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Book Review: Resilience Thinking – Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World

Book by Brian Walker and David Salt
Island Press – 2006
174 pages

Reviewed by Owen Hablutzel

When is the last time you were surprised? It might have been a brand new volunteer plant in the garden, bizarre and beautiful fungi in the pasture, an incredible storm on the horizon, or a blessed windfall on the balance sheets! Given the inherent unpredictable nature of wholes – complex adaptive systems from cells, to bodies, to farms, societies and all of nature – we can be sure that surprise and unexpected change will happen quite frequently. If this is true at the home, farm or business scale it is all the more so at the regional, national, and global scales in today’s always changing and increasingly interconnected world.

In this shifting environment resilience – defined in Resilience Thinking as the capacity of a system to absorb change while still maintaining its basic structure and function – becomes all the more critical. This essential ability enables systems of all sizes, ecological and social, to continue providing the goods and services humans value and need, regardless of the inevitable surprises. As the book notes, the more resilient a ranch, business, ecosystem, or planet the more flexible and open it is to multiple options or uses, and the more forgiving of design or management mistakes.

The book, Resilience Thinking (a slim volume from Island Press), introduces the reader to a partly philosophical and partly practical, whole-systems framework (which could also describe Permaculture, of course) that has over 30 years of research and a library of scientific literature behind it (much of that theory and case-study literature is worth a look as well – for those with an interest in ecological resilience – but the introductory Resilience Thinking is the place to begin). Resilience concepts are explained clearly and concisely here, and offer a variety of crucial insights with great potential to further the creation of a sustainable future on many scales. Designers, managers, watershed and policy groups, and others will find well developed analytical tools and practical strategies for increasing the resilience of the systems they interact with. Included here are regional, resilience-based, case-studies from around the globe – stories about encroaching salinity in an Australian Catchment system, policy in the Florida Everglades, coral reef stability in the Caribbean, lakes in Wisconsin, and land use in Sweden. All demonstrate a resilience framework approach to the complex issues involved and help the reader extrapolate the principles and approaches to their own situations.

For those already designing and managing their systems by using the ethics, principles and directives of Permaculture, Resilience Thinking will integrate almost seamlessly with your current practice. It may also add a synergistic creative ‘juice’ to evolve and improve your design strategies through its fresh insights, emerging and effective ecological understanding, as well as novel analytical tools and design approaches that can greatly improve flexibility, diversity, and the odds of long-term success. Along with Permaculture thinking, resilience thinking is a major step towards the resilience doing that the planet, and its linked ecological-social systems, so urgently require!

Some key insights from this book:

  • Change Happens! Ignoring or resisting the element of change and surprise in systems only increases risks and vulnerabilities. Resilience Thinking explains why the more a system is managed or designed towards one factor alone – like ‘maximum yield,’ the conventional mono-cultural, change-resisting strategy – the more that system’s resilience is actually diminished. Conversely, the authors articulate precisely how and why natural changes within systems actually function to increase the overall resilience of those systems, as well as how to best work with those changes.
  • Systems have multiple stable states. A classic example of alternative stable states in brittle, dryland environments is grassland versus a shrub dominated system. Both states are in fact ecologically stable, but they are otherwise quite different states – with different rates of production, different responses to disturbance, different effects on the hydrological, mineral, bio-geo-chemical and energy cycles, and presenting different options and limitations to designers, managers and users. An example, in an aquaculture system, would be a clear water stable-state versus an algal bloom scenario, with effects of each right up the entire aquatic food chain, and beyond. Both are stable states of the system, yet completely different.
  • Between stable states are thresholds that can be crossed. A system can shift quickly from one stable state into another, often with unwelcome surprises (grass to shrubs, clear pond to murky, or forest to desert on longer time scales). The more diminished the resilience of a system the closer that system is to a threshold. Being closer to a threshold, the system is far more likely to cross that threshold into an undesired state. Also, the closer a system is to a threshold the smaller the disturbance needed to cause a system transition (usually quite rapid) to an alternative stable state. Think ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Additionally, once a threshold is crossed it becomes far more difficult to manage the system back to its previous and often more desirable stable state. Think Humpty-Dumpty.
  • Cross-Scale interactions are very important to how the whole system operates. Interactions across different scales affect the entire system. One example, a policy or legislative decision at the state scale can affect a policy or operations decision at the farm scale. Think ‘Noxious Weeds,’ or ‘Building Codes.’ Likewise, if enough land holders in a watershed adopt Permaculture, or resilience enhancing models of operation, those actions and their cumulative positive effects have much improved potential to link-up with scales beyond that region, and trigger changes in practice and policy for a much wider area (Quail Springs Permaculture Farm’s natural building work that is creating serious policy discussion at wider scales, for example). Another way to think about this is in terms of Permaculture Zones. What you learn in Zone 5 affects your evolving design strategies in Zone 1, and vice versa, making this a cross-scale relationship that affects the entire system. Or, birds (and other wildlife) with territories of a far larger scale than your backyard or small farm influence your system by dropping seeds and nutrient into your system, and likewise by taking seeds, microorganisms, etc, from your system out into the wider territory starting mini-groves, guilds, and new microbe colonies all over the place! These are all interactions across scales that impact our systems all the time and are key components of the resilience-creating dynamics.
  • Change happens in an Adaptive Cycle. This is among the more novel and potentially useful insights of this framework. Not only does ‘change happen,’ but it tends to occur in a specific cycle called the Adaptive Cycle. This typically has four phases. 1. Rapid Growth phase. In a recently burned patch of forest this phase could be the explosive re-growth that can occur, characterized by pioneer plants and organisms. Next, 2. the Conservation phase. In our forest patch we would eventually see later successional species emerging, leading ultimately to a more mature forest ‘climax.’ 3. The Release phase follows and is often a very rapid phase. A new fire sweeps through the now overgrown (if never grazed or thinned) matured forested patch. The fire disturbance unlocks and releases all the nutrient and biomass built up during the Rapid Growth and Conservation phases, freeing these materials for new assignments in the next phase of the cycle, 4. Re-Organization. During the Re-Organization phase chance events and changes often play the largest role in defining the system’s new trajectory. In our forest patch this could be determined by which new seeds, fungi or organisms happen to establish a foothold first. Once this foothold is gained the Adaptive Cycle begins again, with a new Rapid Growth phase. Understanding the basic dynamics of this cycle provides insight into how and why systems change, as well as where and when different design or management options would and would not be likely to work. Knowing what phase of the Adaptive Cycle a system is currently in, and how the system’s resilience and responses will vary in accordance with those phases, is likewise, useful knowledge for many kinds of vital decisions.
  • Managing for resilience does not require any fancy degree in Science. A basic and general understanding of the essential concepts elaborated in the book is plenty to begin using the resilience perspective in design planning, observing system feedbacks, and everyday activity.

So how resilient is your Permaculture system? And what of your local community? Your bioregion? Your watershed? This short introduction to thinking resiliently gives you the tools to decide. In these times of rapidly decreasing regional and global resilience, Resilience Thinking is a valuable addition to the library and toolbox of Permaculture designers, teachers, land managers, transition organizations, policy folk, and people everywhere working for a healthier, more regenerative, adaptive and resilient world.

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Owen Hablutzel performs international work in Permaculture systems design, consultation, speaking, and education. He is a director of the Permaculture Research Institute, USA, and can be reached at owen (at) permacultureusa.org

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