Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World

Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World

by Brian Walker

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Increasingly, cracks are appearing in the capacity of communities, ecosystems, and landscapes to provide the goods and services that sustain our planet's well-being. The response from most quarters has been for "more of the same" that created the situation in the first place: more control, more intensification, and greater efficiency. "Resilience thinking" offers a


Increasingly, cracks are appearing in the capacity of communities, ecosystems, and landscapes to provide the goods and services that sustain our planet's well-being. The response from most quarters has been for "more of the same" that created the situation in the first place: more control, more intensification, and greater efficiency. "Resilience thinking" offers a different way of understanding the world and a new approach to managing resources. It embraces human and natural systems as complex entities continually adapting through cycles of change, and seeks to understand the qualities of a system that must be maintained or enhanced in order to achieve sustainability. It explains why greater efficiency by itself cannot solve resource problems and offers a constructive alternative that opens up options rather than closing them down. In Resilience Thinking, scientist Brian Walker and science writer David Salt present an accessible introduction to the emerging paradigm of resilience. The book arose out of appeals from colleagues in science and industry for a plainly written account of what resilience is all about and how a resilience approach differs from current practices. Rather than complicated theory, the book offers a conceptual overview along with five case studies of resilience thinking in the real world. It is an engaging and important work for anyone interested in managing risk in a complex world.

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Resilience Thinking

Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World

By Brian Walker, David Salt


Copyright © 2006 Brian Walker and David Salt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-622-2


Living in a Complex World:

An Introduction to Resilience Thinking

Life is full of surprises. Sometimes we take them in stride; some times they trip us up.

Consider these questions: In business, why is a competitor's new product sometimes only a minor hiccough but at other times a major shock that can destroy an enterprise? In industry, how is growth sometimes unaffected by medium interest rate rises but at other times the smallest change brings things crashing down? Why is it that the same drought that causes serious degradation of resources on one farm has little effect on another?

The response of any system to shocks and disturbances depends on its particular context, its connections across scales, and its current state. Every situation is different; things are always changing. It's a complex world.

We are all managers of systems of one type or another. That system might be a home, a company, or a nation. You might have responsibility of caring for a nature reserve, developing a mining operation, or planning fishing quotas. Be it a farm, a business, a region, or an industry, we are all part of some system of humans and nature (social- ecological systems).

How do you approach the task of management in this complex world? Do you assume things will happen in much the same way tomorrow as they did yesterday? Are you confident the system you are working in won't be disrupted by little surprises? Do you appreciate what's needed for a system to absorb unexpected disturbances?

All of these questions relate to resilience, the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure. They also relate to concepts of sustainability and the challenge of servicing current system demands without eroding the potential to meet future needs. We live in a time of growing population coupled with a declining resource base and great uncertainty about a range of environmental issues such as climate change. How can we make the systems that we depend upon resilient?

But before we address issues of resilience, stop and consider for a moment our current practices of resource management.

The Drivers of Unsustainable Development

Our world is facing abroad range of serious and growing resource issues. Human-induced soil degradation has been getting worse since the 1950s. About 85 percent of agricultural land contains areas degraded by erosion, rising salt, soil compaction, and various other factors. It has been estimated (Wood et al. 2000) that soil degradation has already reduced global agricultural productivity by around 15 percent in the last fifty years. In the last three hundred years, topsoil has been lost at a rate of 300 million tons per year; in the last fifty years it has more than doubled to 760 million tons per year.

As we move deeper into the twenty-first century we cannot afford to lose more of our resource base. The global population is now expanding by about 75 million people each year. Population growth rates are declining, but the world's population will still be expanding by almost 60 million per year in 2030. The United Nations projections put the global population at nearly 8 billion in 2025. In addition, if current water consumption patterns continue unabated, half the world's population will live in water-stressed river basins by 2025.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2004 Annual Hunger Report estimates that over 850 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Hunger kills 5 million children every year.

The most famous fisheries in the world have collapsed one after the other, including those managed with the explicit aim of being sustainable (like the cod fisheries at Grand Banks, Newfoundland in 1992). Productive rangelands are turning into unproductive expanses of woody shrubs. Half of the world's wetlands have been lost in just the last century. Lake systems and rivers everywhere are experiencing algal blooms and a raft of problems associated with the oversupply of nutrients.

