The Heart of Resilience Is Diversity

What It Will Take to Build a Sustainable U.S.
By Kenny Ausubel, AlterNet. Posted November 1, 2007.

We must imagine a new way of life in order to avoid the devastating environmental crises that face humanity, argues the visionary founder of the Bioneers conference.

The nature of nature is change. Sometimes it hurtles into fast forward, tripping radical shifts. Think of it as nature’s regime change. For the first time, people are causing it on a planetary scale.

Andrew Revkin reported in the New York Times that “The physical Earth is increasingly becoming what the human species makes of it. The accelerating and intensifying impact of human activities is visibly altering the planet, requiring ever more frequent redrawing not only of political boundaries, but of the shape of Earth’s features themselves.”

Mick Ashworth, editor-in-chief of the annual Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, said his staff of 50 cartographers now updates their databases every three and a half minutes. Commented the editor, “We can literally see environmental disasters unfolding before our eyes.”

Environmental disasters are always human disasters. Satellite pictures of Burma over the past three years have recorded the extermination of over 3,000 villages of the indigenous Karen people and nearby tribes, displacing half a million people. The main culprit is the corporate hunger for oil and gas, backed by the murderous local military junta.

Google Earth will leave you google-eyed. An overrun resource base is visibly shrinking at the same time our population keeps growing. Honey, we shrunk the planet.

The bottom line, of course, is we’re living beyond our means. Nearly two thirds of the life-support services provided to us by nature are in decline worldwide and the pace is quickening. We can’t count on the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations. This is new territory.

The big wheels of ecological governance are turning. Regime change is the actual technical term some ecologists use — for instance, when the climate flips from one state to another. It can be irreversible, at least on a human time frame. These evolutionary exclamation points unleash powerful forces of destruction and creation, collapse and renewal.

We do have a compass of sorts during these cycles of creative destruction. As Charles Darwin observed, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

Change is not linear, and sudden shifts sometimes remake the world in the blink of an eye. We know we’re approaching mysterious thresholds that mark the tipping points of ecological regime change, and we may have already crossed some. The closer we get to each threshold, the less it takes to push the system over the edge, where the degree of damage will be exponentially greater. Societies slide into crisis when slammed by multiple shocks or stressors at the same time. Climate change is propelling both natural and human systems everywhere toward their tipping points.

When huge shocks transform the landscape, structures and institutions crumble, releasing tremendous amounts of bound-up energy and resources for renewal and reorganization. Novelty emerges. These times belong to those who learn, innovate and adapt. Small changes can have big influences. It’s a period of creative ferment, freedom and transformation.

Ecological regime change means a radical realignment of the human enterprise with nature’s governance. We stand at the threshold of a singular opportunity in the human experiment: to re-imagine how to live on Earth in a good way that lasts.

The name of the game is resilience. It means the capacity of both human and ecological systems to absorb disturbance and still retain their basic function and structure. Resilience does not mean just bouncing back to business-as-usual. It means assuring the very ability to get back. But if regime change happens, resilience means having sufficient capacity to transform to meet the new management.

A network of ecologists and social scientists called the Resilience Alliance outlined some of the rules of the road in their book “Resilience Thinking.” The first principle of resilience thinking is systems thinking: It’s all connected, from the web of life to human systems. “You can only solve the whole problem,” says Huey Johnson of the Resource Renewal Institute. Manage environmental and human systems as one system. Taking care of nature means taking care of people, and taking care of people means taking care of nature. Look for systemic solutions that address multiple problems at once. Watch for seeds of new solutions that emerge with changing conditions.

Resilience thinking means abandoning command-and-control approaches. We’re not remotely in control of the big wheels of ecological governance or complex human systems. Greater decentralization can provide backup against the inevitable failure of centralized command-and-control structures. Think decentralized power grids, more localized food systems, and the Internet. Always have a backup. Redundancies are good failsafe mechanisms, not the waste portrayed by industrial efficiency-think.

The heart of resilience is diversity. Damaged ecosystems rebound to health when they have sufficient diversity. So do societies. It’s not just a diversity of players; it’s the diversity of how they respond to myriad challenges. Each one does it slightly differently with specialized traits that can win the day, depending which curve ball comes at you. Diverse approaches improve the odds. Diverse cultures and ideas enrich society’s capacity to survive and thrive.

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