Regime shift and redevelopment of a mining area’s socio-ecological system under resilience thinking: a case study in Shanxi Province, China

  • Yongjun Yang
  • Yue Li
  • Fu Chen
  • Shaoliang Zhang
  • Huping Hou
Case Study


Theory related to resilience thinking proposes that complex systems evolve in nested adaptive cycles. However, concrete examples are needed to instantiate this proposition and show what merit it might have in practice. This empirical study used a mesoscale landscape that has experienced mining activity and has faced challenges related to environmental protection and sustainable development. Adopting the perspective of resilience thinking, this study investigated the historical dynamics of a post-mining area in Shanxi Province and considered its future development. In the studied area, the main income source was found to have shifted from agriculture to coal mining activity between 1983 and 2010, with more than 41% of the land being used for mining operations. Such activity degraded the net primary productivity of the local ecosystem. The socio-ecological system experienced two states: traditional agriculture and mining. The evolution of the past adaptive cycles was mainly driven by coal exploitation and environmental degradation within the mining area, as well as the cross-scale interactions of economic events and coal policy changes outside the mining area. As a result of exhausted coal resources and small-scale mining closures, the socio-ecological system is currently in a poverty trap. Based on an assessment of the socio-ecological system’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, a new eco-agriculture can be considered an option for future transformation. The post-mining landscape is apparently a coupled socio-ecological system characterized by panarchy and temporal dynamics. Internal resources and cross-scale interactions, such as the regional-scale demand for agricultural products, could help reorganize the stagnant system. This case study shows that a mesoscale landscape can be a sally port for the application and operation of resilience-thinking-related theory, such as panarchy. This concrete example manifests the proposition that complex systems undergo cycles of renewal and collapse and can be nested in adaptive cycles. The merit of this proposition is not just that it helps to establish a theoretical understanding of the dynamics of complex systems; more importantly, it also generates practical measures to manage such dynamics. This case study supports the existence and importance of regional resilience in maintaining or restoring local economies. On these grounds, we propose that resilience thinking can act as a mental model and practical tool for understanding the historical dynamics of stagnant systems, such as legacy mining sites, and navigate their transitions.


Sustainable development Regime shift Resilience thinking Panarchy Socio-ecological system Landscape Mining area 



This work was supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities under Grant No. 2017XKZD14. The authors thank Yan Zhang and Shaojin Hao for their participation in data collection and fieldwork. In addition, we are grateful for the constructive comments and suggestions provided by anonymous reviewers.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environment Science and Spatial InformaticsChina University of Mining and TechnologyXuzhouChina
  2. 2.Low Carbon Energy InstituteChina University of Mining and TechnologyXuzhouChina

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