C.S. Holling and Ecological Resilience

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When resilience is brought up in the context of climate change, it is almost always in direct or indirect reference to the resilience theory forwarded by the Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling. Since his landmark 1973 article “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems” to his editorial and authorial contributions to The Foundations of Ecological Resilience (2010), Holling has refined and redefined our understanding of resilience. He is also credited with being one of the first—if not the first—scholars to apply a theory of resilience to the topic of global climate change in his 1986 article “The Resilience of Terrestrial Ecosystems: Local Surprise and Global Change” in Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Craig R. Allen and Lance H. Gunderson, co-editors of Foundations of Ecological Resilience, suggest this much about Holling’s work despite the absence of the term “climate change” in the article:

Holling (1986) is part of a groundbreaking volume that was one of the first works to build and synthesize understanding around themes of sustainability and global environmental change (Clark and Munn 1986). This was years before global climate change was a widespread research topic or undertaken by large international research bodies. As part of this work, Holling (1986) applied the concept of resilience to help understand how a wide range of ecosystems would respond to broad-scale environmental (climatic) change. […] In many ways, this paper was an early warning of the very real possibility that the resilience of global systems could be exceeded, resulting in very sudden and effectively irreversible regime shifts. Because many of the anticipated changes are global, rather than local, in nature, adaptation to changes caused by the human footprint will need to occur not only within individuals but within institutions and social systems as well. Twenty years later, approaches linking social-economic-ecological systems are commonplace and viewed as the frontier of global climate change and resilience research (Walter and Salt 2006). (Foundations 7-8).

Whether Holling’s work, especially the 1986 article, is observed as the earliest example of climate resilience discourse or is a precursor to it, it should be clear that examining his corpus is imperative for anyone trying to untangle the term resilience from its many contexts. His work is particularly useful for understanding how the literal usage of resilience as a unit of measurement in engineering evolved into the resilience we use today in discussions of ecosystems of varying scales, from the local to the regional and the global. 


About Holling (From Island Press Author Bio) 

C.S. "Buzz" Holling is an Emeritus Eminent Scholar and Professor in Ecological Sciences at the University of Florida. Holling is one of the conceptual founders of ecological economics. Holling received his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia. He worked for the Canadian Department of Forestry, the Institute of Animal Resource Ecology, and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. He has been awarded two major awards from the Ecological Society of America, the Mercer Award and the Eminent Ecologist Award. He also received the Kenneth Boulding Memorial Prize and an Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Guelph. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a foreign Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and has been awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Arts and Science. He was founding editor-in-chief of Conservation Ecology, now renamed Ecology and Society. He was also the founder of the Resilience Alliance. Throughout his research, Holling has blended systems theory and ecology with simulation modeling and policy analysis to develop integrative theories of change that have practical utility. He has introduced important ideas in the application of ecology and evolution, including resilience, adaptive management, and population. His work is also frequently cited in the fields of ecological economics and the human dimensions of global change. (http://islandpress.org/author/c-s-holling) 

Holling and Resilience

In his seminal article “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems” published in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics (1973), Holling introduced the word resilience to describe three aspects of changes that occur in an ecosystem over time. The first was to describe the “persistence of relationships within a system” and the “ability of systems to absorb changes of state variables, driving variables and parameters, and still persist.” The second concept recognized the occurrence of alternative and multiple states as opposed to the assumption of a single equilibrium and global stability; hence, resilience was ‘the size of a stability domain or the amount of disturbance a system could take before it shifted into an alternative configuration.” The third insight was the surprising and discontinuous nature of change, such as the collapse of fish stocks or the sudden outbreak of spruce budworms in forests. These insights altered the way in which theorists perceived ecological systems and how practitioners have attempted to manage these systems (Gunderson and Allen xv).

