Nature red in tooth and claw? That’s so twentieth century.

Wisdom is so boring to the over-educated.  So easy to poke fun at anyone voicing the tried and true platitudes.  Cynicism and sarcasm are so much more entertaining, novel and diverting.  Spend too much time in school and you think the world is composed of a teacher and group of people who want a good grade from that teacher.  Your job is to master what the teacher thinks is true while knowing it isn’t.  You can really prove your worth by undermining the teacher’s truths with cynicism and sarcasm.   If you are really good, you do it slyly so you still get the good grades, but become really popular with your fellow students.

Sometimes the over-educated wander out of the school.  They don’t go into manufacturing or science or farming or ecosystem management and try to produce something the world really needs because their main skills are in cynicism and sarcasm.  They do know how to toady up to teachers, so they can go into a large government or business bureaucracy, kow-tow to a boss and move up the pyramid.  The trouble is that a devotion to sarcasm and cynicism makes it impossible to distinguish between a pyramid with a solid foundation and a pyramid scheme.

The over-educated learn how to poke holes in any argument.  If you concentrate on poking holes in all the tried and true wisdom, you eventually don’t have anything left to believe in, including the value of your life, so you might as well commit suicide.  Most don’t go quite that far.  They still value themselves.  And they build their entire world around the value of their selves.  Whatever this self wants is what they go after.  Most often this self is mainly interested in pleasure, so they go for sugar, caffeine, sex and other drugs.  Rarely, the over-educated find themselves able to access strongest pleasure–power over others.  Then whatever they do is politics.  It’s all about the ability to control others and get them to do what you want them to do.

Once upon a time we had leaders who weren’t quite so over-educated.  Their formal knowledge of education was balanced by a tacit knowledge gained through interacting with natural phenomena outside the controlled conditions of academia and laboratory.  We had a President who was shot down in the Pacific and spent hours swimming until he was finally rescued.

This President knew he had to attack Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait.  He also knew the limits of power and didn’t try to destroy Saddam by invading Iraq.  His son wasn’t shot down in the Pacific but avoided such experience by using his father’s connections.  So he never gained the tacit knowledge of his father and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and then really thought he could turn those tribal lands into modern democracies.  He failed and now is living out his life painting pretty pictures.    Art is one way out for the over-educated.  Art celebrates the individual and pleasure.  It doesn’t clean up the messes the artist created is his past life.

Cleaning up those messes is left to his successors.  If they are also over-educated, they will focus on pleasure and satisfying the other over-educated people in their class.  Those people know only the world of school.  They are master educators who can convince the gullible while maintaining their cynicism and sarcasm about all the wisdom of the ages.  They trust in pleasure and maximizing pleasure for the masses to maintain control over them.

We know what happens to societies which follow this route.  They fail to understand natural cycles, natural inclinations because they haven’t experienced such things.  They are only educated in the classroom knowledge of how to cynically satisfy the cynically satisfied.

They encounter a Putin versed in a little more practical sort of knowledge and they are nonplused.  Fails the cynical classroom knowledge which was so successful with the overeducated and pleasure-seeking.

But it only fails until the people can be diverted.  They will forget.  There must be some way of changing the conversation to minimum wage or overtime pay or women’s reproductive rights or gay marriage.  Why Putin doesn’t believe in gay marriage and he invades other countries!  That’s so twentieth century.

He’s obviously on the wrong side of history, they say.  And they go back to work reassembling an electoral majority of the overeducated and pleasure-seeking.  That vast majority of modern Americans has no practical knowledge of natural phenomena.  We can keep getting elected if we just focus on the wants of the overeducated and pleasure-seeking.  That’s the way to stay in power.  It worked for generations of Romans, just as it worked for generations of urbanites in hundreds of civilizations throughout Asia and the Middle East.  Civilizations which disappeared under the sands created by their lack of knowledge of what makes a resilient ecosystem.

Stability and balance decrease ecosystem resilience

Stability is something nearly all managers seek.  We want systems which perk along reliably, doing what we want them to do.

Balance is something most of us strive for in our lives, our work, our relationships.

Unstable, unbalanced people are usually to be avoided.

We are attracted to concepts like balance of nature and climax communities because they tell us that balance and stability are good and natural in the world and its ecosystems.  These concepts continue to be popular though abandoned by ecologists in favor of chaos theory and, more recently, complex adaptive systems theory.

Before the concepts of balance of nature and climax communities were discredited in ecology, some eminent ecologists such as Howard Odum viewed the mature climax community, e.g. an oak-hickory forest in the American Midwest, as a steady-state system which is far more sustainable than a growth-oriented ecosystem[1].  Many modern agroecologists seem to also see the most sustainable system as a well-developed, stable, mature system which recovers from disturbance and adapts to change.[2]

This view of sustainability and resilience does not encompass the fact that all ecosystems have adaptive cycles characterized by phases of rapid growth, mature stability, release and disorganization, and reassembly and reorganization leading back to rapid growth, stability, release and reassembly ad infinitum.

In fact, stability undermines ecological resilience.  This was learned early in forest management.   A stable, mature forest in which fires are suppressed will eventually become a raging inferno which scours the landscape.  The result is often massive erosion and destruction of seeds and roots.  Enforced stability of the forest results in reduced capacity of the system to regenerate.  An unstable, more chaotic ecosystem, with small fires and other disturbances occurring every year, maintains a variety of systems from meadow to savanna to forest.  Disturbance is required to maintain the diversity needed for resilience.

Every system has a temporal dimension which requires both phases of rapid growth and phases of disassembly.  The mature forest seen as a natural climax community by early ecologists and held up today as a model for sustainable systems by some agroecologists was known by both aboriginal Americans and Australians to be a much less productive phase than the grasslands and savannas which precede it.  Consequently they each regularly burned their landscapes creating more open areas for pasture and deeper soils through the incorporation of manure from the increased populations of ruminants. Disruption and disassembly is required to induce a new growth phase.  These ecosystems, temporally composed of a series of growth and disassembly-release phases, may actually be more productive, increase soil quality and water conservation capacity, and store more carbon than systems permitted to progress to steady-state maturation.  Aborigines found that the technology of fire enabled them to maintain their ecosystem predominately in a growth phase.

Today’s ecosystem managers are similarly using technology to continue rapid growth phases instead of settling for mature, steady-state phases.  However, these technologies often destroy resources (soil and water) instead of enhancing them as the system converts the increased productivity into extracted profit.

The conventional wisdom in many sustainability circles that stability and balance are good and growth is problematic should be leavened with the reality of ecosystems.  In fact, trying to maintain stability and a particular type of agroecosystem may actually erode resilience.  By keeping one particular system stable, the resilience of the larger system may crash.  U.S. agricultural commodity policy–promoting stability while decreasing diversity, redundancy and flexibility—is widely believed to undermine ecological resilience of our agricultural system.[3]

Ecological resilience, however, is not resilience in the sense used in most sustainable agriculture circles.  Resilience in sustainability circles is often the materials science sense is the ability to bounce back from disturbance and maintain key functions and components.  In that sense our commodity production system is very resilient.  By maintaining commodity support payments through effective lobbying efforts, the system continues to bounce back and retain all its key functions and components.

