Resilience – the good, the bad and the ugly


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)

Losing it – the consequences of stepping over the threshold


By David Salt

In Australia, we called the horrible summer of 2019/20 the Black Summer. Unprecedented heat waves and drought led to the biggest, most ferocious, most extensive wildfires this nation had ever known.

I wonder what the world will call 2022? Once again that word ‘unprecedented’ gets rolled out to describe a series of heatwaves, extreme storms, massive floods and record-breaking droughts. This year these events were happening all over the world (and especially across Europe, Asia and America during the northern hemisphere summer). Will it be the ‘Angry Summer’ or the ‘Season of our Great Discontent’ or maybe just the year of ‘Climate Breakdown’. (At what point do we know it’s broken?)

Or maybe the climate disruption will just continue and even grow worse, as many climate scientists are predicting, and 2022 will be wilfully forgotten as we struggle to deal with each new emerging weather crisis.

The idea of normal

When describing abnormal events, unprecedented episodes or historic happenings, you need to have some idea about what ‘normal’ actually means. In some cases this is relatively straightforward.

We have temperature records, for example, that go back for at least a century so it’s easy to define ‘normal’ with statistical precision. Our temperature has ranged between X and Y, and there is a different average max and minimum value for each month of the year. This August was particularly hot for many regions in the northern hemisphere, so when you hear on the news that temperatures broke records, or were above average, you can appreciate just what is meant.

The more variables you bring in (precipitation, wind speed, humidity, wild storms etc), the harder it is to characterise what is normal. Of course, these variables are what add up to weather, and long-term average weather is what we call climate.

If the weather gets ugly, we normally console ourselves that we just need to survive this rough patch and at some point the weather will ‘return to normal’ – the rains will replenish the dams after the drought or calm will follow the big storm.

‘Return to normal’ is a form of equilibrium thinking. Your world gets rocked by some disturbance, your equilibrium is thrown out, but you do everything you can to bounce back, to return to normal.

Of course, I’m talking about the notion of resilience – the capacity to cope with disturbance and bounce back (the word ‘resilience’ derives from the Latin ‘resilire’, meaning ‘to jump back’ or ‘to recoil’).

What’s normal for a complex system

‘Resilience thinking’ is all about how this idea of ‘recovery’ applies to complex adaptive systems. Complex systems have the capacity to self-organise. Resilience is the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still retain its identity, still continue to function in much the same kind of way.

In recent blogs I’ve attempted explain what complexity means, and how complex systems change over time, how they go through a pattern known as an adaptive cycle. The concept of adaptive cycles is one important building block of resilience thinking, the other is the idea of ‘thresholds’.

There are limits to how much a complex system can be changed and still recover. Beyond those limits the system functions differently because some critical feedback process has changed. These limits are known as thresholds.

When a complex system crosses a threshold it is said to have crossed into another ‘regime’ of the system (also called a ‘stability domain’ or ‘basin of attraction’). It now behaves in a different way – it has a different identity (or you might say it has lost its original identity).

In coral reefs there’s a threshold on the variable of the level of nutrients in the surrounding water. If nutrients become too high, the coral will be displaced by algae. The coral reef identity is lost, replaced by the identity of an algal reef.

On many rangelands there is a threshold on the amount of grass present. If the grass level falls below a certain level (because of too many grazing animals or a prolonged drought), shrubs begin to take over. The grassy rangeland identity is lost, replaced by a shrubland.

Sometimes it’s easy to cross back over to the identity you want, sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes it’s impossible.

Tipping points

In a recent blog I discussed how fossil fuel corporations are complex systems. The identity of this system is heavily influenced by quarterly profit statements; more so than any concern they might hold for longer term climate disruption. The levels of the profits in those quarterly statements likely has a threshold point, below which the fossil fuel corporation will likely change its business (eg, take on the identity of a renewables company, maybe) or shut down. Either way, crossing this threshold leads to a change of identity in this system. (Of course, what might put downward pressure on their profits is stronger government regulation or broader community rejection of the cost being imposed on society by the fossil fuel company.)

In my last blog I also said you could view the British Monarchy as being a complex system. Its identity hinges on public acceptance and support over time, something the late Queen Elizabeth II understood and worked with like a pro. Again, its likely a threshold point exists on this variable of public support, below which the Monarchy becomes vulnerable. QEII represented integrity, authenticity, stability and certainty. She had very high levels of social approval (social capital) that has ensured that the system of the Monarchy had resilience, even to the disturbance of her own death, and the Crown passed seamlessly to her son, now King Charles III. But imagine what might have happened if the Queen didn’t have that level of social capital. Or what happens if King Charles squanders that social capital? Smooth successions aren’t always the rule in the UK (or elsewhere), and many countries don’t need Queens (or Kings) to function.

