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Thinking Like an Ecosystem

The inherent uncertainty of natural systems calls for the integration of resiliency
and diversity in environmental management.
Chris McLaughlin

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The precariousness and surprise involved in
Humpty Dumpty’s sudden drama represents a
reality for natural systems that has, for too long,
been resource management’s dirty little secret.

Do you suppose that Humpty Dumpty saw it coming? use changes, and species extinction in recent decades
Did he have any advance warning of his impending fate? suggest that further command in such circumstances
Even the slightest wobble to tip him off? I mean, as it’s will encounter diminishing returns at best. The reason,
told, he went straight from sitting to falling without a largely unacknowledged in the traditional modus
single intermediary step. And with no means of reversal, operandi of resource managers but there nonetheless, is
the results point to a change in his circumstances that that our natural windfall has been achieved in part by
was as dramatic as it was sudden. creating efficiencies and eliminating redundancies in
But life’s like that – one surprise after another. production – where the products are ecosystem services
Surprises, in fact, are a normal part of the linked systems such as a stable climate or the food that we eat. But nature
of humans and nature, or socio-ecological systems, to is not just-in-time by nature. Furthermore, our attempts
which we all belong. So imagine that what happened to to schedule it to our liking only increase the chance of
Humpty represents a potential future for the systems that unhappy outcomes. Such realities, where success creates
you and I inhabit, and you’ve got a very bleak picture. its own failure, can be difficult to reconcile given our
Ecologists would suggest that Humpty had suffered generally rosy outlook.
a “regime shift.” That’s a delicate way of saying that Few Canadian examples more clearly illustrate this
you can’t go home again. Clear waters full of fish, for pathology than the early 1990s collapse of the cod
example, can be polluted or emptied by humans with fishery that continues to deprive Newfoundland of its
remarkable efficiency and with tragic consequences lifeblood. An overenthusiastic approach to hauling cod
for the livelihoods once buoyed by those waters. The out of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean was, according
important message for us is that the precariousness and to Jeff Hutchings, solely responsible for the practical
surprise involved in Humpty’s sudden drama represent disappearance of the cod. Hutchings is a fisheries
a reality for natural systems that has, for too long, been biologist at Dalhousie University and a leading expert
resource management’s dirty little secret. We must reveal on the causes of the cod’s demise. “Cod have a natural
that secret and acknowledge its implications in order to bet-hedging life history. It’s like a lottery,” he explains.
change the way we manage our resources in the future. “If you deposit your eggs directly into the water column,
My title will be recognizable as a play on Aldo Leopold’s how can you persist? By having as many offspring as you
Thinking Like a Mountain. That essay was a reflection can.” It’s the cod’s survival strategy. But decades of sifting
on traditional motives and approaches to resource those waters for the most profitable individuals reduced
management. It spoke to our propensity to simplify the range of sizes and ages in the population, truncating
and control. Leopold heard complexity echo from the the cod’s variability, its built-in defence against just such
howl of the wolf, a “deep chesty bawl” whose “deeper threats, Hutchings explains. The cod collapse had been,
meaning” invites us to question our own assumptions it turns out, a slow-moving disaster since the mid-20th
about how the world works. Thinking Like a Mountain century.
evoked a sense of what we now know: that natural It’s an unsettlingly familiar story, examples of
systems are subject to unpredictability and therefore which are “legion,” according to the 2005 Millennium
possess inherent uncertainty. It’s an ecological expression Ecosystem Assessment. The eventual misfortune begins
of the Law of Unintended Consequences, if you will. innocently enough: a single element of a system is
And the ongoing inability of resource management to identified as valuable, almost always in economic terms,
break from those traditional assumptions and modes and management efforts are directed towards its steady
of control, contends Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” and maximal exploitation. For a time, perhaps a very
Holling, is pathological. long time, the system delivers the goods to humans
Not that those traditions don’t appear to have been with regularity. That such consistency fosters a sense of
a raging success. Look around at our material wealth relaxed certainty in people is therefore of little wonder.
and you’ll be forced to admit that it’s been a very good But nature has a bothersome habit of producing random
run. But we’ve borrowed heavily against those gains. and unanticipated events that we often find suboptimal.
Incredible concomitant increases in human population, The pathology results when we counter those events
freshwater withdrawals, grain and timber harvests, land- with an intensified application of the same techniques

