An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

- Unknown

Dennis Meadow talks about the need to prepare for an uncertain future
We have all heard our mother say “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Unfortunately, human beings have poor foresight and continue to learn lessons the hard way. Scientists and environmentalists such as Dennis Meadows have been sounding the warning bell for decades but these warnings have not been heeded. Human civilization has directly created the age of the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by human impacts that are altering natural cycles and processes on a planetary scale.

And while scientists are concerned about geo-engineering experiments to counter global warming, Our entire modern industrialized society has been simply that – one large geoengineering experiment. We have made a pact with the devil, a progress trap par excellence which scientists like Meadows believes will force us to continue exchanging  pollution and planetary destruction in exchange for our economic livelihood until we reach a breaking point.

The climate system has inertia; even if we were able to somehow stop emitting CO2 today, the volume we have already transferred into the atmosphere will continue to increase global temperatures for decades to come. Climate chaos will continue for years to come. Whatever solution we take, resiliency has to be a significant part of it. Our communities must develop resiliency to prepare to treat the symptoms that are headed our way.

While we entrust science, technology and engineering to solve our problems. we are faced with many challenges to rapidly decrease our ecological footprint:

  1. Banking on scientific breakthroughs which have no predictable timeline
  2. Large hidden embodied energy and pollution costs remain unaccounted for in the current economic paradigm
  3. Global consensus from policy-makers has proven to be very difficult to achieve
  4. Industry is very slow to change and steeped in a short term outlook which ultimately serves profits rather than environment and people

Further exasperating this problem is the unwillingness for the people of the wealthy nations of the world to give up a high energy lifestyle. All of this means that resiliency features high on any solution to the future. Enormous change is unavoidable and we must prepare for a very uncertain future.

Developing Resiliency to prepare for the Coming Global Climate and Ecosystem Changes

The impact of global warming are multi-dimensional with feedback loops affecting:

Resilient Ecosystems

As civilization’s impact on the planet begins to approach a point which threatens the balance of life on earth, we need to quickly take corrective measures to re-establish equilibrium. The scientific framework for doing this is Resilience theory. The general meaning of resilience, derived from its Latin roots ‘to jump or leap back’, is the ability to recover from misfortune or change. This theory studies Social-Ecological Systems (SES) – linked systems of people and nature and looks at ability of ecosystems to withstand human-induced impacts at multiple scales, all the way from a small community all the way to the entire planet.

In the Anthropocene, human society is disturbing our ecological systems in a multiplicity of ways.  If we (the planetary ecosystem and humans) are going to survive the future, humanity needs to quickly rebalance our relationship with nature. We need to develop resiliency which ensures the best chance of  recovering from radical regime change.

The Resilience Alliance defines Resilience as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks – and therefore the same identity.

Example 1: A Rangeland System

A Rangeland system may be defined by the amounts of grass, shrubs and livestock. In this case, the state space is the three-dimensional space of all possible combinations of the amounts of these three variables. The state of the rangeland system at any particular time is the amounts of grass, shrubs and livestock at that time and system dynamics is reflected as its movement through this space. 

Geometrical Models of SES as Basins of Attraction

SES can be mathematically modeled as basins of attraction in a stability landscape (Walker et al 2004 — this is only a metaphor to help us visualize alternate system regimes). Because of non-linear dynamics, many systems can exist in what are called alternate stable states. The state of a system at any time is defined by the values (amounts) of the variables that constitute the system.

The SES can exist in one or more system configurations (Figure 1 below). Some configurations are desirable from a human perspective while others are undesirable. Each configuration is actually a set of system states that has the same essential structure and function – and such a configuration (same structure and function) is termed a system “regime”. Changes in the biophysical and social attributes of SES are reflected by corresponding model variations in:

  • positions of the attractors
  • size and shape of basins of attraction

Resilience assessment seeks to understand:

  1. which basin the system is in,
  2. where in that basin it is in relation to the basin’s boundaries,
  3. how to navigate – either to avoid going into an undesirable basin or to get from an undesirable to a desirable one,
  4. how to alter the stability landscape to make such navigation easier or more difficult,
  5. how to transform to become a different kind of system when that is the only useful option left

“Specified” resilience is concerned about the resilience of:

some aspect of a system

  • its productivity,
  • the species it contains,
  • the livelihoods of people
 to some defined shocks
  • a drought,
  • a fire,
  • a market shift
In trying to increase resilience of one aspect of a system regime to a specified set of disturbances, one can unwittingly reduce the resilience of other aspects of that system to other, non-specified (perhaps novel) disturbances. For this reason, care must be exercised when attempting to balance the maintenance of general resilience while engaged in necessary efforts to enhance specified resilience to known threats and disturbances.

