How to apply resilience thinking – in Australia and beyond

Contributor: Brian Walker

Resilience, in the context of the earth’s ecosystems, is defined as the capacity to absorb a shock, reorganize, and continue to function as before. This basic ability is often taken for granted by the global economy, and yet evidence is mounting that crucial ecosystems are in decline. Without a rethinking of how we use the earth’s resources and the development of an approach based on resilience, many of those declines may be irreversible.

Australia’s recent experience in confronting declines in its agricultural productivity suggests how this approach can work. In the eighteenth century, European settlement of Australia followed a familiar pattern: the rapid conversion of natural ecosystems to agriculture. The people prospered, populations expanded, and, as the saying goes, Australia grew rich on the sheep’s back. Over the past few decades, however, worrying signs appeared: rangelands were changing from grassy to shrubby states that supported less livestock; agricultural soils showed evidence of salinity due to rising water tables following tree clearing, and even wider evidence of increasing acidity due to fertilizers; conflicts over use of limited water arose, and conservationists warned of rapidly declining biodiversity.

The tone of the debate about how to use the country’s resources began to change, but it wasn’t an easy debate to win. Those who had much to lose from changes in resource policy objected and things got heated politically. During the last decade of the twentieth century, the State of New South Wales, which had the biggest share of agricultural production in the country and most of the Murray-Darling Basin (the breadbasket of Australia), took the initiative. The NSW government’s first step was to address the problem of conflicting policies under different departments. They created a high-level Natural Resources Commission with a cross-government mandate. Next came the creation of Catchment Action Plans for the 13 water catchments into which the state was divided. Two pilot resilience-based schemes were prepared during 2008–2010 by members of the Catchment Management Authorities, a mixture of farmers and technical staff. Driving the whole approach was the idea of building resilience in the catchment areas.

Some local stakeholders were initially sceptical but, in the words of a Catchment Board Chairman and farmer, “This resilience approach is the way to go; it cuts through the dross we’ve had to deal with and gets to what matters.” The pilot schemes have now been completed, and the NSW government is deciding on whether to adopt the measures statewide. In the meantime, the other catchment areas in NSW and other states are adopting the approach. The future is always uncertain, but the future of NSW’s natural resources looks more promising than it did a decade ago.

The NSW story demonstrates a creative approach to the global challenge facing ecosystem managers. With a few local exceptions, the ecosystems of the world, natural and agro-ecosystems, are in decline. Rivers, lakes, groundwater reserves, the atmosphere, ocean fisheries, agricultural soils, tropical (and many temperate) forests are all fully or over-used. They are either declining in area and abundance or declining in their diversity, productivity, and capacity to maintain themselves. The globalized economy has extended resource use and harvesting to a multinational scale, fueled by the ideology of boundless consumption that treats ecosystems as a contested open-access resource instead of a global commons. Our misuse of ecosystems is due in part to not recognizing the crucial feedback effects between social behaviour and ecosystem function and a failure to understand the cross-scale feedbacks.

As a consequence, many systems have already shifted into degraded states from which they cannot recover, like the change from a viable agricultural landscape to a salinized one, or from an abundant fish stock to one that is too depleted to recover. We are running many others too close to the margin. The identification of likely planetary boundaries1 for self-regulation of many of the biophysical processes involved has placed special attention on the limits to resource use. Serious declines in human well-being are, however, not restricted to crossing these planetary boundaries. At all scales, from local to regional to global, exceeding the self-regulatory capacity of our ecosystems has ramifying consequences for human well-being. Climatic change; rising sea levels; decreases of fresh water, fish stocks, and forests; and scarcity of farmland could variously trigger large-scale human migrations, social breakdown and revolutions, and conflicts (including nuclear conflicts).

