to understanding and action concerned with reducing poverty, vulnerability and marginalisation?
  • What are some of the frontier challenges, tensions and gaps as resilience thinking engages with perspectives and debates from other angles and disciplines?

Melissa Leach concludes her report by summarizing the final panel of the symposium:

a panel of speakers (Esha Shah, Andrew Scott, Henny Osbahr, Bronwyn Hayward, Joachim Voss, Carl Folke, Melissa Leach, Andy Stirling) offered their reflections on what had been learned, and what challenges and opportunities remain. Summarising across these discussions, a series of central themes emerged.

First, there is great value in a systems approach as a heuristic for understanding interlocked social-ecological-technological processes, and in analysis across multiple scales. Yet we need to move beyond both systems as portrayed in resilience thinking, and the focus on actors in work on vulnerability, to analyse networks and relationships, as well as to attend to the diverse framings, narratives, imaginations and discourses that different actors bring to bear.

Second, debates about resilience need to engage with normative concerns. This means that when we use terms like vulnerability and resilience we need to attach them to a person, form or organisation, rather than discuss them in the abstract. There is also a need to deal with the many trade-offs between people, systems, levels and scales in a normative way: someone’s resilience may be someone else’s vulnerability, or resilience at one scale may compromise that at another – but the key question is what trade-offs do we want or not want to see? Linking resilience with normative debates in this way may provide a valuable platform for critical discussion, helping to fill the current gulf between optimising and justice-based approaches in development, and contributing to the building of a new ethically and morally-driven development discourse.

Third, resilience approaches can be enriched through more disaggregated attention to action and strategies, considering transformations and transitions; endogeneity/exogeneity and depth of transitions; the relationships between functions, flows and structures; the dynamics (shocks/stresses) they address, and the agency (control/response) involved. We need to consider the processes through which actors at different levels decide strategies, and which would be enabling in terms of adaptiveness, learning, flexibility and empowerment.

Fourth, power and politics are crucial – as a growing area of resilience thinking that could valuably be strengthened with insights from other areas of work in politics, governance and democratic philosophy. Power relations are involved in assigning or avoiding responsibility and accountability; the domination of certain framings/narratives over others, asymmetries between pathways, and which are pursued and which are not. While resilience thinking is clear about the need to conserve life support systems, this will often require politically progressive thinking and action to challenge and transform unsustainable structures and framings in radical ways, and to hold powerful actors and networks to account. Depending on the issue and the setting, strategies might involve a spectrum from discursive and deliberative politics, to more antagonistic politics of resistance and struggle; all involve moves away from the managerialism that characterised early resilience approaches, towards conceptualising it in fundamentally political terms.

Finally, reframing and working with resilience involves an array of challenges for language and communication, and linking understanding and action. Resilience approaches involve complex language and concepts, and integration with other disciplinary perspectives can add to this complexity. A series of balances need to be struck, between attention to the nuances of different frameworks, and articulating their differences clearly; between conceptual advance, and remaining grounded in empirical settings; and between understanding complexity, and the clarity needed to inform policy and practice. The latter is crucial: policy decisions are being made as a matter of urgency in areas from climate change and energy to agriculture, water and health. Building resilience and pathways to Sustainability thus requires both reflection and reflexivity, and clear communication in terms that decision-makers can use.

Tom Peters, Black Swans, and Resilience

Business writer Tom Peters (he co-wrote 1980s business bestseller In search of excellence) writes on his blog about Resilience and Black Swans:

I am mesmerized by Black Swans. We must live day to day, year to year, gettin’ on with getting’ on. Surprises aplenty are not so few and not so far between—and we’ve mostly learned how to cope and at least muddle through.

In fact, we can’t live life, personal or professional, awaiting a Black Swan to alight on our pond. Still, one may-probably will do so—and our response-behavior will, as Mr Taleb claims, determine our life’s course.

Well if we can’t plan for it, and we can’t let it distract us 24 hours a day every day, what can we do?

Beats me, is mostly my response.

But I have fallen deeply in love with a word that may be of use … Resilience.