A resilient world is built on humility

Featured

By David Salt

What helps keep a system resilient?

Of course, it depends on context, and everyone brings their own definitions to the party when answering this question. Which means you seldom find two people that will give you the same answer.

Yet, obviously, it’s a pretty important question.

Nine attributes

Towards the end of writing the book Resilience Thinking with Brian Walker, we asked many of the world’s most preeminent resilience scholars (including Buzz Holling) what they thought were the key lessons emerging from resilience science. They responded with a wide variety of answers, both in terms of length of response and areas covered. Even resilience experts vary in what they think is most important about the topic.

We didn’t have room in the book to reprint their responses so instead we attempted to distill their thoughts into a list of nine attributes of a resilient world. In summary, those attributes are:

1. Protect diversity: A resilient world promotes and sustains diversity in all forms (biological, landscape, social and economic).

2. Respect ecological variability: Resilience is about embracing and working with ecological variability, rather than attempting to control and reduce it.

3. Manage with modularity: Resilient systems consist of modular components. Failure in one component doesn’t collapse the system.

4. Acknowledge slow variables: There needs to be a focus on the controlling (often slowly changing) variables associated with thresholds.

5. Govern with appropriate feedbacks: A resilient world possesses tight feedbacks (but not too tight). Are the signals from cost/benefit feedbacks loosening?

6. Cultivate social capital: This is about promoting trust, well developed social networks and effective leadership.

7. Promote innovation: Resilience places an emphasis on learning, experimentation, locally developed rules and embracing change.

8. Govern with overlap: A resilient world would have institutions that include ‘redundancy’ in their governance structures, including a mix of common and private property with overlapping access rights.

9. Incorporate ecosystem services: A resilient world includes all the unpriced ecosystem services in development proposals and assessments.

It’s a good list (I’d even suggest a great list) though, of course, each attribute requires a lot of unpacking, explaining and illustration with examples (though, it did appear at the end of our book so readers who got this far were already in the frame).

But why only nine?

This was Brian’s idea: ‘Let’s set out nine attributes, one short of the biblical ten, and invite readers to suggest what attribute they would add to our list to complete it.’

I thought it was a dumb idea because a. I didn’t think we’d get much response (this was a science textbook after all), b. I suspected every reader would have their own idea (‘a resilient world would have lots of cats…’) and we’d just get a long list of pet thoughts with no emergent consistency; and c. what’s the point, how would we provide feedback to readers? This was a book afterall, not a monthly magazine.

The tenth (and 11th) attribute

As it turned out, I was wrong on all counts (hats off to you, Brian).

We received many hundreds of suggestions; most of them thoughtful, well considered and articulate.

And, while there was an enormous variety in the ideas being put forward (and no suggestion that cats would make for a more resilient world), there were clearly four themes constantly coming to the fore: democratization, fairness, learning and humility.

And, while we hadn’t planned on a follow-up book back when Resilience Thinking came out, it became apparent a few years later that people wanted more information on how resilience thinking can be implemented. Consequently, we wrote Resilience Practice, and included a discussion on the feedback we had received from readers of Resilience Thinking at the end.

Indeed, we added fairness and humility to our list of nine. Actually, we felt that the themes of democratization, fairness, learning and humility were all implicit to varying degrees in our original list of nine attributes. Our readers, however, obviously felt that equity and humility needed to be acknowledged explicitly; so we did. Here are the added two attributes to round off our list:

10. Enshrine fairness & equity: A (desirable) resilient world would acknowledge notions of equality among people, encourage democratization so that everyone has a say, a sense of agency, and promote the notion and practice of ‘fair trade’. These attributes would encourage diversity, innovation, collaboration and effective feedbacks while promoting higher levels of social capital.

11. Exercise humility: A resilient world would acknowledge our dependence on the ecosystems that support us, allow us to appreciate the limits of our mastery, accept we have much to learn, and ensure our people are well educated about resilience and our interconnection with the biosphere.

