Last Thursday we learned about ecological resilience theory, the Panarachy Framework, and how the study of ecological resilience has since been applied to our social systems. This entry will explore the socio-ecological resilience and its importance.  

Socio-ecological systems are interconnected systems that link people and nature, where humans are seen as a part of, not apart from, nature [1].  

What is Socio-Ecological Resilience? 

Resilience in socio-ecological systems is strongly connected to the capacity for people within the system to respond together in the face of a disturbance [2]. Trust, strong leadership, and well-developed social networks are societal attributes that contribute to social capital [2]. Social capital is how social groups withstand external shocks to their social infrastructure, and adapt collectively to intentionally manage resilience[3][4]. Social capital or a community’s adaptive capacity can also be defined as their social resilience [3],[4]. As we saw in Alberta, our social capacity, our leadership, empathy, compassion, trust, and social networks were one of our greatest assets in the initial recovery of the 2013 floods. 

A Need for Diversity

It is difficult to truly understand ecosystem dynamics and their ability to generate services without accounting for the human dimension. Greater socio-ecological resilience depends on the diversity of the ecosystem as well as the institutional rules that govern social systems [3]. Looking at societies through a social lens, communities often demonstrate the ability to cope, change, and adapt to disturbances [4],[5]. But such social adaptation may be at the expense of changes to the capacity of ecosystems to adapt [4],[5]. For instance, industrial agricultural production practices modify land use, striping soils, systematically impacting ecosystem functioning. This is not done with the intention to destroy healthy ecosystems but rather rooted in the desire to create greater social resilience for a hungry and growing world population. This disconnection is based largely on a belief system that humans are separate and apart from nature. If we do not understand or take into account the symbiotic relationship of humans being as a part of nature we will continue to erode our wider socio-ecological resiliency.  

Managing complex socio-ecological systems implies spreading risks and creating buffers by not putting all our ‘eggs in one basket’ [4]. Diversification is an important social risk management strategy in which mitigation tactics offer diverse channels of access to things like income, welfare, food, and fuel. This diversification ultimately increases the level of societal resilience while decreasing the level of vulnerability [6],[7]. As flood protection and mitigation is discussed throughout Alberta, many people have advocated for a number of smaller solutions because the risk can be mitigated across the diverse channels. Alternatively, building a single dam in the headwaters is viewed as an all our ‘eggs in one basket’ approach to flood mitigation because if the rains fall a valley over we are essentially hooped! 

Ecological resiliency theory tells us that systems that are more bio-diverse are able to withstand greater changes and shifts to their ecological equilibrium. Likewise, social cooperation empathy and trust are heavily important networks that sustain social resilience. Having options and building capacity in both ecologies and social systems is fundamental to greater sustained resilience. In essence it is an emergence of humans beginning to find balance with nature. 

Benefits of Socio-Ecological Resilience

We have a symbiotic relationship to our environment. In resilient socio-ecological systems disturbances have the potential to create opportunity for innovation and development [4]. As we are seeing, the flood of 2013 has sparked a language change and the Government of Alberta is currently considering natural mitigation solutions, like the ones we learned about in the Rewilding Series. The benefit of these types of resiliency building solutions goes well beyond just flood or drought mitigation. They also contribute to our social resilience by helping our communities heal from the trauma experienced during the 2013 flood. Ecopsychology, the study of nature as a healer, has demonstrated that spending time in green spaces can heal post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD in children and various strands of depression [8]. Green spaces are also known to calm nervous systems and decrease levels of stress and anxiety. Imagine a world where we all feel more relaxed, grounded, and peaceful due to initiatives taken to mitigate for floods.   

This is the beauty of building resilient socio-ecological systems - we create solutions that solve more than one problem. The implications for resilient socio-ecological solutions are profound. They demand a shift in mental models toward human-in-the environment perspective; ultimately accepting our dependency on natural ecological cycles and processes. This is a creative opportunity to design our social systems with nature in mind.     


[1] Stockholm Resilience Centre. 2007. Socio-ecological systems ( 

[2] Walker, B. & Salt, D. (2006) Resilience Thinking Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, London, Island Press 

[3] Adger, W. N. (2000) Social and ecological resilience: are they related?, Progress in Human Geography,  vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 347–364

[4] Folke, C. (2006) Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analyses, Global Environmental Change, vol. 16 pp. 253-267

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

[6] 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 

[7] Colding, J. Elmqvist, T. & Olsson, P. (2003) Living with disturbance; building resilience in social-ecological systems, in Berkes, F., Colding, J., & Folke, C. (eds.) Navigating Social-Ecological Systems, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

[8] CBCNews. 2014. Kids need to offset ‘screen time’ with ‘nature time’  (