Saturday, August 13, 2011

A human as terrifying as a volcano – a scribbled note on resilience thinking

Environmental inquiry as scientific and philosophical subdisciplines benefits and suffers from its overlap with popular conceptions of the workings of nature.  On the one hand even relatively arcane observations from environmental scholars can be of interest to a lay public and can influence public policy.  On the other hand, persistent and popular misconceptions may conflict with emerging research perspectives in a manner that can be confusing and frustrating for environmental practitioners.  For example, although the term Balance of Nature means very little to researchers the notion is persistent among a broader public and can serve as a faulty map to environmental practice.

Ecology in the 20th Century had two central themes.  One theme concerned to identification of objects of ecological thought and enquired about the processes that sustained them long enough, at least, for us to examine them.  This perspective brought us populations, communities, ecosystems, Gaia and so forth, and employed cybernetics, systems thinking, hierarchy theory and other mechanistic tools to understand their persistence.  The other major theme in ecology stressed the dynamics of nature – how do the objects of nature change over time (for convenience we will call this “succession”.)  Now, though it does some injustice to the complexity of positions at any one time over the past hundred years, it is plausible to state that in the early years of the last century ecologists emphasized the progressive nature of ecological change, the stately development of communities from their creation (after a volcano, say) through a series of prescribed steps until the achieved their mature form (a “climax community”).  And this mature stage persisted as long as it is not disturbed (especially by humans).  By the late century such schemes were out of favor and ecological thought was more concerned with disturbance and disruption.  Though systems may develop, succession was no longer seen as quasi-ontogenetic.  In this scheme humans were not the only disruptive (or creative) forces influencing the behavior of ecological systems.  Although ecologists in the late 20th C had largely abandoned an understanding stressing the progressive development of steady state, close-to-equilibrium, climax communities, this view remains forceful in popular conceptions of ecology.

These historical developments are well enough known.  However, the recent interest in “resilience thinking”, a set of models that stem from the work of C S Holling and other, collectively attempt to explain the patterns of stability and change, that is, to reconcile accounts of stable-states and disruption have implications that are insufficiently examined.  The significance of resilience thinking for examining human activity derives from the fact that the inquiry places as much emphasis on the capacity of systems to absorb disturbance as it does upon the potential for catastrophic change when a system is pushed passed its limits: that is, resilience thinking can allow us to imagine ourselves as “well-behaved” systems components, as well as elements that tip the systems into brilliant and/or terrifying new states.  So resilience thinking is a framework that accommodates thinking about the disruption of ecological system behavior in response to hurricanes, forest fire, and human disruption, all with the same tools.  In resilience thinking humans look like nature.  Looking like nature expels neither the horror nor the joy from the human project.

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