When Carl Folke starts his talks, he starts big: hundreds of billions of galaxies exist in the universe. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains more than 400 billion stars. Our star, the sun, surrounded by its eight planets (or nine if you prefer), has only one that hosts complex life forms. And all that life on planet Earth exists within a band of air, water and land that wraps around our planet, a mere 25 kilometres thick.
That’s special, as Folke says. As an ecologist and economist, and co-founder of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, he works to get that message across in his research, as well as to a broader audience, in particular to people interested in development.
The specialness of the living conditions that have allowed us to thrive, as Folke and his colleagues say, is exactly why we need to think about resilience for development. We humans live in this thin layer of life that surrounds the planet – the biosphere – and we are a part of it. Not only that, we rely on it for our own survival.
Not long ago, “humans lived in a small world on a vast planet,” Folke notes. “But now the human dimension has expanded into a globalised interconnected world on a small planet and to such an extent that we have become a major force in the operation of planet Earth and its biosphere.”
Because of these shifts, “it’s in our self-interest to collaborate with the biosphere,” he says, which means finding ways to live in it and with each other without destroying the conditions that have allowed us to thrive in the first place. “We have to make development work for the planet and for 9 billion people on the planet.”
That requires building resilience.
Folke’s own path to resilience thinking was unique: after earning a degree in business and economics in his early twenties, he decided not to step into the building materials company his grandfather established and his father ran. Instead, he wanted to know: why am I standing on two feet on the ground? Literally.
Folke wanted answers to why humans are built as we are, how the world works at a fundamental level, not just biologically but physically and perhaps even metaphysically. He entered a period of intellectual exploration that, when he mentions it offhandedly around a conference table on an autumn afternoon, sounds almost like a spiritual vision quest. In reality, Folke says he spent a lot of time reflecting – and teaching himself ecology.
In 1981, at the age of 26, he began studying the two-year coursework Sweden required for biology teachers and teaching himself the principles he needed to know in order to become a “big-systems thinker”. That led to some of breakthrough connections on ecosystems services, and a chance to work with AnnMari Jansson, an ecologist at Stockholm University, who pioneered ecological economics, a new field at the time that connected economic development with the natural capital upon which any development ultimately depends.1-2 1. Limburg, KE, 2007. "AnnMari Jansson, 1934-2007." ISEE Newsletter Download PDF 2. Jansson, AM, ed, 1984. Integration of economy and ecology: an outlook for the eighties. Stockholm University, Sweden.
As part of his PhD research, Folke tallied up what today would be called ecosystem services provided by the Martebo mire, on the island of Gotland. Once mostly peat bog that filtered water and trapped nutrients, by the 1980s, it had all but disappeared, drained to be turned into farmland.
Eventually, island residents had to build a pipe to a nearby lake and filter that water with a treatment plant; water treatment services had once been supplied by the plants in the mire, which picked up nitrates and other pollutants in runoff. Once the dried-out peat soils had given up all their nutrients to farmers’ crops, the farmers needed to start adding synthetic fertilizers. Those chemical additions polluted the diminished streams that flowed from the mire, and threatened recreation such as sport fishing and birdwatching, as well as farmed salmon just offshore.
With the wetland gone, the islanders lost a natural water filter, a place for fish nurseries and migrating birds, and even building materials for traditional sod roofs. It had to be replaced with technological substitutes, from sewage treatment plants, to pesticides and fertilizers, to a water treatment pipe and more. In a review published in 1991, Folke made clear not only the loss of ecosystem services, but also the switch from free energy – solar power captured by the plants and peat – to fossil-fuel-based technologies.3 3. Folke, C, 1991. "The societal value of wetland life-support," pp. 141-172, in Linking the Natural Environment and the Economy: Essays from the Eco-Eco Group, Folke, C, Kåberger, T (Eds.). Kluwer/Springer. ISBN 978-94-017-6406-3 (Download PDF)
These costs and trade-offs in a Gotland mire are not specific to an island of a wealthy northern nation. Similar stories have played out across the globe, documented by researchers, development organisations and local people. But such an assessment was relatively new at the time and one of the first to quantify the role and value of a diverse set of tacit ecosystem services for human well-being.
The now-established practice of accounting for ineffable ecosystem services shows the value of marshlands, forests and other ecosystems in development. Folke’s research stood on the pioneering “ecological-economic” work of the Odum brothers, Kenneth Boulding, Herman Daly and Paul Ehrlich. Once revolutionary, this ecological-economic reframing led thinkers in the field to link those ideas – environment, labour, capital costs, services and so on – to biological and physical feedbacks and foundations.
In the mid-1970s, C.S. (Buzz) Holling paved the way for researchers to think about what it would take for ecosystems to tip over, to fail, to get stuck in bad configurations or pushed over the edge.4 4. Holling, CS "Buzz," 2008. "Index of Buzz Holling's reflections." Resilience Science, Resilience Alliance. Go to blog They could see that as the world became more interconnected, human actions could trigger such tipping points. Overfishing changed coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems, deforestation changed the Amazon, and carbon emissions began to influence the whole planet by changing its climate and ocean – and all of these shifts were driven by humans.
No longer could ecologists think only of the biological and physical parts of an ecosystem. No longer could social scientists just think of the human side of development. The next steps would change the framing even more: welcome to the world of complex systems thinking, intertwined social-ecological systems, and resilience as a research field.
In psychology, resilience is the capacity of a human to withstand the onslaught of abuse or massive stress, to bounce back and be resilient. In disaster management, it’s the capacity of a system to recover after a catastrophic event. In resilience thinking, resilience is more than just bouncing back or recovering.5 5. Folke, C. (2016-09-29). Resilience. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Retrieved 16 Dec. 2016, from http://environmentalscience.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199389414.001.0001/acrefore-9780199389414-e-8.