Adaptability is the capacity of a SES to manage resilience in relation to alternate regimes (sometimes called adaptive capacity). It involves either or both of two abilities:

  1. The ability to determine the trajectory of the system state – the position within its current basin of attraction;
  2. The ability to alter the shape of the basins, that is move the positions of thresholds or make the system more or less resistant to perturbation.
The abilities to effect both of these are determined by a combination of attributes of both the social domain and the ecosystem.
When a SES is already in an undesirable regime and efforts to get it back into a desirable regime are no longer possible (or worse, make the undesirable basin larger), one option for resolving the predicament is transformation to a different kind of system – new variables, new ways of making a living, different scales – a different panarchy.

The influence of the states of the system (including where they are in their adaptive cycles) at scales above and below the focal scale influence resilience at the focal scale. From above, the effects can be positive (in the form of providing “memory” and “subsidies”, but also negative (preventing actions, etc). From below, the hyper-coherence of system states or stages in the adaptive cycle can trigger a system collapse at the focal scale.

1a: state change

1b: process and system function change

FIgure 1: A “ball-in-the-basin” representation of resilience. The state of this two dimensional system is represented by the position of the ball. Its dynamics cause it to move to the ‘attractor’ – the bottom of the basin. The system can change regimes either by the state changing, or through changes in the shape of the basin (ie, through changes in processes and system function), as shown in (b). (Source: Resilience Alliance)

The Adaptive Cycle Model of Resilience

Resilience can be viewed as the positive capacity of a system to cope with pressures and includes both human and natural systems as complex entities which are undergoing continuous adaptation through cycles of change. The ‘adaptive cycle’ model of resilience was introduced by Gunderson and Holling in 2002 and describes the 4 phases in the adaptive cycle of resilience

Linda Vanasupa explains The Adaptive Cycle

  1. Phase 1 / r phase under various forms of forcing, any system will build, accumulate or exploit. This leads to an increasing build up of energy, wealth or resources.
  2. Phase 2 / K phase – over time and with increasing forcing, the carrying capacity of the system is reached. This heralds the locked-in or conservation phase
  3. Phase 3 / Ω phase – if forcing continues beyond the carrying capacity, a tipping point is reached, resulting in a sustainability breakdown
  4. Phase 4 / α phase– once the forcing ceases, the system can arise from the ashes and re-establish / reorganise itself to enter a new cycle

It is interesting to note that this cycle can also represent the life and death of an organism within an ecosystem. Graphically, the adaptive cycle model of resilience is represented respectively by the figure 8 traversing through 4 corners


(Source: Arctic Tipping Points in an Earth System Perspective, Lenton, AMBIO 2012)


When tipping points are also points of no return (e.g. bifurcation points) more complex dynamics can emerge (Fig. 6). When a point of no return is reached, after the destruction phase, a system switches to a new state or regime. This new regime can then develop around its own adaptive cycle. It may reach anew a further point of no return (second bifurcation point), which in some cases at least can switch the system back to the original regime (Lenton et al. 2012).

Holling created a figure 8 to represent

(Source: Arctic Tipping Points in an Earth System Perspective, Lenton, AMBIO 2012)


At this time, humanity is far from the equilibrium point and in danger of crossing thresholds that may lead us down alternate and uncharted pathways to completely new states. More than any time in history, we must focus on restoring a balance to our social-ecological systems -people and nature must quickly begin to live in harmony. We need to develop resiliency at multiple scales, from community all the way through to global.


Noah Raford of the London School of Economics explains the Cycle of Adaptive Change


Science director Carl Folke explains social-ecological resilience.


