Resilience Theory

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Carl Folke:

"Resilience theory, first introduced by Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling in 1973, begins with two radical premises. The first is that humans and nature are strongly coupled and coevolving, and should therefore be conceived of as one “social-ecological” system. The second is that the long-held, implicit assumption that systems respond to change in a linear—and therefore predictable—fashion is altogether wrong. In resilience thinking, systems are understood to be in constant flux, highly unpredictable, and self-organizing with feedbacks across multiple scales in time and space. In the jargon of theorists, they are complex adaptive systems, exhibiting the hallmark features of complexity.

A key feature of complex adaptive systems is their ability to self-organize along a number of different pathways with possible sudden shifts between states: A lake, for example, can exist in either an oxygenated, clear state or an algae-dominated, murky one. A financial market can float on a housing bubble or settle into a basin of recession. Conventionally, we’ve tended to view the transition between such states as gradual. But there is increasing evidence that systems often don’t respond to change in a smooth way: The clear lake seems hardly affected by fertilizer runoff until a critical threshold is passed, at which point the water abruptly goes turbid. Resilience science focuses on these sorts of regime shifts and tipping points. It looks at incremental stresses, such as accumulation of greenhouse gases in combination with chance events—things like storms, fires, even stock market crashes—that can tip a system into another equilibrium state from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover. How far can a system be perturbed before this shift happens? How much shock can a system absorb before it transforms into something fundamentally different? How can active transformations from an undesirable social-ecological state into a better one be orchestrated? That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the resilience challenge.

The resilience line of thinking helps us avoid the trap of simply rebuilding and repairing flawed structures of the past—be it an economic system overly reliant on risky speculation or a health-care system that splits a nation at its financial seams and yet fails to deliver adequate coverage. Resilience encourages us to anticipate, adapt, learn, and transform human actions in light of the unprecedented challenges of our turbulent world." (