Resilience is about cultivating the capacity to sustain development in the face of both expected and surprising change. It is also about facing diverse pathways of development and being able to navigate the potential thresholds between those pathways – in other words, seeing all the directions a system might go, and how best to switch between those trajectories.
Resilience of a community, city, rainforest or any social-ecological system at all means that it has the capacity to be flexible and deal with changes without changing its basic identity, so to speak. A resilient system can cope with pressure from outside and continue developing within a certain configuration, good or bad.
One example of a resilient ecological system that benefits humans is a healthy coral reef. But a coral reef overgrown with algae is also a resilient system: overfishing may have wiped out the fish that would have kept algal growth in check and that, together with climate change and other human pressures, shifted a once-healthy reef into a new state that is hard to change back. While humans might miss the healthy coral reef, it’s still a reef – but very different.
Or consider Madonna: while the ever-changing artist has transitioned to song stylings closer to this century’s Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, she still performs her eighties pop classics. She’s resilient: still Madonna, though perhaps a different Madonna than the one you (or your parents) grew up with – and different even than her 1990s and 2000s incarnations.
Resilience isn’t good or bad – it is the capacity to handle change while developing within the same general system, on the same pathway of development. Resilience thinking is about how to navigate the journey of development in relation to many paths, and thresholds and tipping points between them. Sometimes these pathways may be deep and difficult to change, such as poverty traps. In other cases, a small change may lead to the emergence of something new.
In resilience thinking, adaptation refers to human actions that sustain development on current pathways, while transformation is about shifting development into other emergent pathways and even creating new ones. Resilience is having the capacity to persist in the face of change, to continue to develop with ever-changing environments.
Ecosystems that display flexibility and the ability to adapt – and stay in what we think of as a good place – seem to be the ones that have high biodiversity, for example. But humans are challenging ecosystems’ resilience at many levels and thereby threatening the ecosystem services critical for human well-being.
Climate change is one of the biggest impacts that humans have had on the biosphere, that ribbon of life that includes plants, air, soil, water and us. Our somewhat smaller-scale impacts are evident in the decline of pollinators such as wild bees related to single-species crops that cover the North American Midwest; algal blooms and fish kills in China’s rivers from chemicals flushed from industrial sites upstream; or the loss of rainforest habitat, increased fires, and health impacts in relation to palm-oil plantations in eastern Asia that feed our manufactured-food habits.
Those impacts are firmly grounded in human behaviours and a globally interconnected world. Eventually, researchers thinking about all of these interconnections in ecological economics banded together and founded the Resilience Alliance in 1999. Researchers such as Holling, Brian Walker and others around the world have taken interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to examine adaptive capacity (or the ability of a system to adapt) among other issues, as well as rethinking development in the context of human well-being as part of the biosphere. Reconnecting humans and the planet now requires biological, physical, social and political thinking together.
Current resilience thinking for global development
The world is a complex system: our human systems are complex and exist within the complex natural systems that have supported us for millennia. Today’s discussions in both the resilience research world and the global development community have turned to complex systems thinking.
Within that framing, Folke and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have voiced principles and ideas that could be used to build resilience in the kinds of systems that humans need to survive. Many of these principles apply to human as well as environmental systems, simply because the human and the environmental are intertwined in what Folke refers to as social-ecological systems – and not only intertwined in a local context, but across levels and scales in the globally interconnected world.
Diversity and redundancy, whether that means biodiversity in terms of species of plants and songbirds in a forest, or people and their tasks and institutions in a country, can lead to resilience. Connectivity, or having strong networks for example in human systems that connect individuals and organisations, helps us to build trust and resilience. And recognising the slow-moving parts of a system, and the feedbacks that keep them going, can help people develop solutions for resilience in a system – or ways to break out of a very resilient way of functioning.
This is not easy work. Humans must see social-ecological systems, what researchers call “SES” for short, as complex and adaptive: we change, but so do the systems in which we live. We have to learn and experiment to see what works, and we have to make sure to hear the voices of everyone in a system – from individuals to households, neighbourhoods, local or national governments, and global actors.
Folke says such principles could help us foster general resilience, “the capacity to deal with unknown versus specific shocks or surprises.” Resilience thinking means having “strategies and policies in place to deal with the unknown. People have to live with the unknown all the time. Without capacity, they can’t deal with it,” he says.
We humans tend to dislike uncertainty, but we evolved to live with it – where we would find our next meals, what the weather would be like the next day, or if a predator might be lurking in the bushes. The complex systems of our biosphere were uncertain, but we developed and thrived in them. We have to remember that our futures are intertwined.
Protecting the environment does not take the place of protecting human rights, solving gender inequities or reducing poverty. It also rests on good governance systems, infrastructure and more. The resilience thinking lens shows these issues are all interconnected, nested like a giant wedding cake, or the layers of an onion. Everything we want for a good life rests on a healthy environment. And the turbulent times that we are confronting – climate change, demographic change, development challenges – where people and nature are intertwined, will require resilience for transformation towards sustainability.
These interconnections link all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which countries have agreed to achieve by 2030.6 6. Schultz, M., Tyrrell, T.D. & Ebenhard, T. 2016. The 2030 Agenda and Ecosystems - A discussion paper on the links between the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals. SwedBio at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden. Download page for PDF Today, it’s easier to see connections between environmental degradation and human rights, for example, when it comes to oil spills or building dams.7 7. Stockholm Resilience Centre. 2016. Why protecting and using biodiversity is a human rights issue. Research news, 6 October 2016