Thresholds occur in many complex systems however they are often described as ‘tipping points’ where they occur in the social domain. In addition to the two examples I just discussed (profit levels and levels of public approval), tipping points might manifest as changes in fashion, voting patterns, riot behaviour, or markets.

Defining a safe operating space

So here is useful way of defining a system. Every system can be described in a variety of ways using a number of variables. The identity of the system can be characterised by an average range of those values. While kept in that range, the system will behave as you expect, be it a business, a monarchy, a coral reef or a rangeland. However, when the system passes a certain level on one of a number of key variables (eg, profit, popularity, nutrients, grass cover) – a threshold or tipping point – the system changes its identity and begins to behave differently (often in strange or undesirable ways).

Or, in other words, you can understand a system’s identity by knowing how much change it can take before that identity is lost, replaced by a different identity.

Not only are thresholds critical to understanding the behaviour of complex systems, they are the basic limits to whatever enterprise you’re responsible for or have an interest in. To use the phrase in a prominent analysis of global-scale thresholds (Rockstrom et al 2009), thresholds define the safe operating space of your system.

And how are we going in keeping our society in a safe operating space? Well, considering our experiences with the Black Summer of 2019 or the Angry Summer of 2022, not so well.

Climate and weather systems are complex systems too. Their current behaviour suggests they have been pushed over critical thresholds and their emerging identity is something quite new, quite destructive and terrible. Allowing the Earth system to cross these thresholds comes with an enormous cost to society, and will sorely test our own resilience as we cruise into an increasingly uncertain future.

Banner image: How much disturbance can your ‘system’ take before it loses its identity? It’s not just the intensity of a specific event (a single hurricane for example) that’s important, it’s also the frequency of such disturbances. The Great Barrier Reef can survive mass bleaching events if they only occur once every 20 years but it loses its ‘identity’ if they occur every few years (which is now what’s happening). (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

On identity, complexity and a ‘little’ fossil fuel project off the West Australian coast


By David Salt

Earlier this month I spotted a tweet that chilled my soul while neatly summing up the challenge of sustainability for our age.

Here it is:

In a nutshell it shows the CEO of a major fossil fuel company extolling the virtues of a massive new project, the Scarborough development, with a comment from one of the world’s top coral scientists describing it as ‘a crime against humanity’ (while asking the responsible politicians to respond appropriately).

One single development

We’ve discussed aspects of the Scarborough development (the biggest oil and gas development to be built in Australia in a decade, situated off the coast of Western Australia) a few times on Sustainability Bites (see Lies, damned lies and environmental economics). It’s worth repeating that an analysis by the company Climate Analytics found that the total emissions from the proposed Scarborough project will be just under 1.4 billion tonnes, three times Australia’s annual emissions! Think about that. Climate Analytics is under no illusion and points out this single project undermines the Paris Agreement (of which Australia is a signatory).

The Australian Conservation Foundation has calculated these emissions will result in 0.000394 degrees of additional global warming that will, among other things, accelerate the decline of the Great Barrier Reef (which may partly account for the coral scientist’s dismay at Woodside’s promotional tweet).

Is an extra 4 x 10,000ths of a degree significant? Keep in mind this is a single development which, by itself, has the capacity to create a measurable global temperature increase at a time when the world is already overheating. This summer has seen unprecedented droughts, storms, fires and floods across Asia, Europe and North America. At this time no-one has even attempted to calculate the economic impact of the carnage from this northern summer, let alone tally the lives lost. And this situation only promises to get worse as carbon emissions increase.

A boon for the economy

Despite the accelerating impacts from climate change being felt all around the world, Woodside’s CEO tells us (though more likely she’s really wanting her shareholders and politicians to hear this) that Scarborough will “deliver value for Woodside shareholders and significant long-term benefits locally and nationally, including thousands of jobs, taxation revenue and supply of gas to export and domestic markets for decades to come.”

I cynical paraphrase might read: “let this project proceed and shareholders will be richly rewarded by quarterly rises in share price; while the enabling government can claim ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, regional development and a secure supply of energy well into the future (and definitely beyond your next election).”

The planet? Well, it may endure a little more heating but focus on the profits.

