"RESILIENCE IS … the ability to absorb and learn from disturbances, to be changed and then to re-organize and still retain basic structure and ways of functioning. Growth and efficiency alone can often lead ecological systems, businesses and societies into fragile rigidities, exposing them to turbulent transformation. Learning, recovery and flexibility open our eyes to novelty and new worlds of opportunity." (From www.resalliance.org/564.php – “key concepts”)

Humans have a tendency to assume too much. In a world that is inherently uncertain and always changing, we expect certainty and constancy. Although we assume that social and ecological problems are simple and easily confined, they are actually highly complex and possess properties that we cannot entirely control. Too often, we fail to respect the implications that these characteristics will have for our future happiness and well-being.

Despite evidence – the collapse of the cod fishery, looming climate shifts and the devastation in BC caused by the pine beetle – we still do not recognize that human ingenuity can’t solve everything. Human populations are at risk because we assume that nature will continue to deliver the ecological goods and services that we require. It’s hard to change this perception when we view growth as the normal state of affairs, and turmoil as a passing inconvenience.

Brian Walker and David Salt, the Australian authors of Resilience Thinking , question the wisdom of this worldview. They suggest that resilience is the ability of human-and-nature systems to absorb disturbance and still retain their basic function. If we factor resilience into how we manage our social-ecological systems, they should rebound from a good wallop like an inflatable punching bag. A little worse for wear perhaps, but having avoided the knockout blow they continue to function.

This type of management is essential because major changes in any natural system will affect the ecological services on which we depend, perhaps irreversibly. Consider the cod fishery. Despite the 1992 moratorium on fishing, the Atlantic cod have not returned, and the greatest industry layoff in Canadian history continues for countless communities. A similar tragedy is playing out with the practical disappearance of Pacific salmon, and the resulting impacts on grizzly bears, fishers and ecotourism. Ian McAllister, conservation director of the non-profit group Pacific Wild, suggests that millions of missing fish “should be a huge red flag for [the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans] … but they continue to manage British Columbia’s salmon fishery in a total state of denial.” This more recent episode indicates that we have learned little from the cod situation, and continue to avoid hard truths whenever possible.

Mainstream notions of sustainability call for ever-increasing efficiencies in production and consumption. Resilience thinking, however, requires a bigger and different kind of clever. It demands that we recognize the limits to predictability and control inherent in complex systems – be they lakes, forests, businesses or whole communities – and admit that we cannot command the world entirely as we would wish.

Resilience thinking requires a mentality outside the mainstream, an honest approach that confronts the unknown full on and that holds the notion of learning close to its heart. It’s about finding new ways (and maybe renewing old ways) of coping with an unpredictable future. In short, it is an antidote to our hubris, and the basis for sustainability. 

Chris McLaughlin is a principal in the consulting firm Schneider McLaughlin and a research associate of the Dofasco Centre for Engineering and Public Policy at McMaster University. He is also the executive director of the Coalition of the Niagara Escarpment. For original research in applied resilience theory, see Ecology and Society at http://ecologyandsociety.org, a free online journal­ founded by C.S. Holling in 1997. Frances Westley’s Social Innovation Generation group offers resources in social innovation, and at times, fellowships for grad students at http://sig.uwaterloo.ca


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