As resilience becomes more widely bandied about, we can be sure the materials science definition of resilience will be most attractive for those trying to uphold the status quo—just as ag administrators in the early 1990s declared that “everything our college does is sustainable agriculture.”

Some sustainable agriculture advocates are also intent on preserving particular practices and systems.  As such advocates become more familiar with adaptive cycles and ecosystem resilience, they may embrace the creative destruction at the heart of all resilient ecosystems.  If we cast off the normative proscriptions often attached to sustainability, we’ll be able to see our agroecosystems more clearly.



[2] Gliessman, S., 2004. Agroecology and Agroecosystems.  In Agroecosystems Analysis, http://www.canunite.org/sites/default/files/agroecology%20and%20agroecosystems2004.pdf

[3] Berardi, et al., 2011. Stability, sustainability, and catastrophe. Human Ecology Review, 18: 115-125.

Cleaning house, tossing books, for Christmas

Cleaning house: scouring science, business and theology with ecological resilience.

One largely unrecognized Christmas tradition we all celebrate is called cleaning house.  At our house, we have a more radical version related to the Масленица of Ukraine.  A first step is getting the stacks of journals/magazines, papers and books off the floor.  A couple of stacks had been there so long, a mask I’d brought from Kenya a year and a half ago had gathered dust on top of them.  About half-way down this stack, were a bunch of theology books.  They went into a box for the storage unit.  So did a bunch of manuals on business development.  All the science journals also found new homes in boxes in the shed.

Getting science, business and theology out of your hair is quite a relief.  They are annoying, pesty little concepts.  My many years in the liberal arts taught me that.  But the liberal arts had also gotten me away from Nature.  One year I was so busy studying that I missed Fall entirely.  One day it was summer, the next time I noticed, the leaves had all fallen and it was cold.  My entire liberal arts experience was similar.  One day I’m so excited about learning sociology and social psychology and economics and history.  Then I wake up a few years later realizing I’d taken all the courses, gotten almost all A’s, published papers, taught hundreds of students, and found out the social sciences are a huge growth only just barely attached to Nature.  Much like a big wart attached by a slender piece of skin to an otherwise flawless body.  You can learn some useful things by studying warts.  But in the end, you’ll only know about warts.

So, I decided to explore the regions of knowledge furthest from the liberal arts: agronomy, genetics and Christianity.  I switched over to the sciences and along the way became an active member of various churches.   I did scientific research, published papers, helped build churches. I was asked to speak at scientific conferences, preach at churches.

Becoming simultaneously immersed in science and religion might seem contradictory until you realize I was soaking up the Dutch, German and Scottish traditions which led to both the protestant reformation, the industrial revolution and, eventually, science.  These same traditions also led to what we call business[1].  And I’ve followed that tradition and helped farmers start businesses in about 30 countries.

Yet I’m boxing up all those business manuals, science journals and theology texts and putting them in storage.  Why?  It’s all the fault of ecological resilience.

Let me explain.  For almost twenty years, I’ve been away from academia doing the practical work of helping farmers get new businesses started and starting new ag entrepreneurship programs.  In the last few years, consumers have gotten more and more interested in buying food produced locally and naturally.  Farmers are trying to provide this local food and I’ve been working with several to set up businesses to do that.  Together they are creating a local food system to provide healthier food from local farms for central Arkansas consumers.  To assist this work, I began to explore how some local food systems manage to thrive and survive while others fail or never take root.

I found out that such things (sustainable systems in agriculture) are studied in ecology as resilient ecosystems.  Though similar in many goals, researchers in sustainable agriculture and ecosystem resilience have diverged.  Resilience research has focused on understanding the adaptive cycles of ecosystems and the qualities of ecosystems which make them resilient in the face of disturbances.  Sustainable agriculture research focuses on creating systems which are profitable, environmentally sound and social just.  In its focus on such legal and moral goals[2], sustainable agriculture research sometimes forgets that a system can achieve all these goals but not endure.  If it doesn’t endure, a system cannot be sustainable.  Ecological resilience research maintains the goal of understanding how systems endure.

Sustainable agricultural systems must last.  That’s the bottom line.  A food system which doesn’t last is not sustainable.  Our problem is that we don’t just want the system to last, we want it to last and produce all the benefits (profit, environmental services, social justice, etc.) we desire.   To get those benefits, we need to first understand how systems last, how systems rebound from disturbance, why some systems dissolve and other systems endure.  That’s what some resilience-oriented ecologists, especially in Europe and Australia, have not only studied for years but are beginning to apply to a variety of systems far removed from pristine natural systems.

The study of ecological resilience encompasses all social and biological disciplines.  Any practice, belief, theory can be subjected to the ecological resilience test: does it help the whole system respond to disturbance?

This test makes us take a new look at a couple of the goals of modern agricultural research: efficiency and environmental protection.  Both are so revered, they are sacrosanct in modern agriculture[3].    Ecological resilience research, in contrast, shows that the most efficient systems are sometimes the least resilient to disturbance.  The just-in-time supply chains so beloved by efficient businesses can lead to collapse of the whole system when the chain is disrupted.  Components of a system which seem useless and inefficient can save the system from disaster.   The most efficient system is geared to a particular set of external conditions.  When those conditions change, the highly efficient system may not even survive.  Flexibility and diversity are more characteristic of resilient systems than efficiency.

Alongside efficiency, environmental protection is one of the top avowed goals of agricultural systems.  Many advocate highly intensive agriculture so we can set aside land to protect[4].  The ecological resilience perspective recognizes that man is a part of all ecosystems and has always modified them.  The only question is how we modify them.  Increasing soil organic matter through burning in temperate[5] and tropical[6] regions and selection of plants and animals are some of the many ways preindustrial peoples created more resilient ecosystems.

While we’re banishing the old idols of efficiency and environmental protection, we might as well go all the way.  Did you ever notice how research areas which can’t really predict much of anything and seldom come up with testable hypotheses are the quickest to add “science” to their name?  Physics, biology, chemistry don’t need such labels.  We know they are sciences.  So when someone comes up with the term “sustainability science”, you can be pretty sure they are claiming something they aren’t.

Those who research sustainability are nearly always trying to design systems which achieve specific objectives.  No matter how laudable these objectives, this is the work of an engineer, not a scientist.  Good engineers are confident in their abilities and everyday see the failings of abstract science.

The formal knowledge we call science just puts into symbolic language the tacit knowledge of an effective manager.

Great!  Nice to have a clean house, scoured of science, business and theology by ecological resilience.