Throughout the article, Holling asserts that an ecological system’s persistence is a measure of its resilience. This measure is different from what he calls engineering resilience which focuses on stability—the ability of a system to return to an equilibrium state after a temporary disturbance. Basically, engineering resilience measures how quickly a system’s equilibrium is restored, whereas ecological resilience measures how long a system can persist, absorbing change and disturbance, until it passes a threshold and undergoes a reconfiguration or “regime shift.” Holling recognizes that engineering resilience is significant and useful in different fields and in certain cases, but in matters of ecology this “equilibrium centered view is essentially static and provides little insight into the transient behavior of systems that are not near equilibrium (2). In other words, Holling is asking how can we measure how long it takes a system to regain equilibrium when there isn’t any equilibrium to begin with? The only viable unit of measurement, then, is a system’s persistence.

Holling elaborates on the dichotomy of engineering and ecological resiliences in a later essay, appropriately titled “Engineering Resilience versus Ecological Resilience” (1996). In the opening lines of the article, he recognizes that at the crux of failed interdisciplinary efforts between ecological science and environment are different understandings of shared terms and concepts:

Ecological science has been shaped largely by the biological sciences. Environmental science, on the other hand, has been shaped largely by the physical sciences and engineering. With the beginning of interdisciplinary efforts between the two fields, some of the fundamental differences between them are generating conflicts caused more by misunderstanding of basic concepts than by any difference in social purposes or methods. (51)

 Because environmental science is largely shaped by engineering, its practitioners have fundamentally different understandings of resilience than an ecologists. Tracing the roots of this disciplinary division, Holling observes that the environmental scientists who emphasize the near-equilibrium definition of engineering resilience draw predominantly from traditions of deductive mathematical theory “where simplified, untouched ecological systems are imagined, or from traditions of engineering, where the motive is to design systems with a single operating objective” (54). Ecological scientists who empathize ecological resilience, on the other hand, come from traditions of applied mathematics and applied resource ecology at the scale of ecosystems (55). The differences between these two seemingly related fields are vast and can obstruct the clear lines of communication that is crucial for cross-disciplinary work. Without understanding the differences between these respective fields, a (not so simple) word like resilience can derail interdisciplinary efforts. The way both fields measure resilience and the expectations for the management of resources can be completely antithetical to each other. Both fields might speak the same language, but they must refer to each other’s dictionaries.  

Holling’s influence

As mentioned in the Small Island Press bio, C.S. Holling is a co-founder of the journal Ecology and Society, and he is a founding member of the Resilience Alliance. Both are very active in promoting resilience theory. Moreover, Resilience Alliance boasts an international membership comprised of researchers from the ecological and social sciences. Some RA members have served in leadership positions on a variety of international projects (e.g., International Panel on Climate Change, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and Future Earth), so there are definitely links from Holling’s resilience to the resilience we use in climate change conversations today.

The co-editors of Foundations of Ecological Resilience, Lance H. Gunderson and Craig R. Allen, appear to have been former students of Holling, as they both received PhDs from the University of Florida, have co-authored articles with Holling, and are members of Resilience Alliance and are part of the editorial team for Ecology and Society. Gunderson received his Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering and is a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Emory University. He has served as the executive director of the Resilience Network, as Vice Chair of the Resilience Alliance and on the Science Advisory board of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, and Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council Committee on Ecological Impacts of Road Density. He is also Co-Editor in Chief of Ecology and Society. Allen received his Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology and is a professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the leader of the U.S. Geological Survey - Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, serves on the Editorial Board of Ecology and Society, as well as holding a position among Resilience Alliance Board of Directors. Furthremore, a large number of new Resilience Alliance members are “RA Young Scholars” comprised of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. From this, one can infer that Holling’s resilience has influenced generations of ecological and social scientists since the publication of  his 1973 article.

Holling's Ecological Resilience and Bacon's Resilience

Returning to Francis Bacon’s first use resilience in the English language in Sylva Sylvarum, where he writes of the bouncing ball as a metaphor for the rebounding of echoes, ecological resilience is less interested in how long it takes for the ball to bounce back after hitting a wall, but how far the ball can bounce after the impact. Holling’s resilience, therefore, appears to be aligned with Bacon’s initial use of resilience, and the early modern scientist was more inclined to measure the strength of echoes at varying distances rather than measuring how long it takes echoes to return to a point of origin.

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