Tag Archives: sustainability

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.)

Planet Under Pressure: Understanding the Anthropocene

The above video on the Anthropocene was created for the Planet Under Pressure global change and sustainability conference in London, UK, which starts today, March 26th, and continues to the 29th. The movie is:

A 3-minute journey through the last 250 years of our history, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the Rio+20 Summit. The film charts the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes.

It presents a contemporary picture of the world in which we live in, and how dynamics of the biosphere and the ways it supports human wellbeing. The shifting anthropocene provides the basis for how people can act to improve their lives in this decade and that provides the background for the conference.

The conference, which is attempting to better integrate the community of researchers working on sustainability and global change (importantly not just climate change), and to focus more on how to solve rather than only document problem. There are lots of resilience researchers at the conference. A partial list of Stockholm Resilience Centre participation is on our website.

The conference website is live streaming on the web, the conference programme is here, the conference has the tag #planet2012 on twitter, and also has a blog.

The conference organizers are also experimenting with a variety of atypical scientific conference activities (e.g. a debategraph, globally distributed events ) to try and improve innovation and connect the conference to the world. And that is helping me watch a bit of the conference while I am on parental leave in Stockholm.

Faculty position in sustainability at MIT’s Sloan School

It seems to be job season. John Sterman writes about a faculty position in sustainability at the Sloan School of Management at MIT. He writes:

The MIT Sloan School of Management invites applications for a tenure-track faculty position in sustainability, to begin July 2011. The successful candidate will play a central role in MIT Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative, teach courses in sustainability, and carry out research in sustainability (see http://mitsloan.mit.edu/sustainabilit).

Sustainability at MIT Sloan is defined broadly to include environmental, economic, political, social and personal issues, and we stress the interdependency and complex dynamics of these dimensions. We encourage applications from individuals engaged in research involving any aspect of sustainability, including the design, implementation, and evaluation of practices and policies promoting sustainability in business and other organizations, in government and international policy, in communities, and in interactions of these organizations. We encourage candidates whose research examines how organizations, markets and communities can become more sustainable, including the dynamics of implementation and diffusion of sustainable practices, organizational learning and adaptation, and the interactions of markets, firms, government, the public and other organizations.

Candidates can have disciplinary training in any area, including the social and behavioral sciences, management sciences, economics and finance, or other field. Applicants whose substantive research interests are interdisciplinary are particularly invited to apply. The successful candidate can be affiliated with any of the faculty groups at MIT Sloan. We especially want to identify qualified female and minority candidates for consideration in this position.

Applicants should possess or be close to the completion of a Ph.D. in a relevant field by the date of appointment. Applicants must submit their 1) up-to-date curriculum vitae, 2) relevant information about teaching as well as research experience and performance, and 3) three letters of recommendation by November 1, 2010. If papers are available, please provide electronic copies.

Visualising sustainability

Computing for Sustainability has a fascinating collection of conceptual diagrams of sustainability.  The collection includes over 250 images.

results from a google image search for sustainable development conceptual diagram

Its a diverse set including everything from Herman Daly’s vision of the economy (#1), the MA’s ecosystem service framework (#168), panarchy (#175), and Heman Daly’s steady state economy (#177).  But it could use some editing and organization as it also includes many images that are not related to sustainability, such as the Seed logo integrated with balancing bodywork #41, or IWW’s poster of the capitalist system #199.

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.

Books on global sustainability

From the New Scientist, reviews of twelve recent books on consumption and sustainability:

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Well-Being vs. Wealth (3) – Inclusive Wealth

This is the third of three posts on Well-Being vs. Wealth (see 1 & 2)

Partha Dasgupta recently co-authored a paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives with a number of well know ecologists and economists (Arrow et al 2004. Are we consuming to much? 18(3) 147-172)

They try to answer the question of whether current consumption is sustainable. They consider sustainability to mean that inter-temporal (sum of the discounted value of future) social welfare must not decrease over time. They interpret this to mean that this depends on investment from passive income that increases humanity’s productive capacities – which they term genuine wealth.

This requirement that the productive base be maintained does not necessarily entail maintaining any particular set of resources at any given time. Even if some resources such as stocks of minerals are drawn down along a consumption path, the sustainability criterion could nevertheless be satisfied if other capital assets were accumulated sufficiently to offset the resource decline.

Figure comparing yearly growth in per capita GDP and Genuine Wealth during 1970-2001. Error bars show how estimates of wealth change in response different estimates of the ratio between wealth and GDP. I created the figure based on data in Tables 2 & 3 of Arrow et al 2004.

Arrow Inclusive Wealth Table -> Figure

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