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Resiliency provides a built-in coping mechanism, an antidote,
when those systems face upheaval, but it’s undermined by our
command-and-control style of management.

of command and control where our winnowing of unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things
natural variability has already diminished the system’s we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns;
capacity to persist. It’s like throwing good money after the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Despite being
bad. Holling and his colleagues have even suggested mocked in the international press for this statement, and
that resultant surprises (such as the cod crisis) are receiving the UK-based Plain English Campaign’s annual
“inevitable consequences” of our business-as-usual Foot in Mouth Award for his perceived prolixity, his
approach to natural resource management. It is this comments are remarkably prescient vis-à-vis the notion
inevitability that most concerns me, since the collapse of that successful strategies often depend, in large measure,
the ecosystems upon which we depend has tremendous on the simple ability to acknowledge that uncertainty
potential, as you may well imagine, for causing great exists and, moreover, on efforts to not just cope with
human unpleasantness. the surprises that result from it, but also to reduce the
How then are we to overcome our myopic approach uncertainty itself.
to both understanding and managing these systems? Buzz Holling, an original thinker with respect to
Australians Brian Walker and David Salt suggest the reducing and coping with uncertainties, is considered
answer in the title of their recent book, Resilience the father of resilience thinking. It was his seminal 1973
Thinking. More than simply bouncing back when things article that first introduced the idea of resilience as a
go awry, resilience is the capacity to bounce back at all. measure of the amount of turbulence and injury that can
We must think about resiliency from the start, because be withstood by a socio-ecological system before it loses
it’s “these services,” Walker and Salt remind us, “that are its ability to function as we are accustomed. All we have
often the ones that change in a regime shift and are only to do is look off the northeast coast of Newfoundland,
recognized and appreciated when they are lost.” suggests Jeff Hutchings, for evidence of the consequences
It’s said that Humpty Dumpty was a colloquial of resource management that’s willfully blind to these
reference to a particularly large English Civil War tipping points. “In the face of all scientific advice,”
cannon. Royalists had placed Humpty atop St. Mary’s Hutchings contends, the Canadian government is still
Church at the edge of the walled town of Colchester, to handing out cod quota “for purely political reasons, and
which the Parliamentarians laid siege during the summer that only eats into the ability of cod to bounce back and
of 1648. The wall was damaged in the attack, sending to recover.” Failing to include resilience thinking in our
Humpty to the ground. The cavalry and infantry – “all management practices will only continue to undermine
the King’s horses and all the King’s men” – were unable the ability of natural systems to maintain themselves
to restore Humpty’s position, leading to the surrender when buffeted by human malfeasance and freaks of
of this strategically important town. Resilience thinking nature.
would revive our defenses and give us an approach to Donald Rumsfeld expanded on the dangers of an
our own environmental security that, unlike Humpty’s incomplete perspective at a press conference at NATO
fixed posture, is flexible and adaptive. Headquarters in June 2002. Responding to a suggestion
Obstacles to overcoming our control fetish, however, that “the real situation [involving weapons of mass
are much more than straightforward adjustments to destruction in Iraq] is worse than the facts show,” he
our methodology. They involve more intractable revealed that “each year we discover a few more of those
characteristics of social organization, such as denial unknown unknowns” and that “simply because you do
and intransigency. Speaking of which, it’s remarkably not have evidence that something exists does not mean
odd that this point was insightfully (if inadvertently) that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.” Hutchings
articulated by former US Defense Secretary Donald similarly notes that “the thresholds are there” whether
Rumsfeld in a February 2002 press briefing. In response or not we choose to take note of them. “And yet almost
to a journalist’s question about “evidence to indicate that always, when we make our threat assessments, when
Iraq has attempted to … supply terrorists with weapons we look at the world,” Rumsfeld concluded, “we end up
of mass destruction,” Rumsfeld famously responded basing [our understanding] on the first two pieces of
that, “as we know, there are known knowns; there are that puzzle, rather than all three.”
things we know we know. We also know there are known Augmenting what we know and appreciate about the

