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Increasingly, cracks are appearing in the capacity of communities, ecosystems, and landscapes to provide the goods and services that sustain our planet's well-being. The response from most quarters has been for "more of the same" that created the situation in the first place: more control, more intensification, and greater efficiency.
"Resilience thinking" offers a different way of understanding the world and a new approach to managing resources. It embraces human and natural systems as complex entities continually adapting through cycles of change, and seeks to understand the qualities of a system that must be maintained or enhanced in order to achieve sustainability. It explains why greater efficiency by itself cannot solve resource problems and offers a constructive alternative that opens up options rather than closing them down.
In Resilience Thinking, scientist Brian Walker and science writer David Salt present an accessible introduction to the emerging paradigm of resilience. The book arose out of appeals from colleagues in science and industry for a plainly written account of what resilience is all about and how a resilience approach differs from current practices. Rather than complicated theory, the book offers a conceptual overview along with five case studies of resilience thinking in the real world. It is an engaging and important work for anyone interested in managing risk in a complex world.
"This is one of those books that barely mentions planning as such, but has lots of implications for it. It's short but will repay some extra quiet time...Their goal is to get us to look at the world and its systems in a fresh new way."
"Resilience Thinking is an impressive and highly successful effort to explain complex ecological and social interactions and changes in a unified framework and in language accessible to a wide audience. This book should stimulate extensive discussions on these critical issues and innovative ways to approach them."
Harold Mooney, Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology, Stanford University
"Resilience Thinking provides a much-needed accessible entrée into a concept that holds the key to our future.... Full of wisdom, sophisticated science, and practical guidance, this book provides profound ideas, insights, and hope to scientists, students, managers, and planners alike."
Jane Lubchenco, Distinguished Professor of Zoology, Oregon State University
"Resilience Thinking is an essential guidebook to a powerful new way of understanding our world—and of living resiliently within it—developed in recent decades by an international team of ecologists. With five clear and compelling case studies drawn from regions as diverse as Florida, Sweden, and Australia, this book shows how all highly adaptive systems—from ecologies to economies—go through regular cycles of growth, reorganization, and renewal and how our failures to understand the basic principles of resilience have often led to disaster. Resilience Thinking gives us the conceptual tools to help us cope with the bewildering surprises and challenges of our new century."
Thomas Homer-Dixon, Professor of political science, University of Toronto
"...a clear, readable, non-academic explanation of the difference between an optimization mindset and a resilience mindset."
Chapter 1. Living in a Complex World: An Introduction to Resilience Thinking
-Case Study 1: Carving up a National Icon: The Florida Everglades
Chapter 2. The System Rules: Creating a Mind Space for Resilience Thinking
-Case Study 2: Between a (Salt) Rock and a Hard Place: The Goulburn-Broken Catchment, Australia
Chapter 3. Crossing the Threshold: Be Careful about the Path You Choose?You May Not Be Able to Return
-Case Study 3: Losing the Jewel in the Crown: The Coral Reefs of the Caribbean
Chapter 4. In the Loop: Phases, Cycles, and Scales?Adaptive Cycles and How Systems Change
-Case Study 4: Scenarios on the Lakes: The Northern Highlands Lake District, Wisconsin
Chapter 5. Making Sense of Resilience: How Do You Apply Resilience Thinking?
-Case Study 5: Building Resilience in the Wetlands: The Kristianstads Vattenrike, Sweden
Chapter 6. Creating Space in a Shrinking World: Resilience and Sustainability
Postscript for a Resilient World
About the Authors
A few weeks ago the world learnt of the disappearance of the Bramble Cay melomys, a small Australian rodent only known to occur on a tiny coral cay off the northern tip of Australia. The finding is noted in a government report that documents how a comprehensive search for the species in 2014 had failed to detect a single animal.
The report’s authors state that the population had “almost certainly” disappeared because its habitat had been destroyed by the ocean stripping vegetation from the low-lying cay. Indeed, so close to sea level is the tiny island that it probably provided little refuge to the melomys from big weather events. The authors even suggested ocean inundation could have directly killed or carried away individual animals! It’s a tragic situation to contemplate, the final specimen of a species being washed away by a rising sea.
Thousands of species around the world are on the lip of extinction but the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys is particularly poignant in that human-induced climate change has been identified as the root cause of its demise. Sea-level rise and increased frequency and intensity of weather events have been noted as the cause of the loss of its island home.
