Chaos is a vacant space

31 03 2009

A world in flux

The world is changing. It always has been changing and always will be changing. But the distinctions between the changes that have occurred during past human existence and those of this century are their complexity, scale and rate. Human societies are highly dependent on the living environment to sustain development (1, 2, 3). Our ingenuity has enabled us to become highly effective at exploiting resources. These levels of resource use – mediated by the highly connected and efficient global capitalist economy – are destroying ecosystems and changing the climate (4, 5, 6). Added to this is exponential population growth that is generating serious pressure for water and arable land, and depleting ocean fisheries. The enormous scale of current human induced transformations has led scientists to describe the period since the late eighteenth century as the anthropocene. On the present trajectory, the likely direction of the world-system is one of major social, ecological, economic and political collapse.

The mainstream media is frequently bombarding us with stories about how the earth is irrevocably changing, but often fail to provide us with grounded solutions as how to successfully avoid this change. According to recent theoretical advances, a group of scientists are telling us to concentrate our resources on finding solutions that create adaptable systems, be it social, ecological or economic, capable of absorbing shocks.

Answers in the forest

This group is called The Resilience Alliance. An international network of social and natural scientists who are bringing new ideas on sustainability to policy- and decision-makers. Their work is guided by the concept of social and ecological resilience that was pioneered by a man called Buzz Holling. It emerged from experiments in boreal forest ecosystems, which allowed him to notice that healthy forests go through an adaptive cycle of growth, collapse and regeneration.

As a forest develops from shrubland to maturity, the number of species and abundance of individual plants and animals rises, allowing the ecosystem to accumulate nutrients and information in the form of genes. Decay allows these nutrients to form richer soil, supporting more trees and reproduction allows mutated genes to be inherited, potentially being of value for an organism in the future. For Buzz Holling these forest accumulations represent an increased “potential”, essentially its wealth that allow for unique and surprise situations to arise (7). As the forest grows, various components like the soil and its organisms become more closely linked. For example, bacteria, beetles and worms begin to decompose the organic molecules of plants to form useful nutrients for tree growth. The theory calls this link between micro-organisms and trees “connectedness”, which also represents the forest’s sensitivity to a change in circumstances. When the forest reaches the pinnacle stages of maturity, species evolve to become more adept and efficient at controlling energy and nutrients to produce biomass, in turn preventing external competitors from utilising them. An analogy of a highly connected system would be the human body, in which the brain controls the internal environment through homeostasis.

In the forest, efficiency ends up replacing redundancy, a gradual loss of diversity occurs as all ecological niches are occupied and new species are unable to find the necessary resources to sustain themselves. Growth is not infinite and with rising potential for novelty, increasing self-regulation and falling resilience, the ecosystem “becomes an accident waiting to happen”. Any surprise event like a fire, disease outbreak or drought can easily wreck havoc and destroy the forest. A collapse is known as “creative destruction” and can be beneficial for the forest – freeing up the ecosystem’s potential for creativity and allowing for a reorganisation of its many parts. For instance, a fire will release nutrients and open up spaces in which new species are able to establish themselves. At this point the forest is at its most resilient – capable of absorbing a shock without fundamentally changing its arrangement. When resilience is high the forest’s plants and animals are able to test certain behaviours and relationships, for example a bee might try collecting nectar from a different flower species. So this collapse essentially allows for innovation and the cycle of growth, destruction and reorganisation enables the forest to adapt to a changing environment.

Shocking vulnerability

What does all this abstract science mean to people with a desire to deal with environmental and social crises? Well the first is that no domain – ecological, social or economic – can be considered in isolation from another. We rely on healthy natural systems like wetlands, soils and forests, to produce clean water, grow nutritious food and absorb our wastes. But policy makers in rich countries continually prioritise economic growth, which increases resource use, pollution, instability (as seen by the current recession) and global inequality and fundamentally clashes with the priority of protecting ecosystems. This clash can be slightly alleviated through new technologies that enable more to be produced with less and improve efficiencies. But there is currently no indication that we are going to successfully disconnect economic production from resource consumption; essentially dematerialising the economy, while maintaining such high living-standards. For years ecological economist Herman Daly has presented his ‘Steady-State Economy‘ as a solution, but still those in power are not taking heed. So just like in the forest ecosystem, we are moving up through the growth stage of the adaptive cycle. Gathering potential in the form of a skilful populace and a wealthy economy. And becoming more connected through global economic flows and regulatory controls. Unfortunately, this also means that we are becoming more vulnerable to shock events.

This presents us with a serious challenge because we are driving earth’s natural systems to the edge of their resilience tipping points. Take the climate system, until now forests, bogs and oceans have had the capacity to absorb the slow shock of our rising CO2 emissions. But it is becoming apparent that if the climate warms by 2°C, between 20 and 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest could die off (8). This then adds the dimension of feedback effects, forests store huge amounts of carbon and if they were to collapse our atmosphere would be filled with even more CO2, in turn exacerbating global warming. Once these tipping points are passed it will be very difficult, more likely impossible, to push the climate system back to how it has been for millions of years.

Diverse adventures in living

Holling believes that the changes the world is now experiencing represent “a state of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major ‘pulse’ of social transformation” (9). Humans have experienced similar stages in their development before: agricultural settlement, the industrial revolution and the global communications age. He tells us that “the immense destruction that a new pulse signals is both frightening and creative” and “the only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living”.

Adjoining much of the work on making ecosystems and societies more resilient is the field of ‘futurology’. Futures practitioners use scenarios, imaginative visions of the future, to explore possible and alternative pathways of human endeavours. These narratives can be used as templates upon which to spur visionary activity and design new experiments in life that are sustainable and adaptable. It is an approach that sits in stark contrast with the myopic policies adopted by many of the world’s governments.

What shape might these experiments take? Well many already exist, in the form of different political arrangements that engage more people and their ideas, networks that allow for the exchange of these ideas, open-source cultures that bring people together to solve problems collaboratively, low-impact developments that are independent of fossil fuels and urban gardens that stimulate food self-sufficiency through permaculture.

The resilience concept is by no means a panacea and conflicts over values and concentrations of power are undoubtedly formidable barriers to a sustainable reorganisation of society. Nonetheless, the essential ingredient needed for a sustainable future might well be the cultivation of a shared vision and desire for action that challenges the growth paradigm and transfers small-scale experiments in to a large-scale reality.

1) Daily, G. C. (ed) (1997) Nature’s services: societal dependence on natural ecosystems.

2) Costanza, R., Graumlich, L.G., Steffen, W. (eds) (2007) Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth.

3) Gunderson, L.H. & Holling, C.S. (eds) (2002) Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature.

4) Sala, O.E et. al. (2000) Biodiversity—Global biodiversity scenarios for the year 2100.

5) Climate Change (2007) The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

6) Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. (2003) Ecosystems and human well-being: A framework for assessment.

7) Holling, C.S. (2001 ) Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems. Ecosystems.

8.) Amazon could shrink by 85% sue to climate change. Guardian article.

9) Holling, C.S. ( 2004) From Complex Regions to Complex Worlds. Ecology & Society.

In writing this article I also drew on Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization




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