Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Perspectives on Crisis, Resilience and the Reformation of the International Law on Sustainable Development

Sustainability is a concept or goal to guide decision making at the intersection among the social and economic components of the human system and the environment.

Unlike sustainability, resilience is an inherent property of a system.  It is the degree to which a system maintains the same structure and function in the face of change or a perturbation.

Unlike sustainability, resilience as a general concept is value neutral.  A system may be highly resilient either because it is quite adaptable (latitude) or quite resistant to change (resistance). 

Thus, an overgrazed field taken over by invasive weeds may be resistant to returning to its original state when livestock are removed – it is therefore resilient but not necessarily something we label as good. 

A brutal military dictatorship may be highly resistant to change -- it is therefore resilient but not necessarily something we label as good. 

Thus it is common to talk about resilience in the context of societal goals such as sustainability or the maintenance of ecosystem function.  What resilience brings to the discussion is a deeper understanding of how to adjust our actions in a complex system to achieve these goals.

In my former life as a scientist, it was always what happens at the boundaries of two systems that interested me – in science it was the boundary between physical systems, now it is the boundary between schools of thought – it is what led me to interdisciplinary research.

In physical chemistry I studied the laws of thermodynamics applicable to ideal systems and I loved their simplicity and predictive capability.  But as a researcher in geochemistry, I studied a system in which the temperatures had been warm enough to cause mineral composition to change when seawater and rock interacted, but too slowly to reach equilibrium.  You might predict that the results would plot on a continuum from the original state to the new equilibrium state.  You would be wrong.  The same discrete intermediate stage occurred over and over again.

We see this in other complex systems.  Consider a river – on the one hand you can study and model fluid flow, on the other hand you can describe the properties of the river bed.  But put them together and you have a boundary condition.  The entire behavior of the new system is defined by how the water and stream bed interact.  And that interaction is not random chaos.  Rivers persist in certain forms that are empirically predictable.

Understand quantum physics and thermodynamics and you will never predict life.  Evolution is our current way of understanding the change of one life form to another, yet despite our search for a continuum in the fossil record, there appear to be discrete steps.  One aspect of resilience scholarship is the recognition that systems are self-organizing.  Thus a system that crosses a threshold, will reorganize in another discrete state.  It may or may not be a state that we value.

The danger of goals like sustainability without integration with a concept like resilience that relates to both the properties and processes within the relevant system is that the failure to account for complexity may lead to system collapse.  For example: Consider what are referred to as the 4 R’s of sustainability: re-duce, re-use, re-cycle, -re-claim.  While they sound good, optimization of resource exploitation through ever increasing efficiency can move the system precariously close to a threshold.  Thus a social-ecological system relying on a water source that is developed to the maximum level of efficiency is highly susceptible to collapse in the face of disaster and crisis such as increasing prolonged drought resulting from climate change.

My own work is premised on the hypothesis that by consideration of governance through the lens of resilience we can define certain criteria that facilitate adaptability and legitimacy and are transferrable to multiple systems at multiple scales.  I will briefly describe three projects:

1.         On the problem of disaster and crisis or simply, change:  we are looking at a simple process of mapping the scale at which particular ecosystem services function in comparison to scale of governance in the context of river basins, then identifying potential thresholds that may be reached due to external environmental and social drivers such as climate change, nutrient cycles, population, the economy, and institutions.  Preliminary work shows at least 2 outcomes:

  • When we replace a service provided by the ecosystem with an engineered service, we tend to move up a scale in both the governance and the physical system.  This is because we tend to engineer complexity out of the system – replacing the function of the floodplain with dams and levees for example.
  • This reduces our ability to adapt in the face of external drivers

2.         On the problem of – just because science says it is the right thing to do, does not mean society will do it. For this I have been looking at the work of scholars more adept than I on the concept of legitimacy which considers: how persuasive are the decisions made by our leaders – are their actions justified (normative) and do we perceive them as justified (popular).  I use legitimacy specifically in the context of the actions of administrative agencies.  One of the outcomes is that by looking at decision-making through the lens of resilience, process matters – it is not enough to use good science.  My work looks at the use of local knowledge and capacity building to facilitate local deliberation and innovation; the use of negotiated time frames for adjustment to allow stability while enhancing flexibility; the use of goal setting and monitoring to enhance accountability; and the use of networks to bridge between scales and entities with fragmented jurisdictional authority.

3.         Finally, a project in the funding proposal stage would bring together legal and resilience scholars, political scientists and ecologists to integrate the work from the first two projects into a set of criteria for adaptive governance to achieve social-ecological resilience.


I am enough of a student of the history of science that I don’t believe resilience is the end point of that understanding, but it gives us a way to better align our behavior in the social system with how changes are occurring in the ecological system and to begin to make at least empirical sense out of the feedbacks between the two – generally the precursor to great leaps in thought.  All we are doing then is setting things up for the next generation to make that leap to the theories to describe the complex behavior at the boundary between social and ecological systems.

Comments of Professor Barbara Cosens from a panel on Crisis, Resilience and the Reformation of the International Law on Sustainable Development at the Canadian Council on International Law Conference, Ottawa, Nov. 2012


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