[1] Business first came to refer to “trade and commercial engagement” in the mid-1700s. The areas where the Protestant Reformation was strongest later saw the foremost achievements in science and industry as first noted by Max Weber and in more detail by Young, 2009. http://www.stanford.edu/~cy10/public/Religion_and_Economic%20Growth_Western_Europe.pdf

[3] For a typical example of the focus of agricultural scientists on efficiency and environmental protection, see: Sayer, J. and Cassman, K.G. 2013. Agricultural innovation to protect the environment. PNAS, 110:8345-8348. http://www.pnas.org/content/110/21/8345.full.pdf+html

[4]E.g., Sayer and Cassman, ibid.

[5] Kaplan et al., 2009. Quarternary Science Reviews 28:3016-3034. http://www.wsl.ch/staff/niklaus.zimmermann/papers/QuatSciRev_Kaplan_2009.pdf

[6] Lehmann et al. (Eds.), 2003.  Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties and Management.  Amsterdam: Kluwer.

Shiva, rebirth, oak forests

We like Christmas more than Easter, babies more than dying people.  We like helping new things grow and develop.  Then, after they are grown, comes the hard part.

Anyone who has ever worked hard to build up a farm, a business, a career, a garden, or a family finds it hard to face one fact: all systems disintegrate.  To not recognize this fact is to ignore the adaptive cycles characteristics of all living systems. All systems go through stages of growth, maturity, disassembly and reassembly.  All too often, in our efforts to maintain the system, we sow the seeds of a more destructive disassembly.

The mature forest, watched over carefully to preserve it from fire, will eventually build up so much flammable material that a much hotter, more destructive fire results.  The landscape is stripped of protective cover, suffers erosion and can never again become a lush forest.

Semi-arid lands, if totally protected from animal grazing by well-meaning conservationists, will develop a crust on their soils leading to less penetration of moisture and exacerbation of desertification.

A company focused on buying or eliminating competitors to dominate a national market  doesn’t pay attention to changing market drivers, only to have a more innovative company come in from outside and destroy it.

A people are intent on maximizing pleasure because “you only have one life.”  Their society becomes increasingly dependent on immigrant workers, beset by crime, and dissolves.

The mature oak trees would probably maintain their forest as it is, if they could.  Their system, luckily for oak trees, allows disturbances to maintain the adaptive cycle of growth (r), maturation (K), disassembly (Ω) and reassembly (α).  Unluckily for our species, we are so adept at prolonging the K phase that we often destroy the capacity for reassembly.  The cradle of civilization in Turkey, Syria and Iraq attests to this fact with hundreds of dead cities in a man-made desert[1].  And more are in the making.

What will break us out of our seemingly uncontrollable need to stay in the K phase?  Especially this time of year, one would hope Christians would remember that “you must be born again” and embrace Ω and α.  We might then recognize when we are stultifying in a K phase and induce Ω so we can reassemble and jump to an enhanced r phase.

Or, like the transcendentalists[2], maybe Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu as destroyer, creator and preserver might be more to your liking. Though the Indians have had the Bhagavad Gita for 2500 years and they are still stuck trying to preserve a K phase and endure overpopulation as a result.

Or, we might pay attention to the Tao Te Ching and encompass both the creative (yang) and the destructive (yin) while not becoming too entranced with either.  Though the cradle of the Tao, China, is the most powerful modern example of perpetuation of the K phase until the foundations for resilience and transformation are destroyed.

Or, maybe we could be convinced by the Austrian school and the creative destruction of Schumpeter[3].  Though the big business types entranced by the Austrian school love to form the monopolies and oligopolies which undermine the diversity needed fore resilience.

More radically, we could just set aside all these theories and return to what stimulated them in the first place.  We might even see how natural systems manage to be resilient and transform themselves if the disturbance is strong enough.

We might learn of how complementary diversity, conservative flexibility, modular connectivity, and controlled redundancy are the four qualities which lead to increased potential for ecosystem resilience and transformation.[4]

If we continue in our communion with nature, we might even understand a little better how to scuttle the K phase before it gets too comfortable and move into an α phase which expands our potential even more.

We might see the reason for the season encompasses both Christmas and Easter, α and Ω.

More likely we will keep trying to maintain our somewhat satisfying pleasures in our K phase and never induce the Ω required to get to α.  Most likely we will fail to realize that devotion to the pleasures of the K phase just insures a more cataclysmic destruction.  In the midst of that destruction, we’ll cry out in anguish, wondering where we went wrong.

The adaptive cycles are indifferent to our anguish, to fairness, to our limited sense of right and wrong.  They just are.  Or, if asked what you should call them, they would say “I am.”

So you can learn more about r, K, Ω, α and the qualities which lead to resilience and transformation.  Or you can just let them buffet you around as they wish.  Ω will come.  The only question is whether you use it or it abuses you.



[1] Lowdermilk, 1953.Conquest of the Land  http://www.wasco.oacd.org/linked/conquest.pdf

[2] Thoreau, 1839. A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.Pp. 111, 116.

[3] Schumpeter, 1943. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. http://digamo.free.fr/capisoc.pdf

Southern Africa, Mandela, ethnic bonds and resilience

Southern African farms are much like its peoples: as diverse as can be.  Many are as technologically advanced as any European or American farm.  My first visit was to a wheat and tobacco farm similar to my farm in Kentucky, though a thousand acres bigger.  This visit was just after control of Zimbabwe was taken from the Europeans and returned to the Bantus who had taken it from the Bushmen.[1]  The Europeans, mainly Dutch Boers who arrived about the same time they settled in North America, had established rich farms throughout Zimbabwe and South Africa.  Thirty years ago, when I first visited, the government was just beginning to take control of these farms.  I visited several of these “cooperative” farms which were run by groups inexperienced in commercial farming.  All were barely functioning.  Many had even leased their land to the Boer farmers nearby.

The farm I had been sent to help was celebrating the arrival of dozens of school-leavers.  They were supported by an NGO which hired managers with no experience in farming, much less commercial agriculture.  My main advice was to hire experienced managers.  The trouble was that such managers only existed among the Boers and those were the folks being run out.  Zimbabwe has continued the mistake of running out the proficient Boer managers for almost 30 years now.  The result has been impoverishment of one of the most prosperous countries of Africa.

When I was on the Zimbabwe border in Mozambique last year, most of the people had fled the poverty of Zimbabwe to come to a country only a little further from the bottom of the world’s economies. Thirty years ago, when I first visited, no one would have thought Mozambique could ever be a better place to live than Zimbabwe.  Until the early 1990s, Mozambique was still a scorched and destroyed country in an interminable civil war.

Almost exactly a year ago, I made my first visit to South Africa. Now in December 2013, South Africa seems to have taken over the news with the death of Nelson Mandela.  Today, South Africa, in some regions, is barely distinguishable from prosperous American suburbs. It’s neighbor, Zimbabwe, was once just as prosperous.  The difference is leadership.   Nelson Mandela insisted that the managers of successful, productive industries could remain at least partly in control of them.  In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe took control of such enterprises away from their successful managers.

