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3 March 2021

Resilience 101

The concept of ‘resilience’ has been in the mouth of conservationists for a while now. Time to tackle what it stands for.

A resilient person can withstand great personal challenges or losses. A resilient company can adapt to sudden changes in the market or the emergence of a powerful new competitor. A resilient society can self-organize in the face of new challenges and is able to rebound to its normal way of life relatively fast. A resilient ecosystem is able to react to various shocks and disturbances and maintain its biodiversity and ecosystem services.

In more general terms, resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic structure and function. Resilience is a feature of complex adaptive systems (CAS). Resilience relies on self-organisation, learning, innovation, information processing, feedbacks and other features that only appear in such systems. Resilience is depending on active response instead of a rigid structure that is able to keep the problems out.

Building a dam to control flood is not resilience; nurturing a habitat that is able to regulate water is. Riparian forests are normally adapted to changing levels of water and are able to control water to a large extent. If a flood is coming, these forests are able to control it, if a dry period follows, they help to keep the soil wet. If floods are managed with dams and other infrastructure, flood controlling ecosystem elements slowly disappear. If the infrastructure fails (as it does all too often), the forests are not there anymore to control the water.

If floods are managed with dams and other infrastructure, flood controlling ecosystem elements slowly disappear.
Riparian forests are normally adapted to changing levels of water and are able to control water to a large extent.

Ecosystems are complex adaptive systems that are kept in place by the dynamic interactions of all the species, land, weather and humans. These interactions react to the behaviour of others. While all elements seem to be free, or maybe living in competition, or seemingly random in their behaviour, in reality, a few balancing forces keep the whole system stable. Stability does not mean rigidity or stillness here. It is not even a dynamic equilibrium in the strict sense of the word — the system is constantly changing. Shocks come and go, disasters happen, humans destroy parts of the system, the weather is changing — yet the whole system remains stable in terms of its ‘identity’: an oak forest, an arid grassland, a farm.

What does stability mean here, then? While the state of the system is in a constant wobble, some elements remain remarkably stable. These elements are connected to all others directly or indirectly and influence their fluctuations. These elements change very slowly, compared to the normal speed of change within the system. We call them slow variables. Slow variables are small in number, crucial in their role and normally not very responsive to external effects. One would think they are constants. In fact, they are not constants, but many other elements in the system are stabilizing them so if one fails, still many others keep it in place. Slow variables define the operating regime of the system. Within the regime, all possible states and behaviours of the system can happen seemingly randomly. Until these variables are not changing, the system will be able to come back to its original state. A disturbance, a shock, climate change or anything can happen — if it does not affect slow variables, the system will remain resilient.

But if something is eroding the forces that stabilize the slow variables, shocks and disturbances have a higher chance of changing the system fundamentally. If this happens, suddenly everything changes. Species go extinct, farms go bankrupt, landscapes change, new species appear, new strategies are needed. Such dramatic changes happen after crossing thresholds or tipping points. Crossing such a threshold is altering the value of a slow variable. Changing the variable can happen fast (if a big shock is happening) or slow (as it is often the case with climate change) but the collapse of the stability of the system usually happens fast. Such change is called a regime shift.

Regime shifts are usually to be avoided. They refer to fundamental changes in landscape and human livelihoods. Many of the local environmental threats we know lead to regime shifts. These changes are often irreversible and even if they are not, it is very hard to go back to a healthy state.

In 2020, CEEweb started a research and policy based project that focuses on resilience in agroecosystems. Our goal is to develop tools and policy recommendations that look at agricultural systems with the resilience lens: how can we maintain their stability? What actions, what policies are necessary? We will explore these questions in theory and in practice in the coming months.