Eve of destruction, eve of new beginnings

We do have a few survivalists in the Ozarks.  Many resilient Ozark residents are thriving by catering to the survivalists.  At Meadowcreek, we know resilience is more than survival.  It also implies transformation.  Resilient systems survive through transformation.

shiva god of destruction and creationConservative innovation is a near cousin to transformation.  Innovation in a system is actually transformation of a subsystem.  What is an innovation for the farm (e.g., establishing a new cover crop) is a transformation for the subsystem (e.g., the farm’s soil). Innovation can also create a disturbance which transforms it’s overall system.

Resilient systems thrive on disturbance by using it for creative destruction. In resilient systems, dissolution of the old is a precursor to a more powerful system.Technological innovations often are such powerful innovations that they can transform our lives.. The automobile replaced the horse and buggy, the smart phone has largely replaced the land line phone, calculator, alarm clock, point and shoot camera, video player and recorder, audio recorder, photo album, watch, and even flashlight.

Creation of new industries results in destruction of old industries. Creative destruction is a concept used in a variety of areas including economics, corporate governance, product development, technology and marketing.

Creative destruction allows an innovation to induce a release and dissolution phase for some subsystems. When moderated by the other aspects of resilience the larger system becomes more adapted. The dark side of creative destruction occurs when the conservative forces pushing the systems toward survival and reproduction are subverted.

Unpredictable self-organization, the foundation of all innovation, in human societies is often divorced from the conservatism which insures that innovations contribute to the survival and reproduction of the society. Societies in the mature or K phase often have so many assets that they support innovations which undermine their foundations. Government bureaucracies and many other monopolies unaccountable to the consumer, are notorious sources of innovations which reduce resilience but are maintained.

Such innovations don’t survive long in any ecosystems whose assets are continually under attack by competing adaptive systems. But if the system has accumulated assets which enable it to sustain itself in the short run, it can destroy creative destruction, the foundations for long term resilience.  NASA gradually is losing its capabilities for space exploration as we buy rockets cheaply from Russia, just as the US has lost the television and small car markets to outside innovators as manufacturers became importers.

Ecological resilience research transforms our concept of system identity and cycles. In contrast to past visions of climax communities, we now know ecosystems do not tend toward single, stable identities, but rather have the potential to exhibit multiple identities, and can rapidly shift between them. Further, all ecosystems move through cycles of change. No ecosystem is static; for instance, ecological communities do not tend toward a stable distribution of species, but are always changing. Management of ecosystems requires transformative shifts in identities.

Agricultural systems must be managed to embrace change, transformation and reformation if they are to be resilient. Throughout history when agricultural systems were forced to conform to the standards and expectations of the past, chaos and shortage ensued. As early cultures became reliant on irrigation and over-used it despite droughts, shortages and salinization, systems inevitably collapsed. Our own system is overdue for the kinds of innovations not seen since the introduction of the tractor and heavy equipment. Innovations are required that are diverse and unique to each bioregion, sensitive to the ecosystem they affect.

One of the most publicized systems in need of transformation is the extensive use of water from the Colorado River and the Central Valley to irrigate the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and California. Unless we embrace the change to mitigate water consumption and plant crops suited to the environment, we are inevitably headed for a system collapse which will affect millions of acres of farmland as well as millions of households who also rely on the waters of these rivers.

Ecologists who use the complex adaptive systems approach understand management is itself part of the system. One doesn’t just study ecosystems, but social-ecological systems, which includes the actions of the managers of the ecosystems, the users, the advocacy groups that seek preservation, and anyone who has some interest in the ecosystem.

Management, then, must also foster all qualities necessary to resilience including diversity, modularity, connectivity and redundancy. In addition, it must foster innovation and novelty, experiment, innovate, and encourage endogenous self-organization and novelty. One example is a current project from Colorado. In the Crystal River basin in the early 1900s, and again in the 1950s, miners pried coal from these mountains, easing 100-ton loads down the switchbacks. Now the mineshafts are closed, but the tangle of roads, along with 100 acres of waste-rock piles, remain major erosion problems. On this site a unique merger is occurring between the Forest Service, local cattlemen and environmental groups. After using a three-year “cow stomp” to integrate biochar, compost and rotational grazing in the barren soils, new grasses, and decreased erosion are evident.