Awareness of these dangers has led to increasing interest in the ideas of resilience, and its application to the policy and management of social-ecological systems. The NSW story is one example but the idea is spreading to agencies and government departments in other countries, notably in Europe, and to high-level policy advocacy, as shown by the United Nation’s recent report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing. What these approaches share is a recognition of three interrelated aspects. The first is a recognition of critical levels, or thresholds, in both social and ecological systems that trigger shifts in the system dynamics to a different (usually less desirable) structure and function. The pilot schemes in NSW identified sets of likely critical thresholds that needed priority attention and that would guide future investment of resources. An important point is that these threshold levels are not fixed and can change as the system is changed by what we do to it.

The second aspect of resilience has to do with the adaptive capacity of the system, its ability to change and self-organize, or to manage resilience, so as to avoid crossing a threshold. Some of this capacity has to do with the ecological system itself but much of the loss in adaptability is due to human agency, and the adaptive capacity of the system is thus dependent on political leadership and organization, particularly in the interaction between local and regional or national governments. In the NSW example, the pilot schemes identified interactions with higher scales of government as a limiting factor to building resilience. Rules about how state and federal funding could or could not be used constrained options on managing resilience at local levels.

The third aspect of a resilience approach and the one I wish to concentrate on here comes under the general title of transformability, or the capacity to transform into a different kind of system. When a social-ecological system has undergone a regime shift into an undesirable, alternate state from which recovery is not possible, or when such a shift is looming and clearly inevitable, the only option is to transform it into a different kind of system. Much of the world today faces the necessity of transformational change, at all scales. Until 2012, some irrigation farming areas in NSW had not had a water entitlement for several years and, despite occasional relief during high rainfall years, there is not enough water to ensure irrigated farming. It is necessary to transform these areas into some other kind of land use. There are three requirements for effecting this kind of transformation:

1. Get beyond the state of denial. Nobody likes fundamental change and individuals, communities, and societies will resist it as long as they can, often to a point where their options for a relatively graceful transformation are severely reduced.

2. Identify options for change, which may be present already or which may need to be explored and created. Because it is both dangerous and very difficult to experiment with a whole system, options for change are best developed through safe experiments at fine scales, creating what the transition approach to sustainability calls “safe arenas” for experimenting.2

3. Building capacity to change, which usually requires government help at the regional or national level. Ironically, government often promotes damaging business-as-usual practices by handing out subsidies and “special circumstances” (e.g., drought) packages to local authorities, which are essentially help not to change. Instead, government should encourage bottom-up experimentation.

The three components of transformability are difficult enough to orchestrate in a naturally fluctuating environment. The world today is not like that. The speed and magnitude of directional change, environmentally and socially, are now such that what is needed is continual transformational change in human-dominated systems. As climate change ecologist Stafford Smith and others have forcefully argued, adapting to a particular “new” climate is illogical when continuous adaptation is necessary.3

What is needed, therefore, is an approach to learning how to change in a continuous way. Adopting this approach will not be easy. The first step is to move beyond the state of denial and, to achieve that, it is necessary to frame the problem—the uncertainties and the possible solutions—in a way that is acceptable and meaningful to people. The second step requires changes to be initiated at fine scales, with successful changes feeding back to the higher scales. Such an approach envisions the world as a multiscale, interconnected system evolving through constant experimentation toward a self-organizing, highly adaptable system that also satisfies human needs.

Whether or not this is possible will require a longer-term view of resilience at the global scale—just as time is running out to form such a consensus.

Brian Walker lectured at the University of Zimbabwe for six years and was professor of ecology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, until 1985, when he moved to Australia as chief of the Division of Wildlife and Ecology at CSIRO. He currently is a research fellow in the CSIRO Division of Ecosystem Science chairs the board of the Resilience Alliance, is a fellow in the Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics in Sweden, and has a part-time appointment in the Stockholm Resilience Centre.


I thank Paul Ryan for his comments on the New South Wales example and Nick Abel for valuable suggested changes.


1. Rockström, J et al. Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).

2. Loorbach, D & Rotmans, J. The practice of transition management: Examples and lessons from four distinct cases.Futures [online] (2010) doi:10.1016/j.futures.2009.11.009.

3. Stafford Smith, M, Horrocks, L, Harvey, A & Hamilton, C. Rethinking adaptation for a 4 degree C world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 16, 196–369 (2011).

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