It’s such a stark and vivid case study of the effect of governance on management of adaptive systems.  It seems such a simple lesson to learn: productive, resilient systems depend on proficient managers.   Unfortunately, this simple truism contradicts the belief that Bantus should be in charge of everything.  Rather than permitting those who know and built the system to continue to manage it, this belief insures that management, however ineffective, belongs to a particular ethnic group.

Where allegiance to the ethnic group is much stronger than any desire for resilient, productive systems, the larger system or society will decline.  Earlier this year in Uganda, I noticed that most businesses were once again managed by Asians (mainly Indians).  These groups were tossed out of the country abruptly in the early 1970s.  After the businesses and the country experienced a sharp decline due to the lack of experienced managers, Asians were permitted back in the country.   Zimbabwe, still under the control of Mugabe, shows no sign putting the health of the country foremost.

Ethnic bonds can be a valuable and a crucial underpinning of productive, resilient social-ecological systems, as studies of social ecosystems throughout the world have shown.  It is one component of resilient connectivity between units in a system.  The trouble arises when the ethnic bonds are so strong that feedback is ignored and connections broken between other components in a system.

This has been observed in American cities.  Internal solidarity (also called bonding social capital) can help a city weather a storm, but cities don’t bounce back from severe catastrophe unless they also are highly connected with outsiders (bridging social capital).

In systems language, resilient systems have strong connections for feedback from both inside and outside.  However, resilient systems also have modularity.  That is, subsystems are not so tightly connected that failure of one component leads to failure of others.  As successful farms in Zimbabwe were confiscated, the remaining farms continued producing, often helping the new “cooperative” farms.

The economic system of Zimbabwe was thus permitted to only gradually decline.  It has taken Mugabe and his minions thirty years to almost completely destroy the system.  The decline of the system can only be stopped if bonding social capital is leavened with bridging social capital which attracts  competent management.  Uganda, with help from its neighbors, overthrew their leadership and established a more resilient system.  Zimbabwe waits for its people to throw off the shackles of its destructive leadership.

The danger for South Africa is that they will succumb to their neighbor’s systemic failings.  Now that Mandela is gone, the voices advocating racial solidarity may overcome those favoring a productive, resilient system.  Strong internal connectivity, such as ethnic bonds, can help subunits operate smoothly.  However, Mandela saw beyond the components to the larger national system interacting with other national systems.  He realized complementary diversity is required for all resilient systems.  Many South Africans today would destroy this diversity and the productivity and resilience which it enables.



[1] The Bantu culture expanded from Eastern Nigeria throughout Southern Africa displacing the hunter-gathering San as late as 300 AD.  The San were pushed into isolated desert regions.  Various tribes of the Bantu stock fought wars with each other for control of Southern Africa until the Europeans tribes came, fought their wars and left. .

Chickadees in the snow, food, and resilience

Five inches of snow on top of one inch of ice is keeping the chickadees busy looking for food this morning.  They’d really like some nice oil-filled seed.  I wish I’d brought some thistle seed up here in the mountains.  Next time I’ll remember. It was 13 F here last night and I’m sure the chickadees spent it huddled together shivering to keep warm.  Today in the bright sun they scratch around looking for anything to eat.

Who wouldn’t want to help such cute little songbirds stay alive in a rough winter?  Besides, they’re fun to watch.  So my sympathy for their plight leads me to alter the ecosystem.

Much like sympathy for Bambi has led to a reduction in hunting in many areas.  The cute little fawns.  Who could kill such a sweet little thing?  So the city people pass laws to outlaw hunting deer.

When the deer herd grows uncontrollably, as it will without predators, even the gardens of the suburbanites begin to suffer.  Not enough, usually, to induce the governing authorities to kill any of them.  And even when they do, they aren’t killing, they are culling.  We can’t ever like this culling.  That would be too mean and harsh for the dominant culture in today’s America.

An even harsher fact is that killing deer has to be done for the good of the deer herd and the ecosystem.  Without a predator to keep their numbers in check, deer will destroy vegetation wherever they are.  The resulting lack of food decreases resistance to disease and eventually causes a die-off of herds.  Even worse, the entire ecosystem suffers a loss of other species depending on the food destroyed by the unchecked growth of the deer herd.  An old Amerindian saying was: kill the wolves, kill the mountain.

My spot up here in the Ozark mountains is in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary.   Deer are everywhere here.  We’ve seen coyotes, a more adaptable cousin of the wolf, chasing them.  The coyotes, mountain lions, and wolves manage their  land, keeping the deer population low enough that the vegetation survives and all the smaller species can survive.

Outside such refuges as ours, man is the manager of all ecosystems.  Even in many wildlife refuges, man intervenes.  I once visited a refuge in Ukraine where predators were excluded and the deer population has grown to the point where the native vegetation is virtually gone and the animals are kept alive with imported hay.

Today, the refuges for the wild animals of Africa are similar.  High fences and lots of guards attempt to keep poachers out and the elephants, giraffes and zebras protected.  Even the best, such as in Kenya, are little more than zoos with lots of land.  In countries with less stable governments, such as Mozambique, the only elephants I could find were in cages.  All others have been destroyed for trophies or medicines for Asian markets.

African human populations, on the other hand, have exploded in recent years.   If current trends continue, the continent may be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025.  This past June in Uganda, I taught small farmers how to grow more food.  Each family I talked to is having as many children as they can.  Many brag about how many they have.  Their little land is subdivided among all the children.  Meanwhile, food aid from the West enables them to survive.

The food aid doesn’t come from China, but the Chinese are everywhere in Africa.  I saw them destroying pristine river valleys to extract gold in Mozambique last year.

Meanwhile, the well-fed West, with low birth rates, sees the pictures of poor children of Africa and sends food, while over-populated African countries are fled by millions of their own people.  One hospital I visited in Malawi was staffed only by volunteer foreigners.  All the native nurses had taken better paying jobs in Europe.

We’ve come a long way from the days when we exterminated wolves and almost obliterated many migratory birds for their feathers.  Someday, maybe, we will find better ways of dealing with overpopulation than just sending food and nurses.

Our present well-intentioned policies are creating societies which are less and less resilient and more and more dependent.  Someday, maybe, we will understand human groups as just one part of an ecosystem.  Someday, maybe, we will understand that an ecosystem which continually declines in resilience will be destroyed along with all its species, including humans.

A flock of geese testing ecological resilience

A warm December sun is warming a gaggle[1] of a few hundred geese on the soybean field here in East Arkansas.  Our hound is on the edge of the field deciding what he should do about them.  He’s taken down several in the past, but doesn’t try for one today.  Whether he does or doesn’t take one will have no effect on survival of the flock.  In the terms of ecological resilience, the flock has redundancy.  It has a multitude of geese which reproduce abundantly.  The flock also has flexibility.  They can fly off to a better field or they can attack our dog if he isn’t careful.  The flock members are connected to each other.  They stay together as a group.  But they are not too tightly connected.  They will break up into sub-flocks to explore new territory or get away from problems.

Redundancy, flexibility and connectivity are three characteristics of resilient systems.  The flock requires a diverse set of fields and refuges from Arkansas up to Canada where it can move when it’s too cold or too hot.  Redundancy, flexibility, connectivity and diversity are the four characters most often associated with resilient systems.  Thousands of similar ecological communities have been observed resulting in the conclusion that resilience is a function of these four qualities.

Systems at other scales affect the resilience of this system.  A conservation enforcement system prevents hunters from harvesting too many geese and provides for refuges.  Markets for field crops insure that farmers plant the fields where the geese land and eat.  The soil organisms in each field digest the manure from the geese and turn it into healthier soil.  Each of these systems adapts to multitudes of other systems which are always adapting to each other.  So we arrive at the concept that an ecosystem is a set of complex adaptive systems composed of complex adaptive systems.

External disturbances can seem to destroy a system, but some systems come back even stronger.  Unregulated hunting in the 1880s and 1890s (mainly for feathers) almost wiped out many migratory bird species.  Today the geese are so prevalent they cause extensive damage (e.g., to wheat fields) in many areas.

Human intervention almost destroyed these species, insured the species survived and enabled geese to reach numbers they have never reached before.  We’ve been doing such things throughout our species’ history.  American Indians noticed that buffalo were more plentiful in open prairies than in forests and that setting fire to the landscape now and then would produce more meadows.  The result was both the open grasslands and vast herds of buffalo which greeted settlers from Europe.  Man has always guided and molded his ecosystems.  Most of man’s interventions have destroyed ecosystems, other species, and eventually their own societies— witness the hundreds of civilizations which destroyed their ecosystems and are buried beneath desert sands across central Asia, the Middle East and Africa in places which were once lush and verdant.

Recently resilience researchers have come to see that these civilizations followed the same adaptive cycle of any ecosystem (organization, rapid growth, stability, destruction or decay, reorganization, rapid growth, stability, etc.) and postulated that the same qualities which condition resilience in ecosystems will lead to resilience in human systems.

So let’s go back to those qualities and see how we can cultivate them in our systems.

The first task is to define the qualities.  To do so, we must make sure we don’t confuse these qualities with the words we use to express them.  All words carry connotations and can be interpreted in many ways, so we’ll need to settle on symbols which refer to the concept.

The “diversity” quality of resilient systems illustrates the problem.  This diversity is not diversity for its own sake.  Diversity of species enables the system to perform all necessary functions.  These functions include producing outputs needed by the species.  Species in resilient systems are complementary.  Each species provides outputs used as inputs by other units.  Trees pull up nutrients needed by other plants.  Animal manure makes nutrients more available to plants.  Plants produce oxygen needed by animals.  Animals produce carbon dioxide needed by plants.  So this quality is a type of complementary diversity.  Some diversity destroys resilience.  Invasive species increase diversity in the short run, but can destroy a system in the long run.  Complementary diversity contributes to resilience.  Noncomplementary diversity attacks and destroys existing systems.  Its only contribution to resilience is to induce transformation and reorganization.  As studies of resilience progress, we will find other ways in which this quality is different from the common use of the term diversity.  So using the term diversity to describe it will decrease understanding of the concept.  So let’s use Д to refer to this type of diversity which enhances resilience. [2]

The quality referred to as connectivity also means something different from the common use of the term.  The components of any resilient system are highly responsive to feedback from other units, but can cut off contact when needed.  Units in resilient systems have highly unique connections between each other.  Units both cooperate and compete with each other.  Businesses compete with each other for market share, but cooperate to obtain legislation benefitting all.   However, they are also modular.  They are not so tightly connected to other units that failure of the other unit will result in their destruction.   A forest or field where a species is too tightly packed is much more susceptible to pest outbreaks. Members of a resilient community support each other but also have good relations with other communities for inputs not available within the community.[3]  Since this quality describes the bonds between units, let’s call it Б.

Understanding the quality of resilient systems called redundancy is also hampered by the multiple connotations of the word.  Resilient systems continuously maintain many individuals of each type of unit.  A food system with only one farm has no resilience if that farm fails.  A town totally dependent on one industry can be destroyed when that industry disappears.  A business totally dependent on one supplier has no resilience if that supplier disappears.  Multiples of all units increase resilience.  The history of both privately-owned and state-owned monopolies and oligopolies provide innumerable examples of lack of resilience when one or a few units dominate a system.  How much redundancy is required depends on the external drivers facing the system.  Resilient systems must replenish these units when they are destroyed and be able to produce more when needed.  Let’s call this quality ф since it refers to the fecundity of the system.

Resilient systems’ fourth quality has been called flexibility, but it is controlled flexibility.  Resilient systems stick with tried and true methods but change responses when change is needed.  Resilient systems have a variety of responses which they flexibly deploy.   A farmer who has mastered a variety of practices can employ the right one at the right time to strengthen his farm.  A farmer who is locked into one set of practices will not be able to adjust when external drivers change. This sort of flexibility is related to Д in that a variety of subsystems are often the means used to marshal the needed response at the right time.  A resilient city maintains subsystems devoted to snow and ice as well as excessive heat and rainfall.  Let’s call this quality П since it refers to a potential plurality of responses.

Put all this together and the evidence is almost pointing toward an equation: Ecological resilience is a function of П, ф, Б, and Д.  We are a long way from precisely defining these qualities, but we’re getting closer.

The project of defining the qualities of resilience can be seen as creating a general model of resilience. We must hope the project will avoid the common traps of modeling.  The worst of these is creating an explanation which cannot be tested.  Everything is explained post hoc and all possible occurrences are consistent with the theory.  “Inanimate objects have feelings, but they have no way to communicate them,” “faster-than-light particles exist, but they have no interaction with ordinary matter,” and  “the world is only about 5,000 years old, but it was created to look as if it were 4.5 billion years old” are among explanations we may choose to believe, but which can’t be tested[4].

We avoid that trap by testing predictions about resilience.  We will test whether our systems have not just a variety of subsystems, but complementary diversity (Д) where each type of unit assists other types of units to maintain the resilience of the system.  We will test not just whether there are multiple units of each type, but whether they can reproduce themselves to maintain the redundancy (ф).  If you take out a unit, is it replaced?  We will test whether the system has connectivity, but modularity, with strong bonds within units and stable bonds to outside units (Б).  Is feedback transmitted throughout the system?  Can subsystems function independently when necessary?  We will test whether the system responds flexibly to different stimuli while conserving the integrity of the system (П).

We also avoid a second trap, reification.  Abstractions are never real.  The map is not the landscape.  Any model just gives us hints of what might exist in a new system or a future system.  No model adequately describes any real system.  All models and theories fail eventually, to be replaced by something better.

So, we stay immersed in our systems, trying to more fully understand resilience in our real systems.  If those interested in resilience of systems can use a common language and more and more rigorously define the terms of that language, we have hopes of understanding how to enhance resilience.

The geese have moved on to another field further away from the watchful hound.  They maintain their flocks (bound together by Б) through the winter by sampling the manifold Д of the farms and refuges of East Arkansas.  When the weather warms, they use their П to head North at the right time to lay and hatch eggs to insure the ф of their system.

These terms (ecological resilience is a function of П, ф, Б, and Д) sure look strange.  Use them or come up with better ones, but keep working to clarify and understand how our systems can be more resilient and even transform themselves into even better systems.  The destruction of ecosystems can only be halted when the process of insuring resilience is understood and embraced.



[1] A gaggle of geese is a bunch of geese on the ground.  They become a flock when they fly.

[2] Let’s use Cyrillic letters because most Greek and English letters already refer to multiple concepts.

[3] Referred to as bonding and bridging social capital by many.

[4] Great examples from Ehrlich, R., 2001. Nine Crazy Ideas in Science. Princeton University Press.

Permaculture and ecological resilience

Permaculture is a design philosophy which seeks to exploit and imitate naturally occurring patterns.  The patterns observed by those studying ecological adaptive cycles and resilience are the foundation for design philosophies such as permaculture.  Below, the twelve Permaculture design principles articulated by David Holmgren in his Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability are related to the patterns of adaptive cycles and ecological resilience.

Principle 1: Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

The concept of ecological resilience has arisen from observation  of adaptive cycles in thousands of ecosystems. Ecological resilience is not resilience in the materials science sense, where a material bounces back to its original form.  Ecological communities naturally encounter disturbances which seem to destroy them.  The oak-hickory forest where I live can be destroyed when a beaver family comes in, downs trees, builds dam.  Organic matter gradually accumulates in the pond, eventually becomes a bog.  Then a meadow.  Then invaded by shrubs.  Then  forest.  Multiple climax communities are possible depending on external drivers.  Destruction of the climax community always occurs now and then, permitting the expression and renewal of other communities contributing to the resilience of the system.  The ubiquity of disturbance has led to the concept of adaptive cycles.

Ecological communities are always in resilience and transformation cycles with four stages: rapid growth (r), conservation (K), release (Ω) and reorganization (α).  Observance of any ecosystem over time reveals a succession of communities following these stages.

Ecological resilience describes the change in our land as a series of adaptive cycles where a phase of rapid growth (designated as r) which gradually slows to the “climax” oak-hickory forest which maintains itself in the K phase until being disrupted by the family of beavers in the Ὡ phase.  The pond left by the beavers immediately begins to reorganize itself in an α phase, accumulates organic matter, is invaded by various pond organisms and rapidly accumulates carbon and more and more complex structure in another r phase.  Gradually the accumulation of organic matter results in a taking over of bog organisms and eventually a meadow and then a forest.  After a few years the meadow emerges as it creates conditions they need  r  phase gradually becoming a K phase and eventually a gradual Ω phase as shrubs invade.  These various landscape types each arise in succession through an r  phase inducing an slow Ω phase in the previous stage. The Osage then induce an Ω phase for shrubs which permits  brief r and K phases for grasses and forbs, again invasion by shrubs and Ω burning followed by an r  and K  and Ω phases.

Plowing is Ω for grasslands, enabling r  and K phases for various successions of multitudes of crop and soil organisms.  As soil is depleted by erosion, the system declines to a lower level of productivity, but still the inexorable r, K and Ω phases followed by α, r, K and Ω phases for the communities of organisms which become the subsequent stages of succession.  Continued loss of soil resources–especially where other crucial systems (such as reliable hydrologic systems to provide water) are absent–eventually lead to desert or barren rock.

Observation of nature also shows that the most successful systems have a host of potential tools which are deployed exactly when needed.  These are the propagules of a multitude of organisms.

Principle 2: Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.

American Indians learned to use regular burning to maintain grassland and attract and increase buffalo and other ungulates.  Manure from grazing animals helps soils deepen and become more fertile, capturing more carbon and nitrogen and building communities of microorganisms, and soil flora and fauna so grassland is even more productive.  In the late 1900s some of these farmers began using electric fence and mob grazing to mimic natural systems.  The Ω stage is where release of resources occurs.  Management of  the transition from Ω to α is crucial to capturing energy.

Principle 3: Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

A resilient system gives positive feedback to all the complex adaptive systems which contribute to its resilience.  If you are contributing to the resilience, the permanence, of your system, you will receive the positive feedback which is yield (a more benign synonym for profit).  This profit is extracted from the system for the use of you, the manager.  If it is invested in useful tools or skills for the manager or useful cultivars or other inputs, it can contribute to the resilience of the system.  However, profit can be stealing.  Stealing is extraction of yield without providing any contribution to improving the resilience of the system.  Taxes and insurance are other types of stealing.

Principle 4: Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

Prairie grasslands, maintained by burning and intensive grazing by ungulates kept in herds by predators, can be easily destroyed by overgrazing.  Every tool (such as cattle) which builds up a system if used properly, can destroy the system when used improperly.

All living organisms adapt.  Those who respond to feedback the best are the most resilient.

Principle 5: Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

The most positive extraction of yield is a unique organization of renewable elements—such as herbal medicines.  Valuable herbal medicines are organic compounds made primarily of nitrogen, carbon and oxygen from the air and minerals from local rock.   If these are removed, they are replaced by natural processes and enable the purchase of new tools which can decrease need for future inputs from outside.

Principle 6: Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

Viewed as an adaptive cycle, no living system has either resources or wastes.  What some call resources, others might call wastes.  Producing too much yield by extracting nutrients from the soil is wasteful.  Often what we call resources is waste (or wasteful overproduction) from another system.  All resources and wastes are inputs to other systems.

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

We see the adaptive cycle, increasing and decreasing potential productivity.

We see that resilience and transformation is facilitated when connectivity, diversity, flexibility and redundancy are optimized.

Principle 8: Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

Optimizing connectivity (bonding between units, bridging to other units, but modular, not integrate so much that failure of one unit leads to failure of others) is crucial to resilience.

Integration means feedback is insured and all outputs are inputs for units within the system.

Principle 9: Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

Anything which can be done quickly can be undone quickly. The most valuable changes just take a while.

The fast, efficient system can often be most vulnerable to disruptions, less resilient.  A just-in-time supply chain can cause the downfall of a business system if it is interrupted. Continuous improvement is the goal of any successful enterprise but only looks at current drivers.  Resilience assumes enterprises will do their best to compete with each other and those who commit all resources to maximizing efficiency and profits will often die when system drivers change and they can’t change quickly enough.  Goal of adaptive governance for resilience is not to insure that all enterprises survive, only that their focus on efficiency does not include driving all other players out of the market.

Fast, unchecked coordination between units can speed a wave of failure throughout the system.

The slow variables, such as amount of soil organic matter, shape how a fast variable, such as crop production, responds to variation in an external driver, such as variation in rainfall during the growing season.

The fast-moving variables in the system fluctuate more in response to environmental and other shocks; and these shocks or directional change in the drivers can push the system across a threshold into an alternate stability regim.

“Fast” variables are typically those that are of primary concern to ecosystem users, for example a pest species or (often) ecosystem goods and services, such as crop production, clean water, and favored species. The dynamics of these fast variables are strongly shaped by other system variables that generally change much more slowly, and hence have been referred to as “slow”, or(because they are not always slow) “controlling” variables. They are not the same as the control variables used in other contexts, and to avoid confusion, ecosystem resilience researchers suggest it is best to simply refer to them as “slow” variables, recognizing that “fast” and “slow” are relative terms.[1]

Resilient systems do respond quickly to minimize the impact of disturbance and to reassemble after disturbance. However, direct  response to adversity is not the usual activity of any resilient systems.  The usual focus is establishing a system which maximizes evolution, adaptive reorganization and the foundation for reassembly after adversity.

Principle 10: Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

Resilient systems optimize diversity by making sure that diversity is complementary.  Complementary units generate outputs which are needed inputs to other systems.  Complementary units perform different functions and enable the system to respond to multitudes of exigencies.

If a unit is fulfilling the same function, producing the same outputs as other units, then it is not increasing Д (the resilience/adaptive transformation terms which incorporates the concept of diversity.  IIf not needed to optimize redundancy, then it is not contributing to resilience.

Principle 11: Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

Adaptive cycles, with their r, K, Ω and α stages are most apparent on the edges of systems.  On the edges, one system in transitioning from Ω into α and its successor is in α reassembling into r phase.  The Ω is where resources are released and made available as profit (or taxes or other forms of stealing) or as inputs to the new system in α phase.  Ω exists at margins where one system is dissolving and creating another system.

Principle 12: Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Ecological resilience requires change.  To improve and release resources for better uses, provision for radical and complete reassembly must be integral part of the system.  Ω is not destruction and end, but a necessary part of reorganization to a more productive system.  Ω is precursor to α, reassembly, reorganization creation of new system with emergent qualities.

Change and adaptation are at the foundation of ecological resilience, which views all living systems as complex adaptive systems (CAS) composed of other complex adaptive systems.  Each CAS is composed of multiple CAS which must be connected, redundant, flexible, modular, diverse and prone toward reassembly.  Each CAS is continuously changing in response to feedback from other CAS.  An economy is composed of businesses which are composed of people which are all changing and adapting to each other.  Society is composed of communities, composed of families, composed of individuals, composed of cells, composed of proteins and lipids, composed of molecules, composed of atoms, composed of quarks, etc.

Since each CAS is composed of CAS adapting to each other, every living system is constantly in flux.  For example, the resilient person has multiple ways of dealing with the external environment and adversity.  Sitting in school, actively playing sports, solitary study, socializing with friends, interacting in formal meetings with peers or formal meetings with bosses, with children, with elderly, are all useful responses demonstrating the flexibility needed for resilience.

When a CAS becomes less redundant, less flexible, less modular, less diverse, less ready for reassembly, it becomes more vulnerable to destruction when outside drivers change.

Permaculture is a philosophy.  Ecological resilience provides empirical foundation for the philosophy and insures that the philosophy stays grounded in the natural patterns it seeks to emulate, manage, and improve. 

 


[1] Paraphrased from Walker et al., 2012. Ecology and Society, 17(3):30.

 

An epiphany about sustainability

Every blue moon or so, I realize I have been pretty blind to an obvious truth.  Epiphanies usually come when we succeed in reconciling seemingly contradictory ideas.  This year I finally realized how inadequate the mainstream approach to sustainability has been for more than 20 years.

It began when I learned that Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee and Missouri legislatures have all passed bills opposing sustainability.  In 2013, 15 bills in seven states were introduced to oppose sustainability (specifically the Agenda 21—a United Nations document written 20 years ago).

Many who advocate for sustainability were surprised, amazed and nonplussed.  For many, sustainability ranks right up there with Mom and apple pie as absolute goods and with gravity as an absolute truth.  Yet these bills have been overwhelmingly adopted in many instances by our elected officials.  Presuming that both sides are well-meaning, why is sustainability raising such vociferous emotion?

Then I stumbled onto research on ecological resilience and slapped my forehead with my palm saying, how could I have missed this all these years?  This research area studies how systems grow and transform themselves in adaptive cycles.  Resilient systems are those which last, just as sustainable systems are those which last.

I realized that the mainstream approach defined sustainability normatively and legally and not based on natural, empirical evidence.  In fact, nearly all those involved in sustainability research have focused on achieving practical and applied goals—such as achieving an environmentally sound and socially just agriculture–rather than understanding sustainability as a natural phenomenon.  These practical and applied goals can be fine and good, but they are normative, not scientific, goals.  That is, we have decided that environmentally sound and social just systems are better.  These are values, not testable hypotheses.  When you pursue a particular value, you can’t logically object when others promulgate goals based on other values–such as pursuing short term profit above all else.

Ecological resilience research gives us more than a set of values we are trying to push systems toward.  It gives us a working model of the cycle of adaptation and transformation that explains and predicts which systems survive and which don’t.   Sustainability is a term which carries some of the meaning of resilience to some people, but has never been defined in testable, scientific terms.  Ecological resilience research seeks a well-defined model which will increasingly become more like a natural law than a man made law.

Here’s a brief introduction to ecological resilience: http://deltanetwork.org/news/agriculture/resilience-a-primer/

Advocates of sustainability who discover the adaptive cycles of ecological resilience can marshal arguments which transcend popular values. Eventually, naysayers realized the earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around it because a spherical earth revolving around the sun results in better predictions.  As people begin to see how adaptive cycles and resilience explain and predict behavior of systems, those who attack it will disappear just as all non-resilient systems do.

When presented as a natural property of systems, rather than a set of values we want to impose on others,  sustainability as a concept will have more resilience.  Popular values are fads.  They inevitably rise and fall in popularity.  Meanwhile the natural systems just keep rolling along.  The resilient systems survive and transform into even more successful systems.

Values which are consistent with natural laws survive.  They will be tested and contradicted by popular values but they will survive.  Societies, businesses and farms which don’t operate consistent with those natural laws may seem successful, but they will perish.  Any  concept of sustainability will likewise perish unless it is derived from empirical evidence of systems which adapt and transform in the face of adversity.

Resilience: a primer

Some things last, some things don’t.  Wouldn’t you like to be able to predict whether your nation, your town, your farm are going to last?  Better yet, wouldn’t you like to make them last longer?  Or would you rather transform them into something better?  What some call Resilience science is making progress on all these fronts.

Resilience has long been used by engineers and psychologists to describe materials and people which bounce back after stress.  Ecologists have expanded the concept by observing that some systems respond to disturbance by reassembling into a new system.  A forest repeatedly exposed to fire will become a meadow, attracting more grazing animals and producing much deeper, richer soils than the forest.  A city destroyed by catastrophe may become even more vibrant and productive (as San Francisco did after the earthquake and fire of 1906) or it may decline and never regain its power (as New Orleans did after the 1927 flood).  A business may reinvent itself when new technology render its main product obsolete or the business may disappear.

Ecological communities are always in resilience and transformation cycles with four stages: rapid growth (r), conservation (K), release (Ω) and reorganization (α).  Observance of any ecosystem over time reveals a succession of communities following these stages.  Disturbances such as fire, floods, hurricanes, clear-cutting, plowing, intensive grazing, etc., result in a Ω stage followed by attempts at an α stage.

Repeated disturbances (repeated floods, deep plowing ever year, unremitting grazing pressure from sheep and goats, a series of bad boyfriends) can result in a system which lacks the ability to progress through α, r, and K to create the vibrant system which existed before the disturbances.  However, ecologists have observed that any ecosystem will attempt reorganization again and again.  The rK, Ω, and α cycle (known as the adaptive cycle) is a feature of all life, everywhere.  Even when the organism or system is spiraling toward death, its components are attempting to reorganize and grow.  Death is never the end.  It’s just the Ω phase preparing the way for the α phase.

Most of us would prefer a more benign Ω phase.  We’d like to intervene in systems to help them spiral upwards, rather than completely collapse.  City managers want their cities to bounce back stronger after catastrophes.  Farm managers want their farms to be more productive and resilient when challenged by weather or prices.  We do what we think is best to improve our systems.

Sometimes our best intentions don’t work out so well.  To improve quality of life, we introduce rabbits into Australia where they have no predators and they enjoy r, and K phases which consume all vegetation on grazing lands, destroying farm productivity.  Or we increase r and K in one system in a way which destroys them in another.  We apply ever increasing amounts of fertilizer to our soils to increase productivity of crops and Dead Zones and destruction of coral reefs result.

We need desperately to understand what determines the cycles toward ever increasing productivity and the spirals toward death.   We don’t want our city to become a Detroit.  We don’t want our country to become a barren desert as thousands of nations have.

No city sets out to become bankrupt and decaying.  No nation plans to become a desert and destroy itself.  Managers throughout decaying systems are often devoted to making their system work.  Why do they so often fail?  Why do our personal, national and global systems seem to be spiraling down?  Ecosystem studies can tell us a lot, though we often fail to recognize that human institutions and systems are not distinct from natural systems.  In fact, they are composed of and exist within natural systems.

We must understand the adaptive cycle common to all human and natural systems.  Our survival depends on it.  Many powerful societies, businesses, communities and species no longer exist.  The difference for us today is that decades of research in systems and ecology has given us knowledge about what causes resilience and transformation in the adaptive cycle.

This research tells us that all living systems are complex adaptive systems composed of complex adaptive systems.  Each system has emergent properties derived from their subsystems and the connections between those subsystems.  One emergent property is the resilience of the system.

This resilience depends on four qualities of the subsystems and their connections: bonding, connectivity competition and cooperation (Б), diversity and complementarity (Д),  redundancy and reproduction (ф) and flexibility, openness to new responses (П).  We refer to these qualities with Cyrillic symbols to insure their unique meaning is not distorted by the connotations of single English words.

Resilient systems have high levels of Д. This diversity is not diversity for its own sake.  Diversity of subunits enables the unit to perform all necessary functions.  These functions include producing outputs needed by subunits.  Subunits are complementary.  Trees pull up nutrients needed by other plants.  Animal manure makes nutrients available to plants.  Plants produce oxygen needed by animals.  Animals produce carbon dioxide needed by plants.

Resilient systems have high levels of Б.  Such a system maintains unique bonds between its subunits.  It combines both cooperation and competition among units and connectivity or responsiveness to feedback between units.  Resilient systems are modular.  Sub-units are not so tightly connected that failure of one unit causes failure of others.  A forest where a species is too tightly packed is much more susceptible to disease outbreaks.  Sub-units compete with each other but also cooperate when required for resilience.  Businesses compete with each other for market share, but cooperate to obtain legislation benefitting all. Similar units share strong bonds with each other, but also bond with other, dissimilar units.  Members of a resilient community support each other but also have good relations with other communities for inputs and ideas not available within the community.

Resilient systems have high levels of ф.  Such a system continuously maintains redundancy in its subunits.  A food system with only one farm has no resilience if that farm fails.  A town totally dependent on one industry can be destroyed when that industry disappears.  A business totally dependent on one supplier has no resilience if that supplier disappears.  Multiples of all subunits increases resilience.  The history of both privately-owned and state-owned monopolies and oligopolies provide innumerable examples of lack of resilience when one or a few units dominate a system.

Resilient systems have high levels of П.  Such systems have a variety of responses which they flexibly deploy when needed.  A community with a diverse portfolio of businesses is more likely to survive.  A farmer who has mastered a variety of practices can employ the right one at the right time to strengthen his farm.  П is related to Д in that a variety of subsystems are often the means used to marshall the needed response at the right time.  A resilient city maintains subsystems devoted to snow and ice as well as excessive heat and rainfall.

Maintaining these qualities is what maintains resilience.  A system can be very productive and successful in the short term while permitting these qualities to decline.  One business or one farm can gradually buy up competitors and dominate the landscape, but its’ demise may be the systems demise.

Systems which focus solely on efficiency of production and profit are never as resilient as systems which maintain the qualities of resilience.  The history of monopolies and oligopolies (both privately-owned, such as US automobile manufacturers, and state-owned, such as all Soviet Union industries) provide innumerable examples of lack of resilience when one or a few units dominate a system.

Explorations of resilience are just beginning.  One need is to insure the concept retains a tight meaning tied to ecosystems.  Sustainability  is a term which carries some of the meaning of resilience to some people, but has never been defined in testable, scientific terms.  It is defined in legal and normative terms, making it open to attack.  We seek a well-defined model which will increasingly become more like a natural law than a man made law.  Eventually, the naysayers realized the earth is not flat because a spherical earth results in better predictions.  As people begin to see how the adaptive cycle and resilience explain and predict behavior of systems, those who attack it will appear more and more like Luddites and dinosaurs.

The American automobile industry and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s were so strong and powerful that their subsequent lack of resilience was a surprise to many.  In retrospect, we can explain their collapse through resilience.  Resilience researchers go beyond mere explanation to define a model of resilience which predicts how systems can be organized to adapt and transform.