And humanity? Bits of it will do very nicely, thank you very much, from the increased economic activity. And those that don’t? Well, most of them don’t vote in Australia and they definitely aren’t shareholders in Woodside, so there’s nothing to worry about here.

In any event, the planet and humanity are not the focus of the CEO’s missive to the masses; she’s more worried about quarterly returns to shareholders.

The standard model

The standard explanation for this situation goes something like this: some people put the economy before all else and believe the ‘climate alarmists’ are overstating the problem. These people might even acknowledge the climate is becoming increasingly problematic but are confident that as the crisis grows we’ll make more of an effort to fix it, and science and technology will save us. These people think that radical action to reduce carbon emissions will cause deep and unjustifiable pain to the economy and everyone’s standard of living.

The other side (which includes most scientists) believe humanity is changing the Earth System in deep and unpleasant ways that will hurt everyone. We need to do something now. Enabling new fossil fuel developments is mad; some describe them as ‘crimes again humanity’.

Both sides think the other side is crazy, and many have stopped listening to anything coming out of the other side.

You might have your own variant on this ‘standard model’ of the sustainability challenge but I believe most people subscribe to some version of it: two sides/tribes, two sets of values/priorities, situation gets worse, both sides blame the other and after a while everyone stops listening to anyone outside of their own tribe. It’s simple and neat – my side right, your side wrong.

A more complex model

Now here’s a more nuanced explanation that uses a bit of complexity (resilience) theory. Each of the players/actors/groups in this situation are complex systems, and each has its own identity emerging from the structure, function and feedbacks that make up that system. Understanding the feedbacks is important to understanding the behaviours of these systems.

The politicians are very responsive to voter’s needs and the level of support received from party supporters (including lobbyists and political donations).

The fossil fuel companies are very responsive to changes to the quarterly returns on investment and shareholder sentiment.

The scientists are very responsive to changes in biophysical indicators of the many components that make up the Earth System, the respect of their peers and the papers they can publish.

And the voters just want to be able to pay their bills, have a little certainty in what tomorrow brings, and maybe have the occasional holiday.

These are interacting complex systems and expecting them to behave in simple rational ways doesn’t necessarily help us resolve the differences that emerge between them over time.

Pointing out that the other side is wrong may work well with your own tribe but it usually does nothing to change the behaviour of the other side.

However, understanding what’s central to the identity of the other side and working on the feedbacks that shore up that identity is much more likely to produce change.

If voters don’t believe the future is safe, if shareholders no longer trust their shares will yield dividends in the longer term, if politicians are only allowed to make fully accountable and transparent decisions, then the very identity of their systems change, as does its behaviour. Of course, changing these feedbacks is never easy.

Another thing about complex systems

Another thing about complex systems that’s very relevant to this discussion. They are non-linear. That means you can’t always predict how they’ll change based on how they have changed in the past. Sometimes big disturbances can hit your system and yet it can absorb them and its identity remains intact (the system is ‘resilient’). Other times, it will only take a small disturbance and the system’s identity collapses (unexpectedly and often quickly, does anyone remember the Soviet Empire?).

The Earth System itself is a good example of this non-linearity. The group of scientists who first proposed the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’ (Rockstrom et al, 2009) pointed out that the Earth System itself is a complex system that has considerable capacity to absorb disturbances (changing atmospheric concentrations, declining biodiversity etc) and still retain its identity. For the past 10,000 years, that identity has been one of a relatively stable climate that has enabled the rise of civilisation.

But this capacity to continually absorb disturbance has limits, sometimes referred to as thresholds. They proposed a set of planetary boundaries (possible thresholds) beyond which the stability of the Earth System could well be lost. They proposed nine planetary boundaries, most of which we have now transgressed.

In some ways, the scientists suggest, the complexity of the Earth System has lulled us into a false sense of security. All the change we’ve imposed on it (most of it in the last half century), has been absorbed by the Earth System and it continues to function in a way conducive for humanity. But, having crossed these planetary boundaries, we have exhausted the planet’s capacity to absorb further disturbance. Many now believe further incremental disturbance may change things drastically. Indeed, we may even be seeing this with the savage summer of 2022.

Which all serves to underscore how complex the challenge of sustainability can be. We are all complex units operating in complex groups within a complex Earth System. ‘Simply’ pointing out why the opposite side is wrong may score points with our side but does little to fix the problem. For that to happen we need a deeper engagement with the complexity in which we find ourselves, more reflection on what gives us (our tribe and our planet) our identity, and a greater respect for the things that impact on that identity.

