Resilience : the Capacity to Live with Change

Resilience : the Capacity to Live with Change


"We have evolved from a small world on a large planet to a large world on a small planet.” says Carl Folke in a lecture he gave at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the University of Leuven a few days ago. Mr. Folke is a renowned resilience thinker and founder of the the Stockholm Resilience Center. He gave his lecture during his visit to receive a well deserved honorary doctorate from the University of Leuven.

He treated the history of resilience thinking and the need to reconnect development with the biosphere. Some thought provoking ideas: “People are embedded parts of the biosphere and shape it, from local to global scales, from the past to the future. At the same time people are fundamentally dependent on the capacity of the biosphere to sustain human development.” „It’s not only about climate change, it’s about global change”.

Scale, connectivity, spread and speed

We, as colleagues in Vredeseilanden, are used to employ a lot of introductory slides and explanations that give us the broad reality in which we are embedded and in which we situate our strategies and actions. Mr. Folke only used 4 words to explain why we are in the situation we are: the (big) scale (of everything), (the overall) connectivity (of the world), the spread of (the consequences of) our actions and the speed (of these actions). These 4 realities, the characteristics that have led opinion makers to call this the anthropocene era, induce new combinations of shocks and surprises we are not used to. Example: disappointing wheat harvests in Russia and Ukraine that lead to the Arab Spring.

“Humans have changed the way the world works, now they have to change the way they think about it.” 50% of the global population lives in urban environments and has become completely disconnected from the earth. We are reliant on natural assets, ecosystems and their associated services, even if this dependency is not obvious. With climate change, resilience is at the core of thinking about ecosystems and the social dynamics within them. According to Folke, resilience is defined as "our capacity to live with change, incremental and abrupt, and to continue to develop". He adds that resilience thinking is based on three core legs: persistence (continually change), adaptability (adjust responses), transformability (transform yourself out of situation) – but none of these are recovery resilience (going back to the way it was before). As such, resilience has nothing to do with the capacity to bounce back as often is cited as the definition for this concept.

Simplification leads to vulnerability

Maine (USA) is a very important lobster producing region. They have build up an ecosystem that is marvelous for the lobster, a very sustainable lobster producing system. But... if you broaden your perspective, you will see that they have terminated with all the natural enemies of the lobster. They have simplified the ecosystem ( and that makes the lobster ecosystem very vulnerable: the present low-biodiversity situation makes the entire ecosystem vulnerable to sudden shocks and for example has led to market saturation (too much lobsters in the area) which reduces the price paid to lobstermen.

In agriculture we know these situations. In a meeting we had at Colruyt a week ago, someone from Taste/Agrofair was telling about the network he was leading, an attempt to sensitize retailers, researchers, producers to build up resilience of banana production systems towards the Panama Disease, a Fusarium fungus, that wiped out almost all banana plantations in the 1950s in Central and South America. Plantations were big at that time and only consisted of one variety: Gros Michel. Now everywhere in the world, the Cavendish variety is grown, which is resistant to Panama Disease. But, a new strain of the Fusarium fungus appeared, a strain to which Cavendish is not resistant and the disease is spreading in Asia and fear is it will enter Africa. The combination of having only one variety, monocultures on enormous plantations is dangerous. Gros Michel varieties that are planted in coffee or cocoa plantations as shadow trees (not as monoculture) did never and still do not have a problem with the Panama disease...

Mr. Folke calls for social-ecological transformations in the face of complexity, uncertainty and change. "Humanity is an embedded part of the biosphere, depending on the generation of ecosystem services for human wellbeing”. At the same time, we shape these ecosystems from local to global scales. This leads Mr. Folke to speak about transnational corporations as key actors in our global development. Research has linked a few individual companies for example to marine ecosystems worldwide, investigating the potential role these companies can have in shaping marine ecosystem dynamics through their catch of individual species. Research has revealed that these companies’ have been able to develop worldwide networks of operations and their involvement in international policy is determining. In our "food system” we are confronted by similar realities; big retailers that shape the rules of the game, big chocolate companies that set the standards for sustainability...

A question from the audience after the presentation: „Should we focus on sustainability or resilience, as a lot of people say that sustainability is dead?”. Mr. Folke did not exactly answer the question straight forward. He confirms that sustainability is very difficult to operationalize, „resilience might help us to operationalize and reconnect development to the biosphere”.

At Vredeseilanden, should we stop with searching for the silver bullet to define sustainability? During a meeting with some colleagues the question popped up once again: „That company is asking how to detect products come from sustainable agriculture when sourcing, without having to fall back on labels, like the organic one, that are economically not feasible. They want a starting point to take decisions about from whom to source their produce.” And then, we colleagues, start arguing, some putting principles from the World Business Council on Sustainable Development on the table, principles that have not been developed yet, others doubt that these abstract principles will help them anyway. Should we leave the concept of „sustainability” behind and develop principles that build upon resilience, reconnecting development with the biosphere?

Mr. Folke is a positive optimistic thinker, he ended his lecture by saying that the earth can be a safe operating space for humanity if we are smart enough.

Finally, as an „encore”, Professor Folke promoted the interaction between science and the arts: „artscience” he calls it. At the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the use of art is an integral part of scientific practice. He published the photo book Reflections – on People and the Biosphere together with photographer Lars Hall. In the book, insights and photos complement each other, helping to rediscover our deep connection with nature. He showed some pictures and - very cosy - he played some music from Phillip Glass on his iPhone when presenting the photos.

The laudatio for Carl Folke as a doctor honoris causa of the University of Leuven: