Disturbance is required for resilience, whether we like it or not

Cutting wood is a great pleasure in cool weather.  I’m looking forward to getting a team together and putting up the winter supply for the dorm and Resilience house.  We have some trees which died this year and should be just seasoned enough to make good fire wood.  It’s hard to get some people off their couches and out of their climate contrInfinity_Symbololled houses to cut wood.  But I know it will be good for them, so I cajole them into it.

Sometimes I run into people who complain of being cold all the time.  Usually it turns out they spend most of their time sitting.  The best way to get warm is to get active.  Your body needs to be active.  Rest, ease, relaxation are fine, but only if followed and preceded by activity.

We need these disturbances such as wood cutting and other exercise to be healthy.

Some disturbances, such as the 9/11 tragedy whose anniversary we observe today, are never welcome.  Those who see the value in such disturbances are often castigated by those who would prefer to wallow in continued bereavement.  If we are lucky, we will learn a lesson from 9/11 which makes us a more resilient society, better able to withstand and prevent such disturbances.  Then we will be able to see it as more than just a tragedy.

Maybe then we will see the tragedy as leading to a reorganization and birth of a new cycle of progress.  From a resilience perspective, such a disturbance is integrated into our cyclical conception of living systems.  Our symbol for resilience is a three dimensional figure which looks like a circle or an infinity symbol, ∞, depending on the angle you look from.

Buzz Holling fi4box-adaptive-cycle1rst developed this heuristic model to show the relationship between the four stages of the adaptive cycle: reorganization, rapid growth, maturity and release.

Some have modified the model to become a simple circle with a fore loop of rapid growth and maturation and a back loop of release and reorganization.  When the 3-D model is viewed from certain angles, it certainly appears to be a circular cycle.

adaptive cycle viewsThe figure 8 or infinity  model incorporates more dimensions into the model.  The adjacent figure shows how both potential (accumulated resources) and connectedness dimensions are related to resilience.

The model has also been used to relate various scales of a system to each other and to evolution of a system over time.

Every living system is a complex adaptive system composed of complex adaptive systems and itself a component of a complex adaptive system at a highecycling up and downr scale.

A farm is composed of various fields which are each composed of systems of microorganisms and plants and earthworms.  The farm is one component in a larger marketing, policy, and input supply systems.  Changes in systems above or below a system’s scale will lead to changes in resilience and productivity.

Likewise, over time, the farm can cycle up to more productive adaptive cycle or cycle down to less productive systems.  A farmer can turn a pasture into paddocks for rotational grazing to increase productivity or be less ambitious and just let the animals roam where they will and be less productive.

No matter what the manager does or how the higher systems influence the systems at smaller scales, none can avoid the adaptive cycle.  Every system will go through periods of rapid growth, followed by maturation, followed by release, followed by reorganization.  You can use this cycle or be abused by it.

The resilience cycle is all about adapting to disturbance, not about eliminating disturbance.  The forest protected from fire creates conditions for a hotter, more destructive fire.  The society which seeks to maintain its consumption no matter how its resources are depleted will face destruction.  The unequal society which suppresses a minority will face revolt.  The resilient system uses disturbance to create a more healthy system.

Until we modify our system to counteract the forces which led to 9/11, we will continue to face threats from those same forces.  Most seem wholly focused on bereavement and trying to maintain the system which existed before 9/11.  Until we understand and directly counter the causes of 9/11, we are inviting more such tragedies.


For more on the adaptive cycle, see numerous articles in the free online journal Ecology and Society.  One cogent one is Daedlow et al., 2011, available at this link.

For a more thorough introduction to the adaptive cycle, complex adaptive systems and their relationship to the qualities of resilience, see the introduction to our free online book available at this link.