Banner image: Civilisation rose during an epoch of climate stability. Now that stability is possibly breaking down. So far, our response to this possibility has been simplistic and ineffective. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the problem is complex. (Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay)

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


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)

Silver bullets only work in fairy tales so don’t make them policy priorities for climate change

Simple solutions for complex problems don’t exist and it’s dangerous to think they do

By David Salt

The Morrison Government is placing enormous faith in silver bullets to solve Australia’s biggest challenges. And that should worry every Australian because silver bullets are based on faith, not evidence.

Consider, for starters, their underwhelming response to the corona pandemic.

Simple solutions for complex issues

First they told us (sold us) a covid app would be our passport to living free. If enough people signed up to it, they promised, it would be the key to unlocking our economy. Costing millions of dollars to develop and promote, the COVIDSafe app was indeed supported by most Australians but, unfortunately, it quickly sank without a trace as its promise of infection tracing proved hollow.

Then they reckoned AstraZeneca would be a silver-bullet vaccine enabling an exit from pandemic living, and they put all their (and our) eggs into the AZ basket. So sure of this were they that they supported the production of AstraZeneca in Australia ensuring there would be no supply line issues. And, because they were so confident in the AZ fix, they turned their back on the Pfizer vaccine when it was offered to Australia mid last year.

Unfortunately for the government (and all Australians), the AZ vaccine had a rare blood-clotting side effect (limiting who could get it) and it wasn’t as effective against COVID variants. The Pfizer vaccine, on the other hand, came up trumps but we hardly had any. The consequences of this are playing out as I write this.

There was never going to be a simple solution to the COVID pandemic – too many variables, too many things changing over time, too many fallible humans acting in irrational ways – and we really should never have expected one. But we SO hoped for one, and that’s what politicians excel at – selling hope.

They sold us fool-proof technology, gold-standard tracing and guaranteed vaccine solutions without risk, and we wanted to believe it was true. But, as American journalist Henry Mencken described it: “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” And how wrong have we been so far in this pandemic.

The biggest silver bullet

But the biggest silver bullet being deployed by the Morrison Government is their promise that climate change will be easily solved by “technology not taxes.”

This isn’t even a ‘real’ silver bullet but some ambiguous future aspiration held up to convince voters that they (we) don’t have to worry about climate change; we don’t have to change or sacrifice how we live (symbolised by the term ‘raising taxes’) because science and technology will come to our rescue. A simple sales pitch to solve a massive and complex problem. And though it’s not credible, it’s a sales pitch that had wide resonance at the last national election where the price of responding to climate change was front and centre but the cost of ignoring it was largely ignored.

Of course the phrase ‘this isn’t even a real silver bullet’ is problematic in itself. That’s because ‘silver bullets’ aren’t real. They are a weapon from folklore, a means of killing werewolves (or in some fairy tales, witches). Given their mythical value, the term has become a metaphor for a simple, seemingly magical and conclusive solution to a difficult and diabolical problem, like killing a powerful werewolf.

Given our politicians predilections for selling hope, silver bullets are their weapon of choice. Just keep in mind they aren’t real.

Beyond the fact that they’re mythical and don’t work, the problems associated with believing in silver-bullet solutions are legion. High up on the list are self-deception, lost opportunity cost and wasted time.

Dangerous on so many levels

If you buy into the belief that climate change can be fixed with a silver bullet – like say geoengineering a planetary heat shield to bring down temperature – than you’re deceiving yourself that you understand climate change. Instead of seeing our planet as a massively complex system you’re accepting the notion that the environment is a simple thing with knobs that humans can twiddle to optimise conditions. This is a dangerous self-deception held by some of the world’s most powerful people (who like to think they are in control). Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, is a proponent of geoengineering and once referred to climate change as “just an engineering problem”.

And if we prioritise our limited resources to develop these silver bullet solutions because we’re kidding ourselves about the nature of the problem, then we’re not investing in the many capacities we need to stay resilient in a changing world. Believing in a quick fix, a magical solution that solves the issue without wholesale change, means we don’t have to tackle the deep, multi-scaled dimensions of the problem. If you can convince the electorate, for example, that pumping sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere will keep the Earth cool, we stop investing in all the other things we should be doing in bringing down carbon emissions at all levels of society (which might explain why the fossil fuel sector is quite keen on geoengineering fixes).

