DO YOU SUPPOSE that Humpty Dumpty saw it coming? Did he have any advance warning of his impending fate? Even the slightest wobble to tip him off? I mean, as it’s told, he went straight from sitting to falling without a single intermediary step. And with no means of reversal, the results point to a change in his circumstances that was as dramatic as it was sudden.

But life’s like that – one surprise after another. Surprises, in fact, are a normal part of the linked systems of humans and nature, or socio-ecological systems, to which we all belong. So imagine that what happened to Humpty represents a potential future for the systems that you and I inhabit, and you’ve got a very bleak picture. Ecologists would suggest that Humpty had suffered a “regime shift.” That’s a delicate way of saying that you can’t go home again. Clear waters full of fish, for example, can be polluted or emptied by humans with remarkable efficiency and with tragic consequences for the livelihoods once buoyed by those waters. The important message for us is that the precariousness and surprise involved in Humpty’s sudden drama represent a reality for natural systems that has, for too long, been resource management’s dirty little secret. We must reveal that secret and acknowledge its implications in order to change the way we manage our resources in the future.

My title will be recognizable as a play on Aldo Leopold’s Thinking Like a Mountain. That essay was a reflection on traditional motives and approaches to resource management. It spoke to our propensity to simplify and control. Leopold heard complexity echo from the howl of the wolf, a “deep chesty bawl” whose “deeper meaning” invites us to question our own assumptions about how the world works. Thinking Like a Mountain evoked a sense of what we now know: that natural systems are subject to unpredictability and therefore possess inherent uncertainty. It’s an ecological expression of the Law of Unintended Consequences, if you will. And the ongoing inability of resource management to break from those traditional assumptions and modes of control, contends Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling, is pathological.

Not that those traditions don’t appear to have been a raging success. Look around at our material wealth and you’ll be forced to admit that it’s been a very good run. But we’ve borrowed heavily against those gains. Incredible concomitant increases in human population, freshwater withdrawals, grain and timber harvests, land-use changes, and species extinction in recent decades suggest that further command in such circumstances will encounter diminishing returns at best. The reason, largely unacknowledged in the traditional modus operandi of resource managers but there nonetheless, is that our natural windfall has been achieved in part by creating efficiencies and eliminating redundancies in production – where the products are ecosystem services such as a stable climate or the food that we eat. But nature is not just-in-time by nature. Furthermore, our attempts to schedule it to our liking only increase the chance of unhappy outcomes. Such realities, where success creates its own failure, can be difficult to reconcile given our generally rosy outlook.

Few Canadian examples more clearly illustrate this pathology than the early 1990s collapse of the cod fishery that continues to deprive Newfoundland of its lifeblood. An overenthusiastic approach to hauling cod out of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean was, according to Jeff Hutchings, solely responsible for the practical disappearance of the cod. Hutchings is a fisheries biologist at Dalhousie University and a leading expert on the causes of the cod’s demise. “Cod have a natural bet-hedging life history. It’s like a lottery,” he explains. “If you deposit your eggs directly into the water column, how can you persist? By having as many offspring as you can.” It’s the cod’s survival strategy. But decades of sifting those waters for the most profitable individuals reduced the range of sizes and ages in the population, truncating the cod’s variability, its built-in defence against just such threats, Hutchings explains. The cod collapse had been, it turns out, a slow-moving disaster since the mid-20th century.

It’s an unsettlingly familiar story, examples of which are “legion,” according to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The eventual misfortune begins innocently enough: a single element of a system is identified as valuable, almost always in economic terms, and management efforts are directed towards its steady and maximal exploitation. For a time, perhaps a very long time, the system delivers the goods to humans with regularity. That such consistency fosters a sense of relaxed certainty in people is therefore of little wonder. But nature has a bothersome habit of producing random and unanticipated events that we often find suboptimal. The pathology results when we counter those events with an intensified application of the same techniques of command and control where our winnowing of natural variability has already diminished the system’s capacity to persist. It’s like throwing good money after bad. Holling and his colleagues have even suggested that resultant surprises (such as the cod crisis) are “inevitable consequences” of our business-as-usual approach to natural resource management. It is this inevitability that most concerns me, since the collapse of the ecosystems upon which we depend has tremendous potential, as you may well imagine, for causing great human unpleasantness.

How then are we to overcome our myopic approach to both understanding and managing these systems? Australians Brian Walker and David Salt suggest the answer in the title of their recent book, Resilience Thinking. More than simply bouncing back when things go awry, resilience is the capacity to bounce back at all. We must think about resiliency from the start, because it’s “these services,” Walker and Salt remind us, “that are often the ones that change in a regime shift and are only recognized and appreciated when they are lost.”

It’s said that Humpty Dumpty was a colloquial reference to a particularly large English Civil War cannon. Royalists had placed Humpty atop St. Mary’s Church at the edge of the walled town of Colchester, to which the Parliamentarians laid siege during the summer of 1648. The wall was damaged in the attack, sending Humpty to the ground. The cavalry and infantry – “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men” – were unable to restore Humpty’s position, leading to the surrender of this strategically important town. Resilience thinking would revive our defenses and give us an approach to our own environmental security that, unlike Humpty’s fixed posture, is flexible and adaptive.