The World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) Living Planet report analyzes the eco- footprint of 150 countries around the world every two years. In its 2004 report it estimated that the average eco-footprint around the world was 2.2 global hectares per person (a global hectare is a hectare of biologically productive space with world-average productivity). However, there are only 1.8 global hectares available per person. This ecological overshoot means we are using the equivalent of about 1.2 planets or it takes 1.2 years to regenerate what humanity uses in one year. We are using nature more rapidly than it can regenerate.

Regrettably, like a cracked record, the story goes on and on, disturbingly repetitive (see also box 1, "A Few Stats on a Shrinking World").

You've seen or heard these claims before and it is not our intention to add to doom- and-gloom publications. Rather, this book is about options and hope based on a different way of doing things through understanding how the world really works. But we do need to keep in mind what is happening to the world. The imperative message is that the world is shrinking: the human population is growing while its resource base declines.

What lies behind this decline? There is, of course, no single underlying reason; instead, there is abroad spectrum of causes. But they can be grouped into three categories: in some situations people have no choice but to overuse their resource base; in others the decline is allowed to occur willfully; and the third driver of unsustainable development is misunderstanding—the application of inappropriate models of how the world works.

The first category (no choice) relates to problems associated with large populations coupled with poverty. In this case, no other option exists than to overuse resources. It's simply a matter of survival.

All too often, however, there is a choice, and a resource is allowed to decline or is purposely driven down. Sometimes rules and regulations encourage people to overuse resources, this is the case of subsidies for drought-stricken farmers. Often these farmers are either operating on marginal land or mismanaging resources but their operation is propped up by government payments designed to protect people from hardship. In other cases, tax breaks or industry support can lead to rapid loss of a forest or a fishery. These are what are known as "perverse incentives" (McNeely 1988). Furthermore, people sometimes deliberately choose to degrade a resource because they believe science and technology will always be able to come to the rescue.

In many cases, however, resource degradation is simply the result of humankind's insatiable desire to produce and consume, leading to willful short-term greed and corruption with no heed for the future. Some suggest this is just the way humans evolved—in a world without limits where success was based on maximizing your return. Human behavior is shaped strongly by drives from our evolutionary past (competition, territory, and power) without which we would not be here as a species or as the cultures we now have. Such evolutionary antecedents made sense when the human population was small and the world was seemingly endless but this is no longer the case. In today's world such behavior has begun to turn on us and will deprive future generations of the opportunities we enjoy.

But there is a third driver as well. Our environmental problems can't all be blamed on greed and overexploitation. Ignorance and misunderstanding also play a central role in the decline of our resource base. In many instances, such as in all of the case studies in this book, it's clear that in developing a resource or a region we have not understood well enough the functioning of the ecosystems involved. The people involved were not being greedy, there was no willful destruction. Many ecosystem collapses are occurring in places where enormous resources are being invested in understanding the system and where significant effort is being made to be "sustainable."

It isn't just the amount of knowledge—details about species and ecosystems—it's also the kind of knowledge. It's the way we conceive of resource systems and people as part of them. The way we currently use and manage these systems (which we describe in the following section as "business as usual") is no longer working and yet what we hear most of the time is that the solution lies in more of the same.

This book focuses on this third driver of unsustainability. The first driver (poverty) will only be resolved when the world has addressed the other two. We return to the second driver (willful excessive consumption) in the final chapter because our best hope for dealing with it also lies in a philosophy of resilience.

Despite Our Best Intentions

Why is it that, despite the best of intentions (and in contrast to the one or two recent books telling us that "everything is okay"), many of the world's productive landscapes and best loved ecosystems are in trouble?

Current "best practice" is based on a philosophy of optimizing the delivery of particular products (goods or services). It generally seeks to maximize the production of specified components in the system (set of particular products or outcomes) by controlling certain others. Those components might be grain yields, fish catch, or timber harvest. Or, if conservation is the goal, optimization might be aimed at preserving as many species as possible in a national park or reserve. In the case of grain crops it might entail planting all the available land with a single high yielding variety and then maximizing growth with chemical fertilizers and pest control, and using large-scale cropping machinery. Production is maximized by tightly controlling each aspect of the production process.

Optimizing for particular products has characterized the early development of natural resource management, particularly in agriculture. Initially, it worked. Indeed, it resulted in enormous advances in resource productivity and human welfare. Now, however, those initial successes are bedeviled by a variety of emerging secondary and highly problematic effects on all continents and in all oceans. As Ogden Nash writes, "Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long."

An optimization approach aims to get a system into some particular "optimal state," and then hold it there. That state, it is believed, will deliver maximum sustained benefit. It is sometimes recognized that the optimal state may vary under different conditions, and the approach is then to find the optimal path for the state of the system. This approach is sometimes referred to as a maximum sustainable yield or optimal sustainable yield paradigm.