Failing to acknowledge the real nature of the problem and investing in the wrong solution is obviously not a winning policy formulation, and this will eventually be apparent (in the long run Nature can’t be fooled). Unfortunately, by then the problem is usually worse, the damage often irreversible and addressing the issue a lot more expensive. If we opt for geoengineering solutions to climate change, following the same example, we may well be investing in silver bullets that use up what time we have to steer humanity away from the yawning abyss of climate breakdown. Indeed, it has been shown that the cooling effects of sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere by natural events (eg, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1993) are short lived. They last a year or two then the heating trend caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions returns to its original trajectory as if the cooling effect had never occurred.

Firing silver bullets at coral

Consider the consequences of relying on silver bullets to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s recently endured three mass bleaching events from rising water temperatures. The scientific consensus is that the Great Barrier Reef is cactus if humanity can’t radically reduce carbon emissions.

The Australian Government has devoted its energies to blocking UNESCO’s efforts to declare the reef ‘in danger’ while telling the world we’re the world’s best reef managers. It’s promoting and investing in technological solutions such as identifying heat tolerant coral species that can cope with increased temperatures, cloud brightening (a form of geoengineering) to reduce the temperature of the sun, and even massive water fans to promote mixing and bring down water temperatures.

While I am sure there is merit in all of these investigations, they don’t address the central issue of climate change and increasing temperatures, and they won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. They are silver bullets deployed by the government to convince the electorate that a magical solution exists for a diabolical problem. And the solutions they are promoting (as the world’s best reef managers) don’t involve voters having to change behaviour or a need for the economy to be restructured.

The cost in believing in these silver bullets (above and beyond that they won’t work) is a failure to acknowledge what the real problem is, a diversion of resources away from solutions that do address the challenge, and the loss of critical years during which the Reef slips further and further into irreversible decline.


The metaphor of silver bullets is now firmly part of the political lexicon. Next time you hear it being invoked, ask where the werewolves are and then remind the speaker that simple solutions to complex problems are simply myths.

Image by illusion-X from Pixabay

The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

The inconvenient truth of an ‘in danger’ listing isn’t going to save this precious Reef

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef looks like being moved onto the ‘in danger’ list of World Heritage estates and the Australian Government is not happy about the change one little bit. Why? Because they don’t think the listing process is fair and they still reckon the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. They also suspect China is out to get us.

The saga of the listing of the Great Barrier Reef has now been covered every which way by various media commentators. The science is crystal clear; the Reef is in serious and growing trouble. It’s hard to see how the Australian Government can escape the claim of gross negligence and mismanagement yet in this post-truth, hyper-partisan age it seems anything goes. The Government’s gripes with UNESCO of the in-danger list are not based on biophysical reality but on perceptions of procedural unfairness (and China has absolutely nothing to do with the UNESCO World Heritage committee’s decision).

Rather than focus at the minutiae of this ‘in danger’ listing, I’d like to reflect on the bigger lessons provided by how we’re dealing with the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, and what this means for all our precious ecosystems.

1. It’s not about how well the marine park itself is managed

Part of the Government’s defence this week has been that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world. Maybe that’s true in terms of resources committed to running the marine park. But it ignores that the biggest threat facing the reef comes from outside of this ‘well managed’ park.

The scientific consensus is clear, rising temperatures mean the Great Barrier Reef will not exist in the future. It doesn’t matter what band aids and grants are applied to the park itself. Unless we as a species reduce our carbon emissions (that lie behind climate warming) all coral reefs will be lost as they exist today.

Claiming that you are caring for a patch of nature while ignoring how that patch is connected and impacted by what happens beyond the patch is simply dishonest.

2. It’s also about water quality

The Government’s line on climate change is that this is a global problem. Australia by itself can’t solve global warming so therefore it’s not an issue that should be tied to the condition of the Reef itself.

Ignoring the fact that Australia is trailing the world on climate action (in many ways slowing an effective global response), what is it that Australia does take responsibility for? The answer is water quality on the reef.

Water quality refers to the levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediments ending up in Reef waters along the coast of Queensland. These ‘contaminants’ largely originate from land-based activities such as sugar cane, bananas and pastoralism. Declining water quality has been an issue for the Reef for much of the last three decades.

Poor water quality is a problem because it alters the balance of the Reef ecosystem – promotes outbreaks of coral eating Crown of Thorn Starfish (which eat coral), encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience.

