Resilience Thinking and Sustainable Development
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KeywordsResilience Thinking Environmental Education Strategies Socio-environmental Systems Aquatic Life Forms Water Ecosystem Services
Resilience thinking addresses the dynamics of complex social–environmental systems and explores how such systems can be managed in the face of disturbances – it is a paradigm beneficial toward the aims and objectives of sustainable development.
The roots of resilience thinking can be traced to ecological research where system-level observations of the natural world and their underlying dynamics led toward new insights on the concept of resilience. In the natural world, shocks and disturbances are a constant reality of evolutionary life. Ecological systems, e.g., food webs, river basins, and grasslands, have developed an inherent ability to anticipate uncertainty, adapt, and maintain the resilience of critical functions. Learning from the collective wisdom of the natural world on resilience can aid our thinking toward sustainable development.
Sustainable development is a normative vision whereby our collective developmental needs of today do not endanger the needs of future generations. Resilience thinking can be beneficial to sustainable development, and the concept of resilience has been cited numerously in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite the confusion surrounding its theoretical foundation and usage, the concept of resilience maintains a common sense appeal and is increasingly employed by researchers and policymakers concerned with dynamic socio-environmental systems.
Leveraging Resilience Thinking for Sustainable Development
Resilience thinking motivates our societies to accept uncertainty and to adapt to possible and probable future scenarios of shocks and or disturbances. Our societies may often fail to grasp the necessity of scenario planning and envisioning diverse futures, which may also include disasters, failures, and disturbances to what is perceived as normal. In the natural world, however, shocks are a recurring phenomenon, and there is no business as usual. Accepting the inherent complexities and uncertainties of our coupled socio-environmental realities may benefit our societies to anticipate the need for adaptation and change. Resilience thinking also motivates societies to consider the effects of our collective actions and to better manage the dynamic interactions between human and ecological systems. This includes, for example, the collective effects of our societies’ material consumption, generation of pollutants, and the capacity of the planet to withstand such pressures while supplying the ecosystem services which the future of humanity depends upon.
The paradigm of resilience thinking is centered on systems theory. A system consists of a collection of interdependent components, either living or nonliving, with emerging properties. As opposed to the reductionist perspective, a systems perspective intends to understand a phenomenon holistically and acknowledges that changing one part of the system usually affects other parts of the system and may lead to predictable patterns. This entails a focus on the cyclical effects of variables within a system and not a linear cause-and-effect relationship (Ulanowicz 2009a). System variables are often depicted by means of causal loop diagrams and include positive and negative feedback loops between the various components of the system. The management of these variables is often crucial to keeping systems resilient and functioning under various disturbances and shocks. For example, the resilience of the ecosystem services of a freshwater system can depend on nitrogen and phosphorous from farming practices entering the system. Although these elements are required for the freshwater system to create a suitable environment for fish and other aquatic life forms, their overabundance can be harmful. Specifically, after exceeding a certain threshold, these elements may reduce the dissolved oxygen in the water and suffocate the aquatic life forms. In this avenue, it is essential to identify the threshold of variables, which, if crossed, cause the system to be directed toward an unwanted equilibrium, e.g., the eutrophication of the freshwater system (Groffman et al. 2006).
The components of a system, their interlinkages, and dynamics provide diverse options in response to changing circumstances, shocks, and disturbances. In this avenue, there is strong evidence from the natural world suggesting that systems with higher redundancy are generally more resilient than other systems with lower redundancy (Ulanowicz 2009b). Redundancy reflects the replication of pathways, functions, or components, within a system to provide higher tolerance to faults. In circumstances of need, redundancy enables a system to continue its operations and prevent failures. Redundancy, however, does not inherently prevent, for example, a redundant component within the system to react similarly and fail in the face of a reoccurring threat or shock. Therefore, in addition to redundancy, systems are in need of diversity. Diversity within a system can include, for example, response diversity, functional diversity, and species diversity. Diversity provides the system with insurance to compensate for failure or loss by providing additional options and the flexibility to adapt. Both redundancy and diversity buffer a system from stress and enable higher flexibility in the face of shocks.
