With the one year anniversary of the 2013 flooding in Southern Alberta approaching it is important to consider moving beyond the initial flood recovery stages and to dive deeper into what it means to rebuild resiliency into our social and ecological systems. This blog will explore the theory of ecological resiliency and its application to social resilience. In a second installment, this blog will discuss the concept of socio-ecological resiliency. The intention of this series is to enhance our shared ecological literacy so we can begin to move forward and conceptualize resilient methods to mitigate and manage future floods or droughts within the Province. 

In order to understand the importance of building our socio-ecological resiliency we must first understand ecological resiliency and how it has been applied to our social systems. 


The resiliency theory emerged in the 1960s from ecologist C.S. Holling and his study of ecosystems and interacting populations like predators and prey, and their functional responses[1]. Holling identified the existence of multiple stable domains in natural systems that led to the understanding of resilience as the system’s capacity to persist within such a domain in the face of change[2]. He coined resilience as the systems’ capacity to self-organize and adapt to emerging circumstances, while maintaining the same structural function, identity and feedbacks. 

Resilience is essentially the magnitude of a disturbance that can be absorbed into a system, before the system changes to a radically different state. Ecological resiliency theory led to the development of the Panarchy Framework a method of analysis that explained why ecosystems collapse. 

The Panarchy Framework holds that all ecosystems go through cycles of resource accumulation and collapse based on three characteristics: resilience of an ecosystem (the ability to maintain the stable domain), connectedness of individuals within the ecosystem, and the potential for change within the ecosystem[3]. Potential for change is defined as the wealth available within a system, which in ecological terms is determined by the amount of foliage that could provide food for a pest, or the amount of biomass that could fuel a fire[3, 4]. 


"Drawing a Better Panarchy Diagram". From Noah Raford: 21st Century Strategy, Policy and Design http://noahraford.com/?p=648 


As a result, rich foliage and high biomass represent an ecologically wealthy system with a high potential for change[3, 4]. When connectivity is high, and diversity is low, the system is susceptible to disturbances and external shocks [3]. This is why pest outbreaks can spread faster in densely populated forests. The period when a system is tightly connected is referred to as an “accident waiting to happen” because a minor disturbance can have drastic consequences [3- p. 396].  This was seen as a natural process that occurs within an ecological system where by the disturbance releases accumulated resources in order to return the system to a state of higher diversity. One example is the high level of biodiversity that returns to an ecosystem after a forest fire. The ability for forests to recover after a devastating fire demonstrates that diverse systems are able to tolerate wider environmental conditions and disturbances than simple connected systems [3].  As a result, the Panarchy Framework is based off of three systematic variables: 

  1. the ecological wealth available within the system, 
  2. the connectedness of the system, 
  3. the diversity the system [3, 4].

In this framework, a wealthy, non-diverse, tightly connected system is vulnerable to a disturbance. This is why biodiversity is so important in the maintenance of ecological resilience. Ecosystems that are high in biodiversity are able to withstand greater degrees of change. 

The Panarchy Framework can also be applied to our socio-economic systems. We live in simple tightly connected systems. Globalization has afforded us the luxury of choice but has done so at a cost to our local diverse networks of food and fuel supply chains [5]. Now when we experience a shock in one part of the global system the ripple effect is felt around the world. One only has to look at the recent hike in lime prices to understand the fragility of simple tightly connected systems like our just-in-time food supply chain. 


Ecosystem resilience is a measure of how much disturbance (pollution, fire, climatic extremes) an ecosystem can handle without shifting into a different state, such a forest shifting to a burnt site, or a river bed shifting course after a flood. Ecosystem resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to both withstand shocks and surprises and to rebuild itself if damaged [6]. 

This understanding of ecological resilience has been applied to our social systems. Social resilience is the ability of human communities to withstand and recover from stresses, such as economic (2008 financial crisis), environmental (natural disasters) or social political upheavals (war) [6].  

The magic of looking to ecological systems and how they persist or fail in the face of change provides a methodology for understanding  how to create more robust resilient socio-economic systems. This wisdom of our own interconnectivity to natural systems is the foundation to creating greater socio-ecological resilience. Join us next Thursday when we continue on this learning journey and dive deeper into our interconnectivity to nature as we explore the concept of socio-ecological resiliency. 


Plant and concrete

"Terraforming" by Gerry Thomasen is licenced under CC BY 2.0 


[1] Holling, C.S. (1961). Principals of insect predation, Annual Review of Entomology, no. 6, pp. 163-182 

[2] Holling, C.S. (1973) Resilience and stability of ecological systems, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, no. 4, pp. 1-23 

[3] Gunderson, L.H., & Holling, C.S. (2002) Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, Washington, Island Press 

[4] Fraser, E.D.G., Mabee, W. & Figge, F. (2005). A framework for assessing the vulnerability of food systems to future shocks, Futures, vol. 37, pp. 465-479 

[5] Eden, L & Mcintosh, A. 2014. When the Ferries Fail to Sail. Dark Mountain Project. Issue 5. http://www.alastairmcintosh.com/articles/2014-DarkMountain-Ferries-Eden-McIntosh.pdf 

[6] Stockhom Resilience Centre. 2007. Resiliency Dictionary http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/what-is-resilience/resilience-dictionary.html