Ecosystem Reality – Workshops: Reflections Pt 4

The second paper the students identified was: Holling, C.S. 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems; local surprise and global change. In: W.C. Clark and R.E. Munn (eds.). Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. Chap. 10: 292-317.

For me, the 1973 “Resilience’ paper launched the Adaptive Management work, with Carl Walters at the University of British Columbia- a great friend and a truly brilliant, maverick scientist who walks a non-traditional path that creates new traditions. His work on adaptive management methods has been a classic contribution to the field (Walters 1986). More recently he has advanced ecosystem dynamics understanding using his creation of foraging arena theory which had its beginnings in my own predation work (Walters and Martell 2004).

The resilience research led us to mobilize a series of studies of large scale ecosystems subject to management- terrestrial, fresh water and marine. All this was done with the key scientists and, in some cases, policy people who “owned “ the systems and the data. So the process encouraged two major advances.

One advance developed a sequence of workshop techniques so that we could work with experts to develop alternative explanatory models and suggestive policies. We learned an immense amount from the first experiment. That focused on the beautiful Gulf Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Vancouver. We chose to develop a recreational land simulation of recreational property. I knew little about speculation, but we made up a marvelous scheme that used the predation equations as the foundation- the land of various classes were the “prey”, speculators were the “predators” and a highest bidder auction cleared the market each year. The equations were modifications of the general predation equations. The predictions were astonishingly effective and persisted so for at least a decade. As much as anything, it reinforced the earlier conclusion that these equations were powerful and general. But the important conclusion concerned the workshop process and the people.

The essence of those workshop methods were fun to present in a critical paper where the workshop processes were described and where key personalities were represented in delightful cartoons drawn by Roy Peterson, a cartoonist in Vancouver, and methods were expressed as a game. (Holling, C.S. and A.D. Chambers. 1973 ).

workshop characters 2

It was fun to reveal the truth about characters like Snively Whiplash, The Blunt Scot, The Utopians and The Peerless Leaders and such in this way, but a reviewer in Ecology turned it down by saying “no one wants to know about the games people in British Columbia play!” BioScience reviewers were more enlightened so I happily published there.

workshop characters

Those approaches helped shape the essential design and maintain the flexibility of the big international Resilience Project that I began about two decades later. It produces a turbulent, broad and delightful process of mutual discovery for those who chose to be part of it.

I learned that the key design was to identify large, unattainable goals that can be approached, but not achieved; ones that relate to fundamental values of free speech, freedom, equity, tolerance and education. And then to add a tough design for the first step, in a way that highlights or creates options to design, later, a second step—and then a third and so on. We found that the results were steps that rapidly covered more ground than could ever be designed at the start. At the heart, that is adaptive design, where the unknown is great, learning is continual and actions evolve.


Holling, C.S. 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems; local surprise and global change. In: W.C. Clark and R.E. Munn (eds.). Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. Chap. 10: 292-317.

Holling, C.S. and A.D. Chambers. 1973. Resource science: the nurture of an infant. Bioscience 23(1): 13-20.

Ludwig, D., D.D. Jones and C.S. Holling. 1978. Qualitative analysis of insect outbreak systems: the spruce budworm and forest. J. Animal. Ecol. 44: 315-332.

Walters, C.J. 1986. Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. MacMillan, New York.

Walters, C., and Martell, S. 2004. Fisheries Ecology and Management. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ.

2 thoughts on “Ecosystem Reality – Workshops: Reflections Pt 4”

  1. With the transformative advances in computing hardware and software over the two or three decades since your earlier work transpired, it would be fascinating to see these techniques applied to simulations and “games” as tools for policy-making. The ability to play out what-if scenarios, and to test one’s own intuitions, assumptions, and hypotheses, is invaluable.

    How has the work continued?

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