The resilience of a system is also strongly determined by the connectivity of its components. Connectivity can be both beneficial and or detrimental to a system. For example, high levels of connectivity can benefit a system’s recovery after a disturbance while also leading to a faster and more pervasive spread of shock or cascading failure (Hock et al. 2017). High levels of connectivity also enhance the system’s ability to overcome the introduction of random disturbances while at the same time making it vulnerable to targeted attacks (Albert et al. 2000). Connectivity within a system can refer to not only structural connections between the components of a system but also the strength of those connections. Connectivity can include interaction between species in a food web, the cycling of water in an agricultural system, or trade of resources among nations. A relevant concept beneficial toward the management of connectivity within a system is modularity (Stouffer and Bascompte 2011). Modularity is a system property and refers to the degree of which the components of a system can be separated and recombined. Modularity is practiced in many socio-environmental systems, including, for example, electricity grids to prevent blackouts and forest management to prevent the spread of unwanted fires.
Resilience thinking advances a holistic and systems perspective to the challenges of sustainable development. Toward that end, the management of system properties such as redundancy, diversity, connectivity, and modularity is important in enhancing the resilience of the system. However, translating the conceptual understanding of resilience toward effective decision-making and application may be highly challenging. Specifically, there may be disagreements among stakeholders on objectively defining the function or process, i.e., the resilience “of what,” and relevant disturbance or disruptions, i.e., the resilience “to what.”
For example, in river basin management plans, some stakeholders may focus on the resilience of water ecosystem services for agriculture, while others may focus on the resilience of the natural function of the river basin for the aquatic ecosystem. This divergence of view echoes eco-centric and anthropocentric perspectives and may have two different implications. In the eco-centric viewpoint, the resilience of natural function of the river basin is prioritized, whereby more attention is given toward river water reaching ecological flora and fauna, while in the anthropocentric, more attention is given toward river water being transferred toward agricultural usage (Kharrazi et al. 2016).
These different perspectives also imply important consequences for sustainable development in which the system may be described as resilient but counter to the normative beliefs of sustainability, e.g., loss of biodiversity, equitable water usage, and the conservation of environmental systems. Therefore, to successfully implement resilience thinking, it is essential to maintain strong stakeholder involvement to map differing perspectives and to consider all environmental, economic, and social consequences (Lang et al. 2012). Stakeholder engagement requires a systematic examination of problems and solutions across all scales and the balance of top-down and bottom-up strategies for enhancing system resilience. This entails, for example, in river basin management, the multi-stakeholder involvement of restoration ecologists, farmers, agricultural economists, and water governance bodies in the decision-making processes of operationalizing resilience thinking. Decision-making, therefore, should be socially negotiated among relevant stakeholders. This does not mean that all perspectives will be incorporated in all decisions; it signalizes, instead, that through inclusive, participatory decision-making, plural perspectives can be assessed and legitimized through processes of inclusion or exclusion of options which can be made explicit, discussed, and justified. A democratic appraisal is, therefore, not only desirable to avoid privileging interests of a few but also reflects with greater accuracy the plurality of understanding and desires, as well as the multifaceted character of sustainable development.
One way to enhance socio-environmental resilience would be to build adaptive capacity at the individual level. Toward that end, environmental education is of critical importance. There are many attempts to integrate environmental education with a focus on resilience at the level of the socio-environmental systems. Environmental education strategies should be consistent with managing for social change. These strategies should, therefore, include, social learning, multiple-loop learning, reflexivity allowing for educational self-organization, and other forms of participatory educational approaches. Furthermore, environmental education strategies should pay attention to multiple forms of knowledge and governance and better incorporate informational feedback from the social and environmental components of a system. A growing number of case studies have revealed how environmental education can enhance the resilience of socio-environmental systems, through enhancing biological diversity and ecosystem services and through incorporating diverse and changing forms of knowledge and participatory processes in resource management (Krasny et al. 2011). In addition to exploring innovative approaches to environmental education, resilience scholars have sought out new forms of organizational learning. Such learning is linked to emerging forms of governance that involve communities, nongovernmental organizations, as well as more formal government institutions and that contribute to processes of adaptation and change.
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