No panacea

Even if we adopted these 11 attributes as goals (even if we achieved them) there’s no guarantee that we will side step the looming shocks and changes currently facing our planet. However, a resilient world will be better placed come what may.

Which brings me to the end of this series of (relatively) ad hoc reflections on resilience thinking, what it is and why it’s worth knowing about. I’m not suggesting it will save the world; but I am certain it will provide new insights on the nature of the challenges facing us and why the complexity of the world makes these challenges so wicked. And, indeed, if we as a society are not prepared to acknowledge the complexity that lies at the heart of the challenge of sustainability, there is little hope of us meeting that challenge.

If you enjoyed this blog and would like to read any of my earlier pieces on resilience thinking, here’s a list of topics with links:

Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex
Introducing the notion that ‘complexity’ lies at the heart of our big challenges

Solving sustainability – It’s complicated AND complex. Do you know the difference?
‘Complexity 101’, complex is different to being complicated but most people mix them up

Thinking resilience – navigating a complex world
Ideas about resilience comes from many areas, most them are about working with complexity

The myth of the optimal state: adaptive cycles and the birth of resilience thinking
Buzz Holling and collapsing spruce forests. More control just made it worse

The perils of command and control and the pathology of Natural Resource Management
How the belief of mastery, blind application of efficiency and vested interests leads to a decline in a system’s resilience

On identity, complexity and a ‘little’ fossil fuel project off the West Australian coast
The identity of a system drives decision making above and beyond rationality

Death of the Queen, identity and a sustainable world
Thinking of ‘the Crown’ as a complex adaptive system (RIP Queen Elizabeth II)

Losing it – the consequences of stepping over the threshold
When a system crosses a threshold, it loses its identity

To be or not to be? It’s really a question about whether we adapt or transform
Adaptation and transformation, two important concepts in resilience thinking that most people use interchangeably without much thought

Resilience – the good, the bad and the ugly
Resilience thinking is almost always inspirational, but it’s also ambiguous and politicians love hiding behind it

Banner image: Maybe if Moses had shown a little more humility, the 10 Commandments might have been a tad more resilient. (Image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay)

Resilience – the good, the bad and the ugly

Featured

By David Salt

Some 17 years ago a former boss of mine, Dr Brian Walker, approached me to write a book with him that made the science of resilience more understandable and engaging. That text, Resilience Thinking(Island Press, 2006), would become one of the first widely read, popular science books on the subject of ecological resilience. In my humble opinion, Resilience Thinking played an important role in bringing the ideas around resilience into the mainstream, raising the very notion of ‘resilience’ to the status of being a buzzword (with all the good and bad that comes with this).

At the time that Brian approached me I knew little about resilience science (and I was also ignorant about Brian being one of the world’s leading researchers in this field; I knew him as the ridiculously overworked Chief of CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, where I had been his Communications Manager). When he asked me to co-author a book with him, a few years after this, I was a freelancer. Indeed, I was an ageing freelance science writer that was growing increasingly cynical about ‘science being the answer’ to the world’s growing sustainability challenge.

When Brian began explaining what resilience thinking was my first thought was ‘it’s just another bit of tricky science that will supposedly boost efficiency and save us all, while we dig the planet into an even deeper hole’, just like many of the other ‘breakthroughs’ I had covered and promoted over the years.

Well, I was quite wrong about this. By the time I had finished writing Resilience Thinking, I looked at the world anew. Things that had befuddled me in the past, now made sense. I looked at the world with different eyes and became a proselytiser for the cause. It really was an epiphany; so much so that I would go on to write a second book with Brian (Resilience Practice, Island Press 2012), numerous articles on the theme, and lecture on the topic.

Though, I should be careful using the world ‘proselytise’ because resilience thinking has been criticised by some as looking like a religion (it’s not, it’s an ever-developing science with all the peer review and validation that comes with that) with adherents that sometimes come across as acolytes (God, I hope I don’t sound like one). Because, for all the value and insight that comes with resilience thinking, it has collected some unfortunate baggage along the way. But let’s begin with the positives.

The good

When I finished writing Resilience Thinking I suddenly realised that while we used the word ‘resilience’, the book was actually a guidebook to ‘complexity’ (and complex adaptative systems). Though I had written about complexity in the past, this was the first time the concepts wrapped up under the cloak of complexity came together and made sense.

The world is a complex system operating at multiple linked scales. I am a complex system, so is my family, my region, my country; all these systems are linked in lesser or greater ways; all are constrained by their histories to some extent; will change over time (adaptive cycles); are capable of self-organisation in the face of disturbance and have the capacity to sustain their identities (resilience), but only up to a certain point (thresholds) beyond which they take on new ways of being.

When these insights are applied to the world around me, I realise, in a very fundamental way, that my big problem with the world is that I always expect that things (events, people, history) to be rational (that people always act rationally, for example) when in fact they are complex (and often irrational). Rationality is just our way of simplifying things, of dealing with the uncertainty that goes hand in hand with complexity. It’s a great approach in the short term but brings wretched results in the longer term as the complex systems around us self-organise around our efforts to optimise, simplify and hold things steady.

Attempting to explain ‘resilience thinking’ to others gave me a framework that explained for me why optimisation is such a flawed model (maybe ‘partial’ or ‘incomplete’ are better adjectives here) to move us towards ‘being sustainable’; why ‘efficiency’, while being important, is never the answer to long term sustainability; why ‘stability’ is a myth and attempts to hold things steady actually reduces a system’s resilience. These and many other epiphanies became clear as I applied the insights from resilience thinking to systems around me.

So, I would say that, for me, ‘resilience thinking’ is jam packed with inspiration and insight about the world around me. Possibly more important, however, I am aware of many readers of Resilience Thinking who came away with their own epiphanies about their own systems of interest.

When people begin considering the complexity of their own system(s) (looking for thresholds, seeing adaptive cycles, reflecting on where their sources of resilience might lie) they too begin to see the world in a different way, and are excited by the insights that pop up.

The bad

Unfortunately, descriptions of ‘complexity’ become very complicated all too quickly (though please don’t confuse these terms). It takes time (and some patience) to absorb ‘resilience thinking’. And, like complexity itself, resilience thinking is not a linear process in which you read ‘the formula’ press a button and the answer is delivered (‘the answer to your question on resilience is 43’).

Resilience thinking is more of a culture in which stakeholders in a system investigate their system, assess different facets of its resilience (where are the thresholds, what is its space of safe operation; where does it sit in the adaptative cycle, what are the system’s levels of adaptability and transformability, and so on), decide on a course of action, monitor and adapt around that decision; and then iteratively go through that process (compile, assess, act) again and again; learning, adapting, experimenting and transforming as you go.

That’s all good and well, and it’s what we should all be doing all the time, but managers, decision makers and policy people need simpler and linear processes to inform their actions and decisions. Resilience thinking is sometimes seen as ‘nice (if time and resources are unlimited) but unhelpful (in the real world)’ when it comes to getting on with things.

Also, many of the insights emerging from the application of resilience thinking are quite dependent on a particular context and may not hold in a different context. On top of this (and maybe because of this), one person’s insights often vary from the insights another person finds when applying resilience thinking.

Some people have accused resilience thinking of being somewhat vague. Others have even suggested that this is deliberate and even important when it comes to framing complexity. One philosopher asked: “Does resilience exhibit conceptual vagueness, and, if so, is that beneficial? Can looseness in concepts and meanings lend itself to shedding light on unsolved problems? While resilience research has established that redundancy is an asset for complex adaptive systems, does a similar finding also hold for conceptual frameworks?”

All of which is to say is that while resilience thinking can be inspirational, it can also be problematic in its implementation.

And the ugly

While acknowledging this, I do believe it’s an important first step in re-evaluating our failing approach to sustainability (an approach largely based on simplistic linear thinking, technology and efficiency).

I’m happy to acknowledge the good with the bad. Where I get extremely frustrated, however, is where political leaders and corporate spin masters see ‘resilience’ as an opportunity to claim action while actually doing nothing (or continuing with their environmentally damaging activity).

