Island Press

ISBN 1-59726-092-4

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


This book starts with a clear, memorable picture that conveys the meaning of ‘resilience thinking’ better than the proverbial thousand words

Imagine you are on a boat docked in a calm harbor and you want to quickly carry a brim-full cup of water across a stateroom without spilling. Now imagine the same situation but with the boat in rough seas. In harbor, the solution is simple: just walk quickly, but not so quickly that the water spills. At sea, speed is a secondary concern; now the real challenge is to maintain balance on an abruptly pitching floor. The solution now is to find secure handholds and footholds and to flex your knees to absorb the roll of the boat. In harbor, the solution is a simple optimization problem [walk as fast as possible but not too fast]; at sea the solution requires you to enhance your ability to absorb disturbance- that is, enhance your resilience against the waves. 

What follows is a clear, readable, non-academic explanation of the difference between an optimization mindset and a resilience mindset. Regardless of the type of system involved, an optimization approach works at getting that system into its optimal state—optimal production, for example, for a crop—and holding it there. This approach plans around expected changes that are linear and/or incremental, such as the higher water levels in a stream in winter, but fails to plan for the erratic ones like the ‘hundred year flood.’ The downside of an optimization approach is that by setting the standard for optimal output and efficiency it lowers the system’s ability to cope with sudden shocks.

Resilience, on the other hand, is defined as ‘the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.’

The authors use the example of the ‘just in time’ ordering system now used by most of the large supermarket chains. This system has achieved optimum efficiency and ensures that all products are kept permanently in stock, so it is great for the end user. However, since it relies on trucks using motorways, a major event like a strike or a war that caused a sudden oil shortage could potentially empty a supermarket’s shelves in a few days. It is a perfect example of the many ways in which we all rely, without realizing it, on non-resilient, optimization-based systems. Yet now that we are in serious overshoot as regards our planet’s ability to support us and climate change is upon us, there is an urgent need to think differently about problem-solving. We need to think in terms of resilience, at all levels.

This book explains that the key to resilience thinking is embracing change instead of trying to prevent it. It gives us new terms to use when studying natural systems, such as the concepts of ‘thresholds’ and of ‘adaptive cycles’ — i.e. cycles of growth, crisis and reorganization—and how to use this knowledge to craft solutions to the problems that face us.

The book has a very well-organized structure as it includes both theory and practice. It is built around a set of five case studies. Each case study focuses on one particular area of the world and the social and ecological problems that beset it. Each area is one where humans, often over centuries, have caused such widespread ecological changes that these places are now facing a whole range of problems, from ecological through to economic and social. These are:

The Everglades of Florida
The Goulburn-Broken Catchment in Australia
The coral reefs of the Caribbean
The Northern Highlands Lake District in Wisconsin
The Kristianstads Vattenrike in Sweden

Using the case studies to illustrate the various aspects of resilience thinking works well to anchor the new concepts in the reader’s mind. For example the concept of crossing a threshold is well illustrated by the problems that now beset the Goulburn-Broken Catchment in Australia. Here, the historical clearing of forest and imposition of European-style farming has led to a situation where too much salt in the groundwater and a dangerously high water table creates a Catch 22 for the region’s dairy farmers. They need to irrigate their fields to flush out the salt their plants take up but if the water table rises into the root zone their plants will die anyway. Although the dairy farmers persist with their optimization approach, praying for good weather and hoping that their regular pumping out of groundwater will save them (though in fact all it does is pass the salination problem downstream to other areas) it is clear that an ecological threshold has been crossed here and the only way the region can remain productive is to switch to other—perhaps lower-yield—forms of land use, e.g. horticulture instead of dairy farming.

With the increasing number of ‘sudden shocks’ we are now experiencing as a result of climate change, maybe our planet is trying to warn is that it is now time to adopt resilience thinking. In which case this is a very timely book indeed.

NB: This book tells us a lot about the what, when and why of resilience thinking. For anyone whose work or interests extends to the practical, hands-on application of these principles, the authors’ follow-up book Resilience Practice (2012) gets much more deeply into the how of it all.