To Prepare for the Unexpected
In resilience theory, most results come from analysing cases of natural resource governance within which — whether global or local (but very specific) — challenges are to be solved.
In other words, we are able to answer the questions of ‘resilience of what to what?’ — these are cases of specific resilience. Of course, such cases are studied in an easier manner; thus, much more scientific knowledge is available. On the other hand, it is understandable that many people are more interested in resilience against unexpected and novel events, such as disasters or pandemics.
Social-ecological systems all have their own disturbance regimes. These are patterns of disturbances that repeatedly occurred over the past millennia and the system adapted to them — in fact, without them, the system could not sustain its resilience; they work like reminders, trigger the memory of the system and, thus, the adaptive capacity is not lost. “Memory” in this context does not necessarily mean a cognitive ability to remember past events but structural patterns that were shaped by past events and that constitute the system’s ability to respond to something — for instance, the presence of a specific species that facilitates rebuilding after a shock.
General resilience is basically adaptation to something without specific memory (cognitive or structural) of any similar event. Since no specific responses can be developed against novel entities, general resilience depends on structural features that enable a high level of adaptive capacity within the system. The main features of general resilience are:
- Diversity: diversity provides resilience in many ways. The more diverse a system is, the more internal interactions it has, and these connections are in general stabilising all the elements that are the building blocks of the system. At the same time, diversity also improves the system’s ability to respond to external events. Response diversity refers to the ability to provide multiple different responses to a single threat, while functional diversity means that multiple elements are able to provide the same function within the system. Thus, if one of them fails, the system still functions depending on the others.
- Modularity: if a system is made up of relatively independent sub-units, if one of them fails, the others might be saved and might also be able to help in recovering the one that has suffered some damage. An example of a modular system structure is a river and its tributaries: they are all connected yet separated in some sense. If, for example, pollution hits part of the system, its biodiversity can be rebuilt from the other parts.
- Reserves: spare parts are of course useful if something fails in a system. Stored knowledge, resources, unused capacities can all be important when some part of the system is not able to function as expected.
- Polycentric governance: when multiple institutions have access to information on the system and they are all able to contribute to decision making, the system as a whole is less dependent on one key part. Both if the central part fails, or if communication becomes problematic, it is important to have other parts that not just have the right to act, but also have the capacity and legitimacy to do so. Participatory networks and institutions that work well in normal times are extremely useful in a crisis.
- Monitoring and transparency of information is a key feature of adaptation. In the middle of a pandemic, it is very clear that some key indicators are very important not just for high-level decision-making, but also for planning our ordinary daily lives: what should we expect, what should we prepare for? Having the right infrastructure to collect and process data on any subject is an important source of resilience.
- Trust and leadership: unusual times require unusual decisions. Trust and leadership are necessary to facilitate hard discussions and to execute hard decisions. Sometimes, fundamental rights have to be limited, or high levels of voluntary cooperation have to be organised. Trust and good leadership in a community are essential to make these decisions and also to find the way back to (a new) normal when crisis times end.
Source: Carpenter, Stephen, Kenneth Arrow, Scott Barrett, Reinette Biggs, William Brock, Anne-Sophie Crépin, Gustav Engström, et al. 2012. "General Resilience to Cope with Extreme Events." In: Sustainability 4 (12): 3248–59. https://doi.org/10/f2zm4r.