Our last national conservative government claimed they were building a ‘resilient’ Great Barrier Reef while subsidising and expanding the country’s fossil fuel sector. (Our new national government appears to be doing much the same.) Carbon emissions are killing our Reef.

In a similar vein, one of Australia’s biggest companies, BHP, co-funded the Australian Coral Reef Resilience initiative to protect the ‘resilience’ of the reef while continuing to expand their fossil fuel pollution.

When climate-charged wildfires tore apart coastal communities along New South Wales (NSW) coastline in 2019/20 (our Black Summer), the NSW Government created a new overarching recovery agency called Resilience NSW (because who can have enough resilience, and the NSW government is there to provide it). Two years later and instead of fires, unprecedented floods devasted NSW coastal communities. A government enquiry found that Resilience NSW (an agency that hadn’t even found its feet) had failed and should be abolished.

These are just a few local examples where the ideas of resilience are inappropriately used (and abused). This happens everywhere. The problem here is that resilience is complex, most people don’t have the opportunity to have a deep engagement with it, and politicians are quick to exploit that ignorance; in the first place to hide behind it, in the next to use it as the scapegoat.

In a rational linear world, they wouldn’t get away with this. But, of course, we don’t live in a rational world, do we?

Banner image: Resilience thinking is about people, landscapes, society, ecosystems and complexity. Depending on how it is applied it can be good, bad or ugly. (Image by David Salt)

Solving sustainability – It’s complicated AND complex. Do you know the difference?

Featured

What is it about the challenge of climate change that makes it so difficult to solve?

Clearly, it’s a complicated problem involving many interacting components. These interacting parts include the Earth system (and its billions of components), people (you and me), states and countries; organisations and institutions; unknowns; tradeoffs; winners and losers. We’ve spent decades of effort addressing this issue – including billions of dollars on research – and yet the problem of mounting levels of carbon emissions and accelerating environmental decline only seems to get worse. (Have you seen what’s happening in the northern hemisphere at the moment? And it’s only spring!)

Clearly, climate change is a big and complicated problem but it seems to me, having watched us deal with this challenge (and fail) over many years, what we’re not acknowledging is that it’s also a complex problem, and we’re not dealing with this complexity very well.

‘Complicated’ and ‘complex’ are words often used interchangeably but they are fundamentally different ideas. Do you know the difference? I’ll confess that for most of my life I didn’t.

So, what is complexity?

Complex systems scientists have been attempting to pin down what complexity is for decades. To me, most of their definitions are highly technical and only understandable by other complex systems scientists.

Here’s one commonly used definition set out by the famous evolutionary biologist Simon Levin in 1998 that encapsulates many of the ideas floating around complexity. It’s relatively short and sets out three criteria for defining a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems have:

-components that are independent and interacting;

-there is some selection process at work on those components (and on the results of local interactions); and

-variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system (through components changing over time or new ones coming in).

Sounds straightforward but what does it mean and why is it important? Here’s how I attempted explain it in the book Resilience Thinking*.

Cogworld vs Bugworld

Consider these two situations: Cogworld and Bugworld.

Everything in Cogworld is made of interconnected cogs; big cogs are driven by smaller cogs that are in turn driven by tiny cogs. The size and behavior of the cogs doesn’t change over time, and if you were to change the speed of the cogs of any size there is a proportionate change in speed of other connected cogs.

Because this system consists of many connected parts some would describe it as being complicated. Indeed it is, but because the components never change and the manner in which the system responds to the external environment is linear and predictable, it is not complex. Really, it is just a more complicated version of a simple system, like a bicycle with multiple gears.

Bugworld is quite different. It’s populated by lots of bugs. The bugs interact with each other and the overall performance of Bugworld depends on these interactions. But some sub-groups of bugs are only loosely connected to other sub-groups of bugs. Bugs can make and break connections with other bugs, and unlike the cogs in Cogworld, the bugs reproduce and each generation of bugs come with subtle variations in size or differences in behavior. Because there is lots of variation, different bugs or subgroups of bugs respond in different ways as conditions change. As the world changes some of the subgroups of bugs ‘perform’ better than other subgroups, and the whole system is modified over time. This system is self-organizing.

