Monday, July 19, 2010

In Defense of Difference and The Science of Resilience

Found via Simoleon Sense.

Resilience theory, and the nascent field of resilience science associated with it, begins with the basic premise that human and natural systems act as strongly coupled, integrated systems. These so-called “social-ecological” systems are understood to be in constant flux and highly unpredictable. And unlike standard ecological theory, which holds that nature responds to gradual changes in a correspondingly steady fashion, resilience thinking holds that systems often respond to stochastic events — things like storms or fires — with dramatic shifts into completely different states from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover. Numerous studies of rangelands, coral reefs, forests, lakes, and even human political systems show this to be true: A clear lake, for instance, seems hardly affected by fertilizer runoff until a critical threshold is passed, at which point the pond abruptly turns murky. A reef dominated by hard coral can, in the aftermath of a hurricane, flip into a state dominated by algae. A democratic nation stricken by drought, disease, or stock market crashes can descend into political chaos.

It’s the ability of a system — whether a tide pool or township — to withstand environmental flux without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is formally defined as “resilience.” And that is where diversity enters the equation. The more biologically and culturally variegated a system is, the more buffered, or resilient, it is against disturbance. Take the Caribbean Sea, where a wide variety of fish once kept algae on the coral reef in check. Because of overfishing in recent years, these grazers gradually gave way to sea urchins, which continued to keep algae levels down. Then in 1983 a pathogen moved in and decimated the urchin population, sending the reef into a state of algal dominance. Thus, the loss of diversity through overfishing eroded the resilience of the system, making it vulnerable to an attack it likely could have withstood in the past.

For Crawford “Buzz” Holling, widely acknowledged as the father of resilience theory and founding director of the Resilience Alliance, a small international network of academics who collaborate to explore the dynamics of social-ecological systems, this year marked a definite coming of age of an idea. At the first annual Resilience 2008 summit, held at the newly opened Resilience Center at the University of Stockholm, Holling delivered the keynote address to more than 600 scientists, policymakers, and artists, convened for a four-day brainstorm session. As was the case at the AMNH symposium just weeks earlier, the focus was on how to move from theory to practice. And once one starts thinking through the lens of resilience, the policy implications are indeed enormous. Economics necessarily morphs into its social-ecological analogue, “ecological economics” — so that a city seeking to expand its boundaries, for example, must consider not only costs and benefits in human terms, but also the same calculus as applied to the environment. Efficiency at the expense of diversity becomes anathema, so that a company struggling to stay afloat thinks twice before replacing five human workers with one seemingly smarter machine. Redundancy is encouraged, rather than quashed, on the grounds that more genes and more memes ultimately provide insurance against a time when changing conditions overwhelm the dominant paradigm of the day. There is no “sacred balance” in nature, says Holling. “That is a very dangerous idea.”

Resilience science can get bogged down in its own specific lexicon: a cloud of “adaptive capacities,” “functional groups,” and “self-organizing principles.” But pull back from the jargon and the essence is simple: Homogeneous landscapes — whether linguistic, cultural, biological, or genetic — are brittle and prone to failure. The evidence peppers human history, as Jared Diamond so meticulously catalogued in his aptly named book, Collapse. Whether it was due to a shifting climate that devastated a too-narrow agricultural base, a lack of cultural imagination in how to deal with the problem, or a devastating combination of the two, societies insufficiently resilient enough to cope with the demands of a changing environment invariably crumbled. The idea is perhaps best summed up in the pithy standard, “What doesn’t bend, breaks.”