Given the government’s impotence in the face of climate change, the strategy it has elected to follow is to focus on aspects it claims it can influence. In other words, clean up water quality by changing land management. We can’t force other countries to behave differently (in respect to climate change) but we do, in theory, have power over how we manage our own landscapes.

The belief is that if water quality can be improved, this will contribute to overall reef health which, in turn, means the reef should recover faster whatever disturbance hits (including climate-related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

The Government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on improving water quality. While water quality has slightly improved on some measures it’s unlikely any of the ambitious targets set will be met and overall marine condition remains poor.

So, even if we ignore climate change (exposing the moral void of our environmental stewardship), the strategy nominated by the government to protect the reef – improve water quality – is also failing to achieve much. And this is not an isolated statement, there have been many reports in recent years showing government action is not working in improving water quality.

Why is it so hard to fix water quality? Because it’s very expensive (though a lot less expensive than taking on climate change). The government’s own costing on what is required is $8.2 billion over 10 years, and so far it hasn’t even stumped up a tenth of this.

But it’s more than just money. Fixing water quality requires massive change to land management over a big area. A former NRM Chief said “We’re trying to get transformational change to an area twice the size of Germany with 10,000 farms on it. This is no small undertaking.”

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

The size of the Great Barrier Reef makes it hard to comprehend; it’s over 2000 km long. But the time frames we’re dealing with also problematic when it comes to the politics.

One of the arguments the Government used when faced with an impending ‘in danger’ listing last week was that UNESCO hadn’t done its due diligence. UNESCO’s conclusions were based on a ‘desk top review’. They need to come out to the reef and see it for themselves, said the Australian Government, see the great work being done to fix it being undertaken by Indigenous people, school kids, tour operators and other worthy stakeholders. They need to take into consideration the ‘gee whiz’ science being done on finding heat-tolerant corals and efforts to shade the reef, thereby creating possible pathways of restoration (actions most reef scientists simply cannot work at scale).

Of course, whenever someone cries ‘the Reef is dying’, you’ll also find a ratbag politician prepared to point (and sometimes rip out) a piece of coral and say: ‘looks healthy to me, what’s the problem?’

The problem is a lack of science; the problem the politicians capacity to cherry pick the evidence that suits their claim (by focussing on part of the Reef that’s looks good while ignoring the overall trend of decline). The problem is a failure to acknowledge a healthy reef now is irrelevant against the prospect of intermittent catastrophic bleaching events in the future.

It’s great that bits of the reef are recovering from the last bleaching event in 2020 (and the events in 2016 and 2017) but it takes many years for full recovery and with forecasts for bleachings every second year within the next decade, the GBR’s days are numbered.

So, while the Australian Government says ‘look at this bit of healthy reef’ or ‘the reef is recovering this year’, it entirely ignores the scales of time and space over which this massive ecosystem functions.

4. An inconvenient truth

Science often refers to climate change as an ‘inconvenient truth’. But when dealing with complexity it’s easy to worm your way around the issue. Politicians can easily slide around biophysical reality because the ecosystems we are dealing with are big, complicated and complex. The scales of time and space these systems are operating at are not aligned with the 3-5 year political cycles in which inflation rates and the cost of housing dominate debates.

It’s too easy for the (Australian) politicians to claim “we’re the best reef managers in the world” while all the evidence says otherwise.

Big ecosystems (think the GBR, the MDB and our east coast forests) are complex and difficult to understand. They are connected to other systems and influenced by what’s happening at other scales. And climate change is only part of the problem.

Our politicians will encourage you to only look at the bits that are in accord with their ideology (eg, the park is well managed, don’t look beyond the park), and to only think about the problem in the scale of their political cycle (eg, the good work being done by well-meaning volunteers gives them hope that their efforts make a difference, which makes them feel good; don’t think about the next bleaching event beyond the political horizon).

So the inconvenient truth for me is that our complex ecosystems are in trouble but our systems of governance don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

The challenge then is not to better define the biophysical truth and expect politicians to change but to reform our governance such that it responds appropriately to ecosystem decline and collapse. For this to happen we need demonstrate to voters why that biophysical truth is important to the values they help dear and why they must hold our politicians to account.

The evidence is that our current management of the Reef, the Murray Darling Basin and our forests is unsustainable. If we wait for this ‘truth’ to become real then our ‘victory’ will be empty as the loss of these ecosystems will be irreversible. That’s an inconvenient truth we all need to acknowledge.

Image: Coming up for air on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by David Salt)