Unlike Cogworld, Bugworld is not a simple system but a complex adaptive system in which it’s impossible to predict the emergent behavior of the system by understanding separately its component subgroups. It meets the three criteria outlined by Levin: it has components that are independent and interacting; there is some selection process at work on those components; and variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system.

Complicated vs Complex

In Cogworld there is a direct effect of a change in one cog, but it doesn’t lead to secondary feedbacks. The cogs that make up Cogworld interact but they are not independent, and the system can’t adapt to a changing world. Cogworld might function very ‘efficiently’ over one or even a range of ‘settings’ but it can only respond to change in one way – that is working all together. If the external conditions change so that Cogworld no longer works very well – the relative speeds of the big and little cogs don’t suit its new environment – there’s nothing Cogworld can do.

In Bugworld the system adapts as the world changes. There are secondary feedbacks – secondary effects of an initial direct change. The bugs of Bugworld are independent of each other though they do interact (strongly – though not all bugs interact with all other bugs).

In our Bugworld, if we attempted to manage a few of the subgroups – eg, hold them in some constant state to ‘optimise’ their performance – we need to be mindful that this will cause the surrounding subgroups to adapt around this intervention, possibly changing the performance of the whole system.

Ecosystems, economies, organisms and even our brains are all complex adaptive systems. We often manage parts of them as if they were simple systems (as if they were component cogs from Cogworld) when in fact the greater system will change in response to our management, often producing a raft of secondary feedback effects that sometimes bring with them unwelcome surprises.

The real world is a complex adaptive system. It is more like Bugworld than Cogworld and yet it seems most of our management, policy and leadership is based on a Cogworld metaphor.

The consequences of complexity

Complex adaptative systems are self-organizing systems with emergent properties. No-one is in control and there is no optimal sustainable state that it can be held in. These are just two of the consequences that fall out when you begin to appreciate what complexity is all about, and they are pretty important consequences if you reflect on it.

Our political leaders will tell you they are in control, and that they have a plan, a simple solution that solves the problem of climate change without anyone having to change the way they do things. This is the message that Australians have been hearing for the past decade from our (recently defeated) conservative government. But we grew skeptical of these claims as we saw our coral reefs bleach and our forest biomes burn.

Why is climate change so difficult to solve? Yes, it’s complicated with many interacting components. However, more importantly, it’s complex and complexity is something humans don’t deal with well (let alone understand).

As one piece of evidence on this, consider how we think about thinking. What’s the image that immediately comes to your mind? For most people it’s a set of mechanistic cogs encased in a head (like in our banner image this week). If you thought my ‘Cogworld’ was fanciful, how many times have you seen this representation of human thinking as mechanistic clockwork without questioning it. Because what you’re seeing is a representation of a complex system (you thinking) as a non-complex simple system (a set of cogs). The ‘cogmind’ is a fundamentally disabling metaphor.

And if you scale this up to the systems around us, how many times have you accepted that someone is in control, and that the answer is in just making the world a bit more efficient, a bit more optimal? How is that going for us at the moment?

Different priorities

If, however, we are living in a complex world, then maybe we should stop looking for the illusory optimal solution and start dealing the complexity in which we are all embedded. How is that done?

One set of ideas I have found helpful lies in resilience thinking. Rather than prioritising efficiency, command-and-control, reductionism and optimisation, resilience thinking encourages reflection, humility and co-operation, aspects on which I’ll expand in my next blog on complexity.

*Two decades ago I was asked by a group called the Resilience Alliance to write a book on resilience science. That book, co-authored with Brian Walker, one of the world’s leading authorities on resilience science, became the text Resilience Thinking. As I learnt about resilience science I discovered that it was all about dealing with complexity, an insight that transformed the way I understood the world.

Banner image: If you thought my ‘Cogworld’ was fanciful, how many times have you seen this representation of human thinking as mechanistic clockwork without questioning it. (Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)