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.