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We have not learned to hold our collective fire
and take the long view, the view that is whole and
forgiving of incomplete knowledge.
character of socio-ecological systems is a key aspect of at a cost that those in the political arena are too often
fostering sustainability. Resiliency provides a built-in unwilling to pay. “It’s not so much that governments
coping mechanism, an antidote, when those systems need to do whatever scientists say,” says Hutchings, “it’s
face upheaval, but it’s undermined by our command- about the unfettered communication of science. It’s
and-control style of management. Leopold captured the important for people to know what role science played
essence of this problem when he observed that we have in political decisions. Society must know exactly what
“not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have science has to say, unfiltered by government, so that the
dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.” public can judge those decisions accordingly.”
Thinking Like a Mountain was an account of a personal “Only the mountain has lived long enough,” Leopold
evolution. Once very enthusiastic with a shotgun, wrote, “to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” The
Leopold went through a period of maturation, and, as rest of us, he might have added, are just pretenders to
a result, became posthumously the foremost American complete knowledge. Adopting resilience thinking in
advocate of the ecological view of how things work. the policy and management of our natural resources
Of his earlier transgressions, Leopold wrote, “I was would be profound but welcomed, its implementation
young then, and full of trigger-itch.” We have not learned difficult but necessary. We would do well, at least, to first
to hold our collective fire and take the long view, the view introduce humility and inquisitiveness to our affairs
that is whole and forgiving of incomplete knowledge. where we now assert power and authority.
This was echoed by Rumsfeld, ironically, in his reaction As for Buzz Holling and his colleagues, their growing
at a briefing in October 2002 to (what were at the time) body of work is increasingly bolstered by tales of
North Korea’s latest nuclear ambitions. “We live in a ecosystem impoverishment and human strife around the
world of surprise … of little or no warning,” he stated. world. For them, promoting the maintenance of resiliency
“We ought to expect that there are going to be things means “embracing uncertainty.” We must realize this as a
that occur that we [can’t anticipate].” This notion must necessary embrace, because to do otherwise is to ensure
become paramount in resource management. As Walker that once they fall apart, we won’t be able to put our
and Salt point out, the “loss of resilience happens, most social-ecological systems back together again.
often, unwittingly,” and we must therefore always allow
ourselves some grace. Chris McLaughlin stretches his own resiliency by
Whether Rumsfeld has concerned himself with dividing his time between the Coalition on the
this pathology and with questions of how we can live Niagara Escarpment, where he’s the executive director,
sustainably in the ecosystems upon which we depend and McMaster University, where he’s a part-time
is speculative. But it’s notable that while his successor doctoral candidate who is testing strategies to improve
was being confirmed in December 2006, Rumsfeld was institutional decision making in the Great Lakes policy
continuing to discuss, in a speech to the Union League regime.
in Philadelphia, “the challenges that may be unforeseen
For the complete set of references, find this article at
– the unknown unknowns” and the “uncertainty about
www.alternativesjournal.ca/34-4/toc.
… important choices.” In this, he was referring to the
economic and military future of China. But that too is The Resilience Alliance explores the concepts of resiliency,
fitting, as he may very well have had the words of the adaptability and transformability in sustainable development.
ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, on his mind: “To Its work can be found at www.resalliance.org and in the free
know one’s ignorance is the best part of knowledge.” online journal Ecology and Society, at
Resilience thinking allows, even requires, an approach www.ecologyandsociety.org.
with options that you keep open and that give you wiggle Ronald Wright’s 2004 Massey Lectures, A Short History
room when events conspire against you. The sad fact of Progress, provide an excellent historical context for our
remains, Walker and Salt remind us, that even when present socio-ecological predicament. To listen to the lectures
we recognize thresholds and the loss of resiliency, “it is or buy the book, visit
still usually ignored or downplayed.” Resiliency comes www.alternativesjournal.ca/34-4/toc.

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