Why words can never fully capture reality and don’t need to

I’ve had two fishing poles at Meadowcreek for years.  Sometimes I take visitors fishing.  But the ones who score high on resilience don’t need me to take them anywhere.  All I provide is the poles and point them toward the pond.  And they could probably make do without those tools.  Yesterday a couple of them grabbed my poles and tackle and headed for the pickerel.

10957723_10101119825612841_7777282623031114165_nThis pond is filled with mature fish–pickerel and bass.  When a pond has too many mature fish, production of young fish is suppressed.  The mature ones manage the population by eating the young, in most cases.  That’s what’s happened in this pond.  So if we want to give any young ones a chance, we have to harvest a few of the big bruisers.

I’m a catch and release guy, usually, so I’ve not been aiding in the rejuvenation of the pond.  But yesterday, finally, the boys who stole my poles began the over-due process.

You’re heard the old saying: Give a man a fish and you’ve fed him a day; teach a man to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime?  The resilient person is so eager to learn practical skills that you barely have to teach them anything.  They jump way ahead on the learning curve.  Far faster than you can verbally present material.

Ecological resilience is always about self-help. People and systems adapting to disturbance and creating stronger systems.  Unfortunately resilience has a connotation of bouncing back like a rubber ball you squeeze.  That’s the old engineering and wood-working conception of resilience.  Buzz Holling made the distinction between the two types of resilience in his seminal 1973 paper. We probably need to coin a new word that doesn’t have the old connotations.

Until we create that new term, we are stuck with fools and tools who don’t learn or even care to learn the research on ecological resilience.  Politicians always use words in ways that flatter the system they are trying to build.  Which always has them at the center.  All politicians are narcissists.

One famously fired and universally polarizing figure in the Obama administration recently pontificated on resilience.  Joining others of his ill-informed ilk, he showed how deficient he is on research and common sense on what makes people, families, nations and social-ecosystems survive and thrive.  One quote from his silly, elitist interview published October 19, 2015: “The problem with resilience thinking is often it’s about, whoever you are, if something bad happens, we want you to be able to get back to where you were. What if where you were sucks?”

Ecological resilience is far beyond engineering resilience  A significant limitation with the engineering approach to resilience is the idea of “restoring conditions” or “returning to normal.”  Sustainability, as most conceive it, is about maintaining the status quo.  Ecological resilience is always about creating innovative, systemic solutions.

Defining sustainability has been described as a wicked problem.  Wicked problems must be solved before they can be understood and possess singularity for every example of the problem. Wicked problems defining third aspect is that they have no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution due in large part to polarized stakeholders with conflicting values precluding any agreement on criteria to determine when a solution is found.

Climate change is a classic wicked problem (according to the World Bank and many others) as are most situations of environmental degradation, overpopulation, endangered species, poverty, and food security.

Inability to induce stability and associated lack of effectiveness of command-and-control management in wicked problems (such as fire suppression in sustainable yield forestry) stimulated the concept of ecological resilience.  In contrast to sustainabiity,  ecological resilience has a very specific and measureable biological reality: withstanding disturbance, including climate change.   Resilient systems last, non-resilient systems do not.

Explaining and predicting resilience requires understanding the complex adaptive systems people interact with.  A multitude of frameworks have been developed for these social-ecological systems.  However,  the complexity of interactions within each social-ecological systems (SES) make each SES unique and render impossible accounting for every factor that conditions resilience now and in the future.  Any framework will focus on a few of these factors and none can encompass all.

Seeing the impossibility of predicting interaction of innumerable complex adaptive systems, many researchers have focused on defining the basic qualities which appear in all resilient systems.  One of the earliest attempts (Walker and Salt, 2006) formulated a set of nine necessary qualities for a resilient world: Diversity, Ecological Variability, Modularity, Acknowledging Slow Variables, Tight Feedbacks, Social Capital, Innovation, Overlap in Governance, and Ecosystem Services.

Carpenter et al. (2012) clarified the distinction between the specific “resilience of what to what” and general resilience which confers the ability cope with any disturbance.  They went on to posit nine slightly different qualities which enable general resilience: diversity, modularity, openness, reserves, feedbacks, nestedness, monitoring, leadership, and trust.

The Frankenberger et al. (2013) conceptual framework for community resilience is an influential treatment of resilience in international community development.  This framework posits seven central “community social dimensions.”  These are preparedness, responsiveness/flexibility, learning and innovation, self-organization, diversity, inclusion and aspirations.

Rockefeller Foundation (2014) has developed a City Resilience Framework which posits seven qualities of resilient systems: reflective, robust, redundant, flexible, resourceful, inclusive and integrated.

The Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC, 2015) developed a set of “seven principles that are considered crucial for building resilience in social-ecological systems”: maintain diversity and redundancy, manage connectivity, manage slow variables and feedbacks, foster complex adaptive systems, encourage learning, broaden participation, and promote polycentric governance.

For agroecosystems, the most relevant framework to date is Cabell and Oelofse (2012) which details thirteen categories of indicators shown to be associated with resilience: socially self-organized, ecologically self-regulated, appropriately connected, functional and response diversity, optimally redundant, reflective and shared learning, spatial and temporal heterogeneity, exposed to disturbance, coupled with local natural capital, globally autonomous and locally interdependent, honors legacy, build human capital and reasonably profitable.

Our research in the uplands of Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and Missouri has distilled all these into eight qualities necessary for ecologically resilient agroecosystems.  You can learn a lot about those in our free-online book: Roots of Resilience.

Read some of that and you won’t appear quite as stupid as the left coast politicians. The next foray of the Resilience Project outside our agroecoregion will be to the home of some of these less-than-sensible fools, California.  I hope they don’t infect us with their elitist, self-defeating attitudes.  Maybe we’ll be resistant or even resilient.


Some readings, so you don’t fall in a non-resilient rut:

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2): 155–169.


Lazarus, R.J., Super wicked problems and climate change: restraining the present to liberate the future. Cornell Law Review, 94:1153-1234. http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/research/cornell-law-review/upload/Lazarus.pdf

Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S., and G. Auld, 2012. Overcoming the tragedy of super wicken problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sciences, 45:123-152. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11077-012-9151-0

C.S. Holling and Gary K. Meffe1996. Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management. Conservation Biology 10:328–337.




One thought on “Why words can never fully capture reality and don’t need to

  1. Pingback: Love and the letter of the law | Resilience

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