ONEPLANET Sustainability Review

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Is Resilience the new Holy Grail of Humanity?

Holling's adaptive cycle

Holling’s adaptive cycle. With thanks to ebizq.

According to Adger (2000), ‘resilience, in both its social and ecological manifestations, is an important aspect of the sustainability of development and resource utilisation’.  But does resilience theory have the potential to influence future policy making in favour of a more sustainable development?

The Adger, Brown et al 2011 paper suggests that resilience theory is already influencing current policy under the guise of local and regional responses climate change, albeit at there are serious challenges in successfully implementing policy at the right scales and timeframes with sufficient consultation and input that achieves its objectives without causing further harm ‘downstream’ (i.e. elsewhere in the social-ecological system, both temporally and physically).  The 2011 paper takes it one step further than just influencing SD policy by characterising climate change resilience in terms of imperatives for the success of humankind. A brilliant logical conclusion of a brilliant and extremely important conceptual tool:

“The real challenge, therefore, is to make use of the issues of climate change to find opportunities to transform social–ecological systems into development pathways that may improve human conditions.” (P. 765)

For me, resilience is critical with respect to of finite natural resources and ecosystem services, and represents a more holistic and inclusive approach that couches the traditional notion of sustainability in inappropriate terms our governments saw fit to posit in Rio+20’s “The Future We Want”, painfully twisting it to mean ‘sustained growth’.  I would be interested to investigate further into the juxtaposition of concepts of resilience and sustained growth to see whether the former can link to prosperity without engendering sustained, exponential, and/or detrimental growth, or whether they are mutually exclusive in any way.

The challenge is, as Adger, Brown and team surmise, creating and utilising successful, devolved, polycentric, adaptive governance structures in developing and applying policy for approaches and solutions at appropriate scales and timeframes to avoid reducing the resilience of the very socio-ecological systems it originally sought to enhance. Painful and unfortunate.

Holling introduced the idea of an adaptive cycle, in which systems can move forward and between four stages, whose boundaries may not be entirely clear: Growth and Exploitation Phase (r), Conservation Phase (K), Chaotic Collapse and Release Phase (Ω), and Reorganization phase (α).

Currently I think we could be in a transition stage between a Growth and Exploitation Phase (r) and Chaotic Collapse and Release Phase (Ω), both of which seem to be overlapping a recent/current and only partially successful Conservation Phase (K).  Some further overlapping may be taking place as well, where characteristics of r might be seen to currently apply to a potentially new Reorganization phase (α) as a ‘resilience society’ (perhaps overlapping with the very early stages of a growth phase), versus the ‘consumption-destruction’, ‘take-make-waste’ society.  The trouble seems to be that the concept of resilience hasn’t sufficiently trickled into mainstream awareness/consciousness, as far as I can make out.

A quick illustration in the form of a traditional Gantt chart might highlight the overlaps and trajectories.

Holling's adaptive cycle: Where might we be now

Holling’s adaptive cycle: Where might we be now


So is resilience trying to be the science of everything?

Initially it might be easy to think that this could be the case. However, the answer is most probably no.  The work behind Resilience doesn’t seem to try to theorise about everything, nor is it trying to answer questions about everything.  This is the territory of the Theory of Everything researchers, and is, as our friends at Wackypedia suggest, a “putative theory of theoretical physics that fully explains and links together all known physical phenomena”. From Weinberg (1993).

Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at CUNY, says: “this Theory of Everything, is also a theory of space and time and the universe itself. It will answer some of the deepest, philosophical, theological questions of all time.”

Resilience seeks to answer a narrow range of questions about social-ecological systems but relies on a wide range of interdisciplinary inputs from a diverse body of knowledge towards understanding and providing practical applications for an even more diverse moving target.   Perhaps it’s the complexity of inputs and outputs that could be confused as constituting everything-science.

One comment on “Is Resilience the new Holy Grail of Humanity?

  1. Pingback: Greater than the sum of its parts: What is a coupled human and natural system? « IAN/EcoCheck Blog

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Part of the Problem? or Part of the Solution?

Rampant consumerism.
Widespread unsustainable lifestyles.
Unsustainable business practices.
Damaging and unsustainable travel and transport.
Extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
These are some of the problems we face.
Energy crisis.
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Uneducated and un-empowered.
Environmental damage.
Food and water shortage.
Climate change.
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