To achieve this outcome, management builds models that generally assume (among other unrecognized assumptions) that changes will be incremental and linear (cause-and- effect changes). These models mostly ignore the implications of what might be happening at higher scales and frequently fail to take full account of changes at lower scales.

Optimization does not work as a best-practice model because this is not how the world works. The systems we live in and depend on are usually configured and reconfigured by extreme events, not average conditions. It takes a two-year drought, for example, to kill perennial plants in tropical savannas, and it takes extreme wet periods for new ones to be able to establish. The linkages between scales and sectors (agriculture, industry, conservation, energy, forestry, etc.) often drive changes in the particular system that is being managed. And, very importantly, while minor changes are often incremental and linear, the really significant ones are usually lurching and nonlinear—like mouse plagues in Australian wheat crops, insect pest outbreaks in forests in North America, and the sudden change from a clean, clear lake to one dominated by an algal bloom.

The Paradox of Efficiency and Optimization

"Efficiency" is a cornerstone of economics, and the very basis of environmental economics. In theory, an economy is efficient if it includes all the things that people want and value. An efficient economy, in this sense, is therefore a good thing and efficiency has become to be regarded as a laudable goal in policy and management. The paradox is that while optimization is supposedly about efficiency, because it is applied to a narrow range of values and a particular set of interests, the result is major inefficiencies in the way we generate values for societies. Being efficient, in a narrow sense, leads to elimination of redundancies—keeping only those things that are directly and immediately beneficial. We will show later that this kind of efficiency leads to drastic losses in resilience.

Optimization does not match the way our societies value things either. It promotes the simplification of values to a few quantifiable and marketable ones, such as timber production, and demotes the importance of unquantifiable and unmarketed values, such as the life support, regenerative, and cleansing services that nature provides (collectively known as "ecosystem services"). It also discounts the values placed on beauty or on the existence of species for their own sakes. Whether they realize it or not, societies depend for their existence on ecosystem services. And societies also value their ability to pass these things to future generations. Optimization, however, distorts this. It reduces time horizons to a couple of decades—the limit of the time horizon for most commercial investments. Values that do not have property rights or are publicly owned are not marketed, do not generate wealth, and gain little support, even if they involve critical ecosystem services. Often not enough people understand the criticality of the life support systems—the ozone layer and climate regulation are examples.

Though efficiency, per se, is not the problem, when it is applied to only a narrow range of values and a particular set of interests it sets the system on a trajectory that, due to its complex nature, leads inevitably to unwanted outcomes. The history of ecology, economics, and sociology is full of examples showing that the systems around us, the systems we are a part of, are much more complex than our assumptions allow for. What it all adds up to is that there is no sustainable "optimal" state of an ecosystem, a social system, or the world. It is an illusion, a product of the way we look at and model the world. It is unattainable; in fact (as we shall see) it is counterproductive, and yet it is a widely pursued goal. It is little wonder, then, that problems arise. And when they do, rather than question the validity of the model being applied, the response has been to attempt to exert even greater control over the system. In most cases this exacerbates the problem or leaves us with a solution that comes with too high a cost to be sustained.

In the real world, regions and businesses are interlinked systems of people and nature driven and dominated by the manner in which they respond to and interact with each other. They are complex systems, continually adapting to change. Change can be fast or slow—move at the speed of viruses multiplying or of mountains rising. It can take place on the scale of nanometers or kilometers. Change at one level can influence others, cascade down or up levels, reinvigorate, or destroy.

The ruling paradigm—that we can optimize components of a system in isolation of the rest of the system—is proving inadequate to deal with the dynamic complexity of the real world. Sustainable solutions to our growing resource problems need to look beyond a business as usual approach. As failures mount, and as more and more people become aware of them, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the ways in which natural resources are managed. What are the important qualities of a system that need to be maintained or enhanced for a system to be sustainable? Resilience thinking is an approach (part philosophy, part pragmatism) that seeks answers to these questions.


Excerpted from Resilience Thinking by Brian Walker, David Salt. Copyright © 2006 Brian Walker and David Salt. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Brian Walker is a Research Fellow in Australia’s CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Visiting Researcher in the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and Chair of the Resilience Alliance.

David Salt is a science and environment writer at the Australian National University, and has more than two decades experience writing and producing popular science magazines and books.

Both authors live in Canberra, Australia.

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