What exactly are resilience and transformative resilience?

In ecosystems science, resilience research started more than 40 years ago. In 1973, C.S. Holling published the first results of his studies of the complex dynamics of change within ecosystems. Holling saw that ecosystems could exist in a variety of dynamically stable (dynamic equilibrium) conditions, and that, after disturbance, ecosystems could either bounce back to their initial state before the disturbance or they could degenerate to less diverse and less vibrant new equilibrium conditions. Too much disturbance could lead to systemic degeneration, but at the same time periodic disturbance (within limits) could also contribute to an ecosystem’s transformation to a more diverse and more vibrant dynamic equilibrium condition.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

For example, Allan Savory’s work on the holistic management of degraded grasslands mimics the periodic disturbance caused by herds of migrating grazers as a key factor in maintaining and improving soil health, water retention capacity, biodiversity and the bioproductivity of the ecosystem as a whole (see Chapter 7). In ecosystem science the word resilience refers to the ability of ecosystems to respond to disturbance and environmental change with either persistence, or gradual adaptation and more fundamental transformation.

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Scale-linking, interlocking change processes drive the dynamics of natural systems. These processes occur simultaneously at different temporal and spatial scales. Local changes are influenced by regional and global patterns of change, which are in turn affected by local changes. ‘Dynamic equilibrium’ conditions at a particular scale are regions of dynamic (relative) stability within a wider landscape of constant change and transformation. Resilience research started by investigating these dynamics in ecosystems and has since been expanded to the interlocking dynamics of change in eco-social systems, as it is impossible to study ecosystems without including the impact of human activity upon them.

The planet’s self-regulating and climate-regulating processes have actively created and maintained relatively stable conditions conducive to the continued evolution of life. Resilience contributes to maintaining the relative stability of living systems over time, while transformative resilience describes a living system’s capacity to transform itself in response to changing conditions and disruptions. We need both capacities to navigate our path towards a regenerative future. Our human capacity for foresight and anticipation adds an important component to an eco-social systems ability to respond to change with transformative resilience.

The systems view of life understands the presence of dynamic conditions of disequilibrium (continuous change and transformation) as a signature signal of living process. When James Lovelock worked at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion laboratories in the late 1960s, designing equipment for NASA’s mission to Mars, a colleague’s data set describing the atmospheric composition of the different planets in our solar system landed on Lovelock’s desk. It struck him almost immediately that only Earth had an atmosphere in stark chemical disequilibrium while on the other planets the balance of different gases in the atmosphere were such that few chemical reactions were taking place.

Our blue planet’s dynamic disequilibrium sparked Lovelock’s intuitive leap to ask some important questions. Maybe the presence of life is actively creating this disequilibrium? Could it be that life creates conditions conducive to life? Maybe life is a self-regulating and self- organizing process at the planetary scale? These questions were the basis for the Gaia Hypothesis and led to the development of Gaia Theory and a revolution in Earth Systems Science (e.g. Lovelock, 2000).

A scale-linking, whole-systems understanding of change processes invites us to embrace the paradoxical co-presence of relative stability over extended periods and turbulent disruption at and across scales. In nature we can observe individual subsystems in phases of relative dynamic equilibrium while other subsystems are in phases of disruption, collapse or transformation.

One particular ecosystem might undergo a phase of relative stability and smaller fluctuating changes within a bounded region. Yet that same ecosystem is also part of a larger context (biome, biosphere), and simultaneously contains smaller subsystems (communities and individuals) that are engaged in different phases of life’s change processes. While some systems are relatively stable and their resilience maintains basic systems functions, other systems experience disruptive and transformative change as previously stable patterns and relationships break down and release energy and resources. Whether we observe relative stability or change in a system also depends on the temporal and spatial scales we are paying attention to.

The interbeing of slow and fast cycles at different spatial scales within an interconnected planetary whole turns our living, transforming bio-culture-sphere into an archetypal example of a complex, dynamic non-linear system. Just as our own individual health is dependent on our capacity to bounce back from disruptions, resilience — as a vital capacity of healthy systems — is also an important factor of community, ecosystems and planetary health (Wahl, 2006a).

Resilience and transformative resilience are indicators of systemic health at and across different scales. There are, however, cases where too much persistence and resilience within systems in need of transformation can slow down necessary transformation and decrease future adaptive capacity. We need the right kind of balance between resilience (as persistence of the status quo) and the transformative resilience that enables us to avoid collapse through transformative innovation. Working with disruptions as invitations to transformative change creates the exciting opportunity to turn breakdown into breakthrough (Hutchins, 2012).

The Resilience Alliance, an international network of researchers and practitioners focused on understanding the complex dynamics of change in socio-ecological systems, defines ecosystems resilience as “the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes” (Resilience Alliance, 2015a). As human beings and communities we have conscious awareness of the systems we participate in.

By paying attention to the patterns of natural change processes and learning from them, we can potentially add the capacity of foresight to the whole system. We can anticipate and plan for the future, even if we cannot accurately predict the exact future behaviour of the complex dynamic systems in which we participate. To better understand and reduce our negative impact and to transform humanity into a regenerative influence on the whole system, we need to pay attention to the interaction of social and ecological systems and regard them as one whole socio-ecological system (SES).

Resilience as applied to ecosystems, or to integrated systems of people and the natural environment, has three characteristics:

  • The amount of change the system can undergo and still retain the same […] function and structure
  • The degree to which the system is capable of self-organization
  • The ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.

— Resilience Alliance (2015a)

As the resilience of a system declines, “the magnitude of a shock from which it cannot recover gets smaller and smaller”. In general, “resilience shifts attention from purely growth and efficiency to needed recovery and flexibility. Growth and efficiency alone can often lead ecological systems, businesses and societies into fragile rigidities, exposing them to turbulent transformations. Learning, recovery, and flexibility open eyes to novelty and new worlds of opportunity” (Resilience Alliance, 2015b).

In full awareness of the limits to prediction and control, informed by our conscious participation in socio-economic systems, we can humbly aim to redesign the human presence on Earth, creating locally adapted and globally collaborative regenerative cultures everywhere. The generations alive today have the unique opportunity to shape a viable future for humanity. To do so, we need the right balance between persistent/adaptive resilience and transformative resilience in our Socio-Ecological-Systems. Knowing when to maintain existing systems and when to transform them in response to outdated patterns is part of the systemic awareness and foresight and anticipation that humans can add to Socio-Ecological-Systems.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]