Losing it – the consequences of stepping over the threshold

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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)

Thinking resilience – navigating a complex world

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By David Salt

Our world seems to be coming unstuck at the moment. Climate fuelled weather extremes – floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires – are crippling large parts of humanity. Many people are grappling for answers; What do we do? Why haven’t we already done something about this? It’s not like we haven’t been warned (repeatedly and with comprehensive detail by our climate scientists and others).

I believe many of your problems lie in our inability to deal with the complexity of the world around us (my last two blogs discussed this very thing – we can’t fix this because it’s complex and complicated vs complex). One way of better appreciating that complexity and navigating a way through lies in the area of resilience thinking.

The word ‘resilience’

The word ‘resilience’ is now common in many vision and mission statements. But ask the people who use these statements what they think it means and you get a range of different answers, most of which relate to how something or someone copes with a shock or a disturbance.

Concepts of resilience are used in all sorts of disciplines, but it has four main origins – psycho-social, ecological, disaster relief (and military), and engineering.

Psychologists have long recognised marked differences in the resilience of individuals confronted with traumatic and disastrous circumstances. Considerable research has gone into trying to understand how individuals and societies can gain and lose resilience.

Ecologists have tended to describe resilience in two ways; one focused on the speed of return following a disturbance, the other focused on whether or not the ‘system’ can recover. People engaging with resilience from the perspective of disaster relief or in a military arena incorporate both aspects (ie, speed and ability to recover). Indeed, there is a lot of commonality in the understanding of resilience in the three areas of psychology, ecology and disaster relief.

In engineering the take on resilience is somewhat different. Indeed, engineers more commonly use the term ‘robustness’ with a connotation of designed resilience. It differs from the other three uses in that it assumes that the kinds of disturbances and shocks are known and the system being built is designed to be robust in the face of these shocks.

Resilience thinking

The ‘resilience’ that is being invoked in vision and mission statements relating to Australia’s environment is largely based on the idea of ecological resilience, and it’s all about the ability to recover.

The science underpinning our understanding of ecological resilience is often referred to as resilience thinking. The definition of resilience here is: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize so as to retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks – to have the same identity. Put more simply, resilience is the ability to cope with shocks and keep functioning in much the same kind of way. 

A key word in this definition is ‘identity’. It emerged independently in ecological and psycho-social studies, and it is both important and useful because it imparts the idea that a person, a society, an ecosystem or a social-ecological system can all exhibit quite a lot of variation, be subjected to disturbance and cope, without changing their ‘identity’ – without becoming something else.

The essence of resilience thinking is that the systems we are dealing with are complex adaptive systems. These systems have the capacity to self-organise around change but there are limits to a system’s self-organising capacity. Push a system too much and it changes its identity; it is said to have crossed a threshold.

The systems around us that we depend on (and are embedded in) are linked systems with social, economic and bio-physical domains, operating over multiple scales. To understand what enables these complex systems to retain their identity, what keeps them resilient, we need to appreciate the linkages between these domains and scales. We also need to understand how the system is behaving within each domain and scale, because over time these components go through their own cycles (known as adaptive cycles) in which the capacity for change (and the ability to hang on to their identity) shifts.

Many ideas, many insights

Resilience thinking involves all these ideas. It is the capacity to envisage your system as a self-organising system with thresholds, linked domains and cycles.

Each of these ideas take a bit of explaining, something I’ll attempt in upcoming blogs (for a good guide, see Resilience Practice*). However, when you begin engaging with ideas relating to a system’s resilience, you begin to appreciate the world in a different way.

Some of those insights have been for me that no-one is in control, and you can’t understand a system by understanding the components that make it up – complex systems have emergent properties (for example, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts).

We also need to appreciate that the narrower concept of ‘efficiency’ – ie, holding a part of our system in a state that delivers optimal returns (eg, food or fibre) without considering interactions with other domains or scales – leads to a loss of resilience, making it less likely that these systems will continue to deliver into the future. Efficiency is important but, by itself, it is not the solution to the challenge of sustainability.

We live in a complex world facing enormous challenges. Too much of our efforts so far have been directed to command-and-control approaches, techno solutions and improving efficiency. If the problems we were dealing with were simple and tractable, such approaches would work well. Unfortunately, our current approaches to sustainability are not working at all, and the problem is growing significantly.

Could it be we’re trying to solve the wrong problem? We’re managing a complex world as if it were a simple system.

*Walker B & D Salt (2012). Resilience Practice: Building Capacity to Absorb Disturbance and Maintain Function. Island Press. Washington.

Banner image: Forests begin their recovery after Australia’s Black Summer of 2019/2020. (Image by David Salt)