Management’s job is to flip systems to more resilient states. Management of rangeland and savanna systems illustrates how management determines ecosystem state. Consider a system with two states: one with a balance between grass and shrubs with periodic fires and one with little or no grass, dominated by shrubs. A flip can be induced by overgrazing or fire suppression or by controlling grazing and prescribed burns. Increased grazing and fire suppression can reduce the resilience of the desirable system (the one with plentiful grass and few shrubs) to a drought.

By embracing disturbance, managers increase resilience of desirable systems. The system is exposed to discrete, low-level events that cause disruptions without pushing the system beyond a critical threshold. Such frequent, small-scale disturbances can increase system resilience and adaptability in the long term by promoting natural selection and novel configurations during the phase of renewal. Disturbance regimes, defined as the repeated exposure to certain shocks over time, push the processes of evolution and adaptation in ecosystems and build ecosystems’ capacity to recover from future disturbance.

As long as the disturbance does not push the ecosystem too close to or beyond a critical threshold, the system can recover and may even be stronger upon reorganization. Disturbance initiates the release of resources that have become sequestered or bound up so that other components can take advantage of them while forming novel configurations.  Disturbance loosens rigidity. However, for exposure to disturbance to achieve the desired effect of building resilience, and not the consequence of pushing the system beyond a threshold, the system must be robust, with a strong foundation of ecosystem services and governance.

Disturbance contributes to agroecosystems’ resilience in two ways. First, it facilitates diversity. Disturbance regimes affect the landscape irregularly, creating a mosaic of plant and animal communities in various stages of succession. Second, it sets into motion the phase of renewal and reorganization. Resources are then redistributed and reorganized into novel configurations that are more adapted to the changing conditions.

Resilient societies have instituted regular and orderly disturbance by changing those who are in power. At least every eight years the U.S. President is replaced. This embrace of disruption is hardly the norm in the world’s societies. Robert Mugabe’s continuous rule in Zimbabwe since 1980 has eliminated productive businesses and farms and stimulated perhaps “the most rapid disintegration yet of a modern nation-state.”  I’ve visited Zimbabwe multiple times during Mugabe’s reign and witnessed further deterioration each visit.

There is a remarkably high correlation between length of time in office of a country’s leader and stagnation or decline in living standards in a country. No matter how benevolent a dictator, he is limited by his own experience and networks. In ecological resilience this is an example of a rigidity or poverty trap: the governance of a system insures that the system does not move into more adapted state.   The system does not change and may appear resilient in the short run, but any long term resilience of the system is undermined.

Governance of systems may maintain a system in a poverty trap not only through the perpetuation of one particular leader. In fact, more pernicious influences on resilience are rigid cultural mindsets and other controllers of governance structures (such as well-heeled lobbyists).

Randy Hardin, as shown in our case study from Central Arkansas, is a prime example of transformation and resilience. His farm was highly diversified and fed into a larger business that housed a pumpkin patch, corn maze, restaurant and educational opportunities for children all over the property including replicas of American Indian and colonial homes on site. Business was going great, he employed a tremendous staff generating wealth in the local economy and his business model was built on providing enjoyment and education to all ages. As luck would have it, a highway was constructed right through the center of his property, effectively cutting off the vegetable fields that fed into his restaurant and creating too much liability to have children around with the new highway looming nearby. Rather than packing up and taking a job in the city, he transformed his model choosing to reopen a new store in a nearby town that specialized in locally grown food and culinary products as well as a successful BBQ and ready-made meals for the ageing populace around him. Resilience resulted from his willingness to transform the model to something new, choosing not to maintain the old business in the face of game changing disturbance.

The collapse survivalists see coming may never happen, but unexpected disturbances will happen to all our farms, communities and nations.  Until we embrace disturbance and use it to create transformation, dissolution of systems should be expected.


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