Stockholm whiteboard seminar: Brian Walker explains what is resilience in people and ecosystems.

The objective of resilience management is to keep a Social Ecological System (SES) within a particular configuration of states that will continue to deliver desired ecosystem goods and services. Complex ecological systems have built-in non-linearity, multiple alternate regimes and thresholds or tipping points that if reached cause movement into alternate regimes.  Proper resilience management prevents the SES  from moving into an undesirable regime from which it is either difficult or impossible to recover.

Buzz Holling, the father of Resilience Systems Theory
Buzz Holling, the father of Resilience Systems Theory

Example: Birth and death of a forest

  1. r phase  – specific species of grass and shrubs take root and outcompete others to grow
  2. K phase – seeds from trees take root amongst the grass and shrubs and begin to grow
  3.  Ω phase – a fully mature forest stores a great deal of carbon and other materials and energy but it becomes succeptable to disease and forest fire, either of which can destroy it
  4. α phase – the fire or disease may decimate a large portion or the entire forest but as the stored material is returned back to nature, the cycle can begin anew

Example: Florida Everglades

Jaimie Hicks Masterson is a Masters degree student of Urban Planning at Texas A&M University who has performed a nice analysis of the Florida Everglades social-ecological system using adaptive cycle model and has illustrated the adaptive cycling through a number of decades of the SES.  Jaimie describes the history in her own words below.



Figure 7: Florida Everglades adaptive cycle diagram (Source: Jaimie Hicks Masterson)

For much of the Everglades social-ecological history, humans have used conventional command-and-control approaches of managing the environment, which “aims to reduce variation in an effort to make an ecosystem more productive, predictable, economically efficient, and controllable” (Berkes, Colding, & Folke, 2003, p. 8).

When humans first settled the land, there were great prospects that the soil was rich for agriculture (Gunderson, Holling, & and Peterson, 2002). The swampy land, which was in fact nutrient poor, was drained during the ‘Cut ‘N Try’ phase of management (Gunderson, Holling, & and Peterson, 2002). In 1903, floods destroyed the farmland that was created and a greater emphasis on draining the land emerged (Walker & Salt, 2006).

Ω phase

The exploitation of the land, the Ω phase, is the first chronology of the adaptive cycle  The more the ecosystem is exploited, the more connected and interrelated ecological and social systems become (Gunderson L. , Holling, Prichard Jr., & Peterson, 2002). This exploitation of the landscape is the first disturbance in the timeline, which placed new stresses on ecological systems.

K phase

The ecological systems begin to conserve their own resources. When systems begin to conserve, they are increasing their potential energy and are typically pushed to their limit, have little flexibility, and there is relatively no slack in the system (Berkes, Colding, & Folke, 2003).

r phase  

It is no surprise when the potential energy is transferred to a rapid release of energy. The first release, documented on the Adaptive Cycle diagram was in 1928 when a hurricane flooded the area, overtopping the low earthen dam of Lake Okeechobee, killing almost 2,000 people (Civil).

α phase

The rapid release of energy is important because it acted as creative destruction and an opportunity for ecological and social systems to reorganize (the α phase) so “novelty and innovation may occur” (Berkes, Colding, & Folke, 2003, p. 18).  Ecological systems tried to adjust and adapt to the restrictions placed by social systems.  Though the response of social systems was not to abandon development and return the environment to a more natural state, but to control and place further restrictions on the land (Gunderson, Holling, Peterson).  This α phase is met with the construction of the Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee (Gunderson & Light, Adaptive Management and Adaptive Governance in the Everglades Ecosystem, 2006).

 Ω phase

The Ω phase was soon back with an increase in the human population, and more draining and dredging of the land.

K phase

Ecological systems begin conserving their resources again (K phase), due to the change in water flows and shifts in the geographical locations of ecosystems.  Further conservations occurred in 1943 and 1944 during severe drought.

r phase

The system is finally pushed to a limit and the rapid release (r phase) occurs in 1947 and 1948 when hurricanes killed over 2,000 people and 25,000 cows with 2.7 meters of rainfall in only six months (Civil).