Can you be tough enough or smart enough? No, but resilient systems don’t have to be.

We finished the most recent stone project at Meadowcreek yesterday.  We have stone walls and fireplaces which are still in great shape after 30 years.  So any new project has to at least match that level of quality.  We want them to be strong and tough.  They aren’t resilient, but they are tough.  Many people think being strong and tough is the same as being resilient.  It isn’t.

SageGrouse_BothSexes_02Our new stone work sits in the forest.  The stone columns can withstand much more punishment than any tree in the forest.  Try chopping down a stone column with an axe.  But if a bad storm were to blow everything down, the forest would bounce back, but the stone work wouldn’t.

In ecological resilience, the system reproduces itself.  In animals this means having offspring which survive and thrive.  The tough ones aren’t always the most resilient.

In apes, sage-grouse and many other species, the alpha male rules the roost.  He’s the tough guy who defends his harem and tries to make sure that only his offspring survive.  Generally, the tough alpha male does reproduce more.  In many species, though, less tough beta males may be more successful.  An alpha males may spend all his time and energy trying to guard a large harem, while the beta male has no such responsibilities and can sneakily mate with females when the alpha male is busy being tough. Tough guys can finish last if not-so-tough guys have better strategies.

You may look at such studies and say, maybe the smart one is the more resilient.  The ability to adapt and innovate in the face of change is certainly a quality of resilient systems.

However, adaptability and innovation are constrained and conservative in resilient systems.   You can be too smart for your own good.  Unless an innovation fits well with the existing system it will not increase resilience.  Farmers who are always the first to adopt a new technology are not the most resilient.  Resilient farmers watch the early experimenters and adopt only when the innovation has proven adapted to their situation.

Many people have a big brain fetish.  We believe we are superior to other animals because we have a bigger brain.  So far in the history of the planet, there is little evidence that the big brain has resulted in resilience.  We have bested all the other species, but we show little evidence of being more resilient than small brained species.

Part of our problem is that we like to maintain systems we like.  Ecological research has shown how such an approach can decrease resilience.

Early in the study of resilience, C. S. Hollings made a key distinction between our everyday concept of resilience, what he called engineering resilience, and ecological resilience.

Engineering resilience means bouncing back, returning to its original condition.  Resilient materials and systems are those which withstand stress, recover from disturbance, and return to the original form, exactly as it was before.  In computer programming, mechanical engineering or robotics this is imperative as the original form is what makes the system work to the standards necessary for performance.

Ecological resilience incorporates engineering resilience, but goes one step further.  Ecological resilience suggests that a system often recovers from disturbance by adapting and changing from the original form. Sometimes this adaptation develops into something better, more efficient or more capable of responding effectively to the next disturbance. Sometimes adaptation can develop into systems that are worse off than they were before, stripped of resources, and too disorganized to develop into a robust ecosystem.

Often the heightened disorganization occurs in the wake of disturbance is the result of a system that went too long without disturbance, holding onto too many resources, trapping them from the continual adaptive cycle at work in all natural systems. Whether it is an old growth forest grown too dense and at risk of massive catastrophic forest fire or a flood plain left dry too long, ecosystems need to be disturbed to unlock resources and promote new growth through the adaptive cycle.

Man, applying his perhaps too big brain, is always trying to interrupt the adaptive cycle, e.g., by suppressing fires in forests.  We want to sustain certain systems.  Resilient systems don’t necessarily perpetuate existing systems.  Resilient systems often undergo needed transformations.

A recently published 30 year study of sage-grouse habitats illustrates this.  Hunters like grouse and press government to increase the habitat that grouse are adapted to.  These habitats are dominated by sage.  Sage is a species which produces chemicals which are poisonous to other plants.  It comes to dominate a landscape by making its environment toxic to almost anything but sage.  Fewer plants means less ground cover and more erosion.  So sage contributes to the degradation of its environment.

If it were just appearing today, it would be classified as a noxious weed.

But since its been around so long, animals like grouse have adapted to it. Maintaining the sage system to insure habitat for grouse seems ecologically sound to some–especially government researchers responding to the hunter interest group.  But the increased fires in areas dominated by sage has revealed a lack of resilience of the sage system.

All sage dominated areas (including big sagebrush, black and low sagebrush) have low resilience to fire and recover slowly. Non-native annual grasses often grow back in these areas, which in turn increase fire size and frequency, decreasing suitable habitat for the greater sage-grouse.

The areas dominated by sage may be developing a new, more resilient system.  We can try to maintain the sage-grouse habitat or just let the ecosystem evolve as it copes with disturbance.

We create stonework which lasts at Meadowcreek.  Our human view of lasting a long time is short-sighted from the perspective of the ecosystem.   Resilient systems are focused on eons, not having stonework last 30 years.  Resilient systems can last forever.  Not by being as tough as stone, but by being as adaptable as water.

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

–Tao Te Ching

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