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December 26, 2014
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editorial

Resilience


The opposite of resilience is brittleness. Losing the ability to bounce back, an ecosystem becomes fragile, increasingly susceptible to collapse. Take fish for example; if too many cod are harvested beyond the ability of the cod population to recover, the integrity of the entire ecosystem is affected. The collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery in the early 1990s is a cautionary tale (www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/grandbanks.htm). Very simply, cod were overfished. Herring eat codfish eggs; mackerel eat herring. Without cod, the entire ecosystem changed (one of the reasons efforts to rebuild the North Atlantic cod fishery have failed).

The same thing happened in Somalia, where coastal waters were overfished. What happened when that fishery collapsed clearly shows the nexus of society and ecosystems. No longer able to earn a living to feed their families and having few choices, Somali fishermen turned to piracy. The socio-ecological system imploded. (For interesting viewing, see the 2013 Hollywood film “Captain Phillips” with Tom Hanks, whose container ship is taken over by Somali pirates.) A less brittle, more resilient society might have survived as a civil society. Instead Somalia disintegrated.

In other ways, too, human communities are vulnerable to external shocks. Witness the Great Recession, from which many have not yet recovered; the changing climate that takes a mounting toll via more violent weather episodes; the rising cost of life’s necessities like food and energy over which we feel we have little control. Like complex ecosystems, human society itself is a highly complex system and can become brittle and vulnerable, or alternatively, through concentrated effort and planning, it can become resilient. “Resilience is, in a nutshell, the ability of a system, whether an individual, an economy, a town or a city, to withstand shock from the outside. Resilience is about building the ability to adapt to shock, to flex and modify, rather than crumble” (www.transitiontowntotnes.org/about/what-is-transition/what-is-resilience/).