The loss of a species of island rat does not overly concern everyone, something that is clear if you peruse the discussion threads following some of the articles on this event (for example, see Nature and The Washington Post) and many simply deny the existence of climate change (read those same discussion threads). And yet the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys should be ringing alarm bells everywhere. It’s a symbol of clear and present danger, an example of irreversible consequence and a portent of things to come.
The Bramble Cay melomys has crossed an irreversible threshold. It’s gone with no possibility of return. And with its passing, the system it was a part of has lost a natural component making it less able to cope with change and disturbance; such is the consequence of biodiversity loss.
Scientists across multiple disciplines have identified what they believe is a ‘safe’ level of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere. It is 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. This year we crossed 400 ppm. The consequences of transgressing this ‘planetary boundary’ is climate change, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events. This increase in disturbance threatens to overwhelm the resilience of many species, especially those living in low areas, and the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys is but the start of this process.
Given the already devastating change to Bramble Cay it’s unlikely that the loss of melomys will have any effects on what’s left of its ecosystem. However, in more-or-less intact ecosystems the loss of species serves to erode the system’s resilience to climate change. It’s a synergistic set of secondary feedback effects making things progressively worse. Biodiversity loss makes us more vulnerable to climate change, less able to absorb the disruption it brings.
Resilience thinking helps us engage with the complexity of the world, guiding our management of ecosystems. Part of that complexity is the strength of policy feedbacks to change. Some have suggested we should have moved the last Bramble Cay melomys to some safe harbor before they were swallowed by the hungry sea. And, indeed, we should have; we’ve known they were at risk for many years. That we didn’t suggests our feedback to the challenge of climate change are inappropriate. They need to be tighter. In this case it’s resulted in the irreversible loss of a mammal species. And maybe we should seeing this rodent as a canary in the coalmine.
This Valentine’s Day, we thought it would be fun for Island Press authors to share the love. We asked a few authors to choose their favorite Island Press book—other than their own, of course—and explain what makes it so special. Check out their responses below, and use code 4MAGICAL for 25% off and free shipping all of the books below, as well as books from participating authors.
What’s your favorite Island Press book? Share your answer in the comments.
My favorite IP book—not that I’ve read them all—is Mike Lydon’s Tactical Urbanism. This book shows how ad hoc interventions can improve the public realm, especially if they’re later made permanent. I discussed the concept on the latest Spokesmen podcast with architect Jason Fertig and illustrator Bekka “Bikeyface” Wright, both of Boston.
Last year I wrote a cover story for SIERRA magazine about how Donald Trump's proposed wall along the US-Mexico border would all but eliminate any chance for recovering jaguar species in the Southwest. In the course of my research I came across Alan Rabinowitz's An Indomitable Beast. It's a great read, blending Rabinowitz's own experiences as a big cat biologist with cutting-edge findings on this amazing species. As a writer, this book and its amazing details helped me bring the jaguar to life for readers.
This day is a time for reaching beyond data and logic to think about deeper ways of knowing. Love, specifically, but I would add to that faith, tradition and ethics. That's why I love Aaron Wolf's new book, The Spirit of Dialogue: Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict. Going beyond the mechanical "rationality" of the typical public meeting is necessary if we are to address the big issues of global sustainability and the smaller issues of how we sustain our local communities. Aaron Wolf provides the experience, tools and promise of a better, deeper approach.
Like many others, I am indebted to to Island Press for not one but three books that profoundly influenced my thinking. Panarchy (2001, edited by Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling) introduced me to the concept of socio-ecological systems resilience. Resilience Thinking (2006, by Brian Walker and David Salt) taught me what systems resilience really means. And the follow-up book Resilience Practice (2012) helped me start to understand how systems resilience actually works. The latter remains the most-consulted book on my shelf—by Island Press or any other publisher—and I was thrilled and frankly humbled when Brian and David agreed to write a chapter for our own contribution to the field, The Community Resilience Reader (2017).
"A large percentage of my urbanism bookshelf is comprised of Island Press books, so it's very difficult to share my love for just one! So, I won't because the books we pull of the shelf most often these days are the NACTO Design Guides. Finally, a near complete set of highly usable and mutually supportive design standards that help us advocate for and build better streets, better places."
Nicols Fox's Against the Machine is a book that’s becomes more relevant each year as technology impinges ever further on our daily lives. It’s a fascinating, deeply researched look at how and why people have resisted being treated as extensions of machines.
