“The most potent keystone species in the world may be the sea otter,” wrote the biologist Edward O. Wilson.
These sleek, furry creatures once lived in coastal waters from Baja, California, around the Pacific Rim, to the northern islands of Japan. Where they are present, the ecosystem tends to be characterized by dense kelp forests. The kelp provides shelter for fish, which in turn provide food for harbor seals. In ecological terms, sea otters are a keystone species, a species that determines the regime of the near-shore ecosystems that it inhabits.
Prized for their dense fur, sea otters were hunted to near extinction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As they disappeared, populations of sea urchins, which are a primary food source for otters, grew unchecked. The urchins grazed heavily on kelp, leaving little food or shelter for fish. As fish populations declined, so did the harbor seals.
This story of the otters and the urchins illustrates the ecological notion of the threshold. If a system changes too much, it crosses a threshold and begins behaving in a different way. It is then said to have undergone a regime shift. In the case of the otters, the near-shore waters that originally existed in one regime crossed a threshold into another.
The role of people in the story of otters and sea urchins illustrates another fundamental point. Ecological systems are inextricably linked with the social systems of people – in effect, all life exists within a social-ecological system. Changes in one domain of the system, either social or ecological, inevitably impact the other.
We might ask the following key questions about otters and urchins: If sea otter numbers were to begin rising, what density of otters would be required to shift the system back to the regime in which kelp, fish, and harbor seals were also abundant? And conversely, what density of sea urchins could be sustained before the numbers of kelp, fish, and harbor seals decline?
These questions explore the concept of resilience. Resilience is the capacity of a system to undergo change and still retain its basic function and structure. In other words, it's the capacity to undergo some change without crossing a threshold into a different system regime.
Resilience thinking presents an approach to observing and managing natural resources in a way that embraces the complexity of human and natural systems. By studying ecosystems all around the world, researchers have learned that most natural systems proceed through recurring cycles. These cycles are characterized by four phases: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization.
The easiest way to appreciate these adaptive cycles is to observe them. Picture a forest. Resources are slowly accumulated in the trees and the various organisms that they support. The longer this phase persists, the more efficient it becomes in using resources, and in so doing, it eventually locks up available resources.
This locked up stage is the conservation phase. As it proceeds, the forest becomes less resilient and more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances. At some point, inevitably, the forest will experience a disturbance such as a fire, storm, or pest outbreak big enough to precipitate a collapse that releases the accumulated nutrients and biomass. The longer the forest has been in the late conservation phase, the smaller the disturbance required to send its resources into a short, chaotic phase of release. After the release, the forest reorganizes, and a new growth phase of the next adaptive cycle begins.
Although ecologists have most thoroughly documented the adaptive cycle, it was the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter who sparked the original idea. Schumpeter analyzed the economy's boom and bust cycles, and in 1950 described capitalism as a "perennial gale of destruction." In human systems, the breaking down of stability releases resources for innovation, as new groups gain influence and reorganization takes place. If we ignore or resist change, we increase our vulnerability and forgo opportunities.
Consider how adaptive cycles can operate in a human economic system. A new business that builds houses is innovative and keen to build up its market. It proves successful and starts growing. Over time it starts adapting to its own success by being more efficient at doing the things that it does well. Resources are optimized or locked up in doing things in the most efficient manner, such as buying equipment for building houses in a certain way. As a business concentrates the available resources, however, it becomes less resilient to change.
This tension between efficiency and resilience is illustrated by the just-in-time approach to manufacturing. In the traditional approach to inventory management, manufacturers build up and then dispense with big stockpiles of materials. With the just-in-time approach, parts and supplies are delivered to a factory at the exact moment when they are needed. The system, deemed to be efficient and optimized, yields big savings in inventory expenses but is very sensitive to disruptions in any part of the supply chain.
The paradox of optimization
In theory, an efficient economy optimally produces the things people want and value. However, the paradox of optimization is that optimization is often applied too narrowly. Systems like the one that efficiently hunts down sea otters are efficient in that they optimize resources for a narrow set of interests – in this case, otter pelts.
Such narrow goals lead to a loss of resilience in a business, an ecosystem or the world economy. More simply, a system that sustains timber yields but not the other benefits of a healthy forest does not really generate maximum value for society. This is the paradox of optimization.
Efficiency itself is not a bad thing, but when we apply efficiency principles to only a narrow range of values and a particular set of interests, we inevitably create unwanted outcomes. The history of ecology, economics, and sociology is full of examples such as the sea otters, showing that the systems around us, the systems we are part of, are much more complex than we often assume.
A resilient world
We are a long way from understanding how to create a resilient world. Nevertheless, it is possible to offer some visions for what a resilient world might look like.
- A resilient world would promote biological, landscape, social and economic diversity. Diversity is a major source of future options and of a system's capacity to respond to change.
- A resilient world would embrace and work with natural ecological cycles. A forest that is never allowed to burn loses its fire-resistant species and becomes very vulnerable to fire.
- A resilient world consists of modular components. When over-connected, shocks are rapidly transmitted through the system - as a forest connected by logging roads can allow a wild fire to spread wider than it would otherwise.
- A resilient world possesses tight feedbacks. Feedbacks allow us to detect thresholds before we cross them. Globalization is leading to delayed feedbacks that were once tighter. For example, people of the developed world receive weak feedback signals about the consequences of their consumption.
- A resilient world promotes trust, well developed social networks and leadership. Individually, these attributes contribute to what is generally termed "social capital," but they need to act in concert to effect adaptability - the capacity to respond to change and disturbance.
- A resilient world places an emphasis on learning, experimentation, locally developed rules, and embracing change. When rigid connections and behaviors are broken, new opportunities open up and new resources are made available for growth.
- A resilient world has institutions that include "redundancy" in their governance structures and a mix of common and private property with overlapping access rights. Redundancy in institutions increases the diversity of responses and the flexibility of a system. Because access and property rights lie at the heart of many resource-use tragedies, overlapping rights and a mix of common and private property rights can enhance the resilience of linked social-ecological systems.
- A resilient world would consider all nature's un-priced services – such as carbon storage, water filtration and so on - in development proposals and assessments. These services are often the ones that change in a regime shift – and are often only recognized and appreciated when they are lost.
Resilience thinking is not a panacea for all of the world's problems. It does, however, provide a foundation for achieving sustainable patterns of resource use. It encapsulates thinking that is significantly different from the ruling paradigm of maximizing returns via controlled optimal states in resource management. The concept of resilience encourages us to ask a different set of questions about the way we manage our resources-and therefore ourselves.
Co-written by David Salt. A version of this essay appeared in the autumn 2007 issue of Sockeye Magazine.