Fires are raging in dozens of locations in nearly all Western states. Governors rush tanker planes, helicopters and men to put out the fires. And we nearly all agree its the right thing to do. We must stop those wildfires. We hate to see those forests go up in flames. We like stability, protection of human property and human life, conservation of resources.
Natural systems have a more resilient approach. Natural systems are dependent on episodic destruction and regrowth of local plant and animal populations. California’s yearly wildfires mostly occur in an ecosystem dominated by chaparral, evergreen oak shrubs. Chaparral requires fire to release the chaparral seeds from their pods. When fire is suppressed, tinder builds up in the unburnt area making the next fire easier to start and hotter burning. Eventually a hot enough fire will destroy the seeds and nothing will cover the soil, leading to erosion, loss of soil, mudslides, and a barren landscape.The disruption of fire is a part of the natural system. No fire, no regeneration and the chaparral community dies.
Natural systems do strive toward stability and protection of resources, but on a much longer scale. When we impose our desire for stability and protection of resources on nature, we often make things worse.
American Indians and Australian aborigines used fire as a tool to clear the landscape so grasses could come in and game increase. They knew the fast growing grass species were more productive and attracted more diversity than the slow growing, mature forest. When Europeans came to America, they were greeted with vast open savannas which became forests when we stopped the fires.
On one of my first trips to Africa, I still believed that fire was an evil to be suppressed, but the local people gradually convinced me that it is a natural tool which can improve the landscape and make their systems more productive. Later, back home in Arkansas, I learned that one of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane, is produced in rice paddies by the degradation of organic matter. The standard practice of burning rice stubble decreases organic matter and thus decreases methane production.
Even when we come to accept fire as a useful tool, we tend to compartmentalize that fact. We find it hard to embrace chaos and disruption. Even though they are an integral part of all resilient systems. The pervasiveness of our need for stability is illustrated in a discipline which seems superficially very similar to ecological resilience.
Permaculture is a design method that has attracted the devotion of many searching for an ecologically sound agriculture. The twelve principles of permaculture design have much in common with ecological resilience as we detail in a chapter of our book. Permaculture is, as the name suggests, all about creating a permanent agriculture. So despite the overwhelming concordance of permaculture and ecological resilience, they differ at the core.
Ecological resilience requires change. Periodic transformation is the quality of ecological resilience that most readily reflects this quality. Resilient systems creatively use times of disturbance. The omega phase inherent to every adaptive system is not destruction or an end, but a necessary part of reorganization to a more productive system. Omega is precursor to the alpha phase–reassembly, reorganization, creation of a new system with emergent qualities.
Change and adaptation are the heart 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. To assume that a system should remain stable, consistent and effectively stagnant is short-sighted and destructive. Ecological resilience depends on a system’s ability to both anticipate disturbance and to absorb it constructively.
Ecological resilience provides an empirical foundation for some aspects of Permaculture, refines other principles and shows some pronouncements are too broad and sweeping. The value of any practice such as permaculture is enhanced when it stays grounded in the natural patterns it seeks to emulate, manage, and improve. This is the task of anyone seeking to create an ecologically resilient system, to mimic the inevitable ebb and flow of nature.
Within the shifting qualities of nature we can build lasting and, relatively, permanent structures that can continue to serve populations long into the chaotic and unpredictable future of our planet. As long as we don’t focus on short term stability at the expense of long-term resilience.