Lake Effect by Nancy Nichols. I read this book several years ago. It is so important to hear the voices of those whose lives are impacted by industrial age pollutants, lest we slide into complacency. In this case, the story of the chemicals of Lake Michigan. It is a short, beautifully written, disturbing read.
—Emily Monosson, Natural Defense and Unnatural Selection
Peter Gleick’s series, The World’s Water, is one of the most useful surveys of the cutting edge of global waters there is. Each edition brings in-depth coverage of the issues of the day, always eminently readable and backed up by the crack research team that he puts together for each topic. I use it in my classes, always confident that students (and I) will be kept abreast of the best of The World’s Water.
—Aaron Wolf, The Spirit of Dialogue
Mark Jerome Walters' important book, Seven Modern Plagues, places great emphasis on linking emerging diseases with habitat destruction and other forms of modification natural processes. This book is a call for us to recognize that each new disease reflects an environmental warning.
—Andy Dyer, Chasing the Red Queen
My favorite Island Press book is The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, edited by Eric T. Freyfogle. Perhaps it remains my favorite IP text because it is the first IP text I remember reading front to back, twice! I first encountered the book as a graduate student and was struck my its scope and tone. The book is thought provoking. But it's also a joy to read, which isn't surprising in hindsight given the award-winning contributors.
—Michael Carolan, No One Eats Alone
Don't see your Island Press fave? Share it in the comments below!
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
In the gloomy pall of the advancing Anthropocene, it’s nice to hear good news now and again on the environmental front. And such is the case with the release of beaver families back in the wild in the UK.
This is more than simply reintroducing a long lost animal – hunted to extinction in England some four centuries ago – it’s also the acknowledgement of the beaver’s capacity to build dams that officials hope will help with flood control. The beavers’ dam-building stores huge quantities of water and slows peak flows during big floods. In this manner these furry creatures act as ecosystem engineers providing a valued ecosystem service. In doing so, their activity increases the resilience of the social-ecological systems in which they operate, enabling it to better absorb disturbances in the form of floods.
On the other side of the planet, on the outskirts of Australia’s capital city Canberra, a similar experiment is being trialed with the re-introductions of bettongs (also known as rat kangaroos). Bettongs are natural-born diggers, busily burrowing into the earth in pursuit of food. They can dig over 200 holes in a single night, moving some 3 tonnes of soil each year. In the process they improve water infiltration, distribute nutrients and inoculate gum trees with fungi the trees depend upon to grow. They make a significant contribution to the health and resilience of box gum grassy woodlands they inhabit.
The bettongs were wiped out by the exotic feral fox, and they haven’t been seen digging in the woodlands for a hundred years. Those woodlands have long been in steep decline and are now listed as a critically endangered ecosystem. The reintroduction of the bettong can’t happen soon enough. (Fortunately foxes never made it to Tasmania and bettongs can still be found down on the Apple Isle, and it’s from here the bettongs have come.)
Beavers and bettongs are keystone species. Removing or re-introducing them has ramifying effects in the ecosystem, significantly changing both structure and function, akin to the cascading effects of removing top predators.
But don’t count your chickens until they’ve hatched. It’s great seeing these once widespread native animals being brought back into the system to again provide some important ecosystem services. But landscapes aren’t mechanical constructs in which the beaver cog or the bettong cog can simply be put back in when we’ve realized these cogs do important things. Landscapes are complex adaptive systems, and when these ecosystem engineers dropped out (being hunted or preyed upon until they disappeared), the system left behind reorganizes around their absence. A century later (four in the case of the beaver) and the system is now quite different to the one they formerly occupied.
In complex systems (like landscapes) the recovery path of a disturbed ecosystem often isn’t just the reverse of the decline. It usually comes back via a different path and the system may not be the exact same system. Beavers and the dams they produce are unlikely to produce the same landscape as the landscape of four centuries ago. And bettongs are unlikely to restore the full function of woodlands from a hundred years ago.
Both the beaver and the bettong are being reintroduced in fenced off areas so they can be protected and contained, and beyond the fence lies a hostile world. In the case of the bettongs, the threat that removed them from the landscape – the fox – is still present. Until these exotic predators are somehow managed, a bettong-led recovery is highly unlikely.
Yes, we hope for the re-establishment of these ecosystem engineers across the broader landscape. But our optimism about these developments needs to be tempered by the realities of working with complex systems.