Obstacles to overcoming our control fetish, however, are much more than straightforward adjustments to our methodology. They involve more intractable characteristics of social organization, such as denial and intransigency. Speaking of which, it’s remarkably odd that this point was insightfully (if inadvertently) articulated by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a February 2002 press briefing. In response to a journalist’s question about “evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to … supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction,” Rumsfeld famously responded that, “as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns; the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Despite being mocked in the international press for this statement, and receiving the UK-based Plain English Campaign’s annual Foot in Mouth Award for his perceived prolixity, his comments are remarkably prescient vis-à-vis the notion that successful strategies often depend, in large measure, on the simple ability to acknowledge that uncertainty exists and, moreover, on efforts to not just cope with the surprises that result from it, but also to reduce the uncertainty itself.

Buzz Holling, an original thinker with respect to reducing and coping with uncertainties, is considered the father of resilience thinking. It was his seminal 1973 article that first introduced the idea of resilience as a measure of the amount of turbulence and injury that can be withstood by a socio-ecological system before it loses its ability to function as we are accustomed. All we have to do is look off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, suggests Jeff Hutchings, for evidence of the consequences of resource management that’s willfully blind to these tipping points. “In the face of all scientific advice,” Hutchings contends, the Canadian government is still handing out cod quota “for purely political reasons, and that only eats into the ability of cod to bounce back and to recover.” Failing to include resilience thinking in our management practices will only continue to undermine the ability of natural systems to maintain themselves when buffeted by human malfeasance and freaks of nature.

Donald Rumsfeld expanded on the dangers of an incomplete perspective at a press conference at NATO Headquarters in June 2002. Responding to a suggestion that “the real situation [involving weapons of mass destruction in Iraq] is worse than the facts show,” he revealed that “each year we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns” and that “simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.” Hutchings similarly notes that “the thresholds are there” whether or not we choose to take note of them. “And yet almost always, when we make our threat assessments, when we look at the world,” Rumsfeld concluded, “we end up basing [our understanding] on the first two pieces of that puzzle, rather than all three.”

Augmenting what we know and appreciate about the character of socio-ecological systems is a key aspect of fostering sustainability. Resiliency provides a built-in coping mechanism, an antidote, when those systems face upheaval, but it’s undermined by our command-and-control style of management. Leopold captured the essence of this problem when he observed that we have “not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.” Thinking Like a Mountain was an account of a personal evolution. Once very enthusiastic with a shotgun, Leopold went through a period of maturation, and, as a result, became posthumously the foremost American advocate of the ecological view of how things work.

Of his earlier transgressions, Leopold wrote, “I was young then, and full of trigger-itch.” We have not learned to hold our collective fire and take the long view, the view that is whole and forgiving of incomplete knowledge. This was echoed by Rumsfeld, ironically, in his reaction at a briefing in October 2002 to (what were at the time) North Korea’s latest nuclear ambitions. “We live in a world of surprise … of little or no warning,” he stated. “We ought to expect that there are going to be things that occur that we [can’t anticipate].” This notion must become paramount in resource management. As Walker and Salt point out, the “loss of resilience happens, most often, unwittingly,” and we must therefore always allow ourselves some grace.

Whether Rumsfeld has concerned himself with this pathology and with questions of how we can live sustainably in the ecosystems upon which we depend is speculative. But it’s notable that while his successor was being confirmed in December 2006, Rumsfeld was continuing to discuss, in a speech to the Union League in Philadelphia, “the challenges that may be unforeseen – the unknown unknowns” and the “uncertainty about … important choices.” In this, he was referring to the economic and military future of China. But that too is fitting, as he may very well have had the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, on his mind: “To know one’s ignorance is the best part of knowledge.”

Resilience thinking allows, even requires, an approach with options that you keep open and that give you wiggle room when events conspire against you. The sad fact remains, Walker and Salt remind us, that even when we recognize thresholds and the loss of resiliency, “it is still usually ignored or downplayed.” Resiliency comes at a cost that those in the political arena are too often unwilling to pay. “It’s not so much that governments need to do whatever scientists say,” says Hutchings, “it’s about the unfettered communication of science. It’s important for people to know what role science played in political decisions. Society must know exactly what science has to say, unfiltered by government, so that the public can judge those decisions accordingly.”

“Only the mountain has lived long enough,” Leopold wrote, “to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” The rest of us, he might have added, are just pretenders to complete knowledge. Adopting resilience thinking in the policy and management of our natural resources would be profound but welcomed, its implementation difficult but necessary. We would do well, at least, to first introduce humility and inquisitiveness to our affairs where we now assert power and authority.

As for Buzz Holling and his colleagues, their growing body of work is increasingly bolstered by tales of ecosystem impoverishment and human strife around the world. For them, promoting the maintenance of resiliency means “embracing uncertainty.” We must realize this as a necessary embrace, because to do otherwise is to ensure that once they fall apart, we won’t be able to put our social-ecological systems back together again.

 

Chris McLaughlin is a principal in the consulting firm Schneider McLaughlin and a research associate of the Dofasco Centre for Engineering and Public Policy at McMaster University. He is also the executive director of the Coalition of the Niagara Escarpment. For original research in applied resilience theory, see Ecology and Society at http://ecologyandsociety.org, a free online journal­ founded by C.S. Holling in 1997. Frances Westley’s Social Innovation Generation group offers resources in social innovation, and at times, fellowships for grad students at http://sig.uwaterloo.ca

 

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