So I’m Garry Peterson. I’m a professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. And, I come from an interdisciplinary background, but one of my areas in which I’ve particularly worked is on resilience, and trying to apply resilience to environmental management and governance.
And why I work on resilience is I think resilience is actually a very key idea for working in the Anthropocene. And I think it provides a very useful framework or operating system for organizing our thinking of how to live in the Anthropocene because it has a dual nature of both thinking about sustaining what we want to sustain, to keeping what we want to keep, and building capacity to adapt or transform into something better.
Also resilience is very different from a lot of conventional ways of approaching the environment. And these conventional ways are not wrong or bad, but they don’t always fit with especially the world we live in today. A lot of the ways we think about managing the environment derive, from ideas of optimization and efficiency, which really work well in situations where we know how the world works and we can control what’s going on.
However, in many ways we live in a world, which is increasingly uncertain and surprising and difficult to control. And this is the domain of resilience thinking. Some of which has a lot of thought behind it, and some, especially in these areas of how to deal with really uncertain and uncontrollable situations, there needs to be a lot more work. So what do I mean by conventional management?
Well I think people may or may not have heard about maximum sustained yield, but it’s one of the basic ideas in a lot of natural resource management, which is the idea we want to maximize what we can get out of something over a long period of time. And this is sort of embodies this kind of optimization type approach, and this really works well, when we know how the world works we can control things, and we can optimize it and do really well over time.
However, this view of the world is really key. It depends upon that the world works in kind of a linear way, and I like this figure for thinking about it, meaning that if we hit the world, if the world is changed, that the consequences of that change diminish in time and space. So if a tree falls in the forest that’s important for a moment, but it doesn’t have a big effect further away. And after some years the forest is back to as it was. And that’s true for many things in the world.
But it’s also not true for many things in the world. In many cases the impact of some action is actually larger far away and over a longer period of time than immediately. And I’m sure everyone can think of cases of this. But one place where I work where we think is a really, excellent example of this, is the Arctic. As many people and animals in the Arctic have very high levels of persistent organic pollutants in their body fat. And that’s because industrial pollution from industries in Europe, especially Asia and North America, are transported by processes to the Arctic and then are biomagnified by animals that live in the Arctic, and then eaten by people who live in the Arctic. And so people who live in what many people would consider almost a pristine environment have some of the highest levels of industrial pollutants in their bodies. These effects are distant in time and space from where they occurred.
And this type of situation is very common, maybe not as common as simple cases but is common in many places where people have transformed the planet and made novel connections. And this is what we’re having more and more in the Anthropocene. And what this suggests is that we need to have different ways of approaching uncertainty and controllability as first, rather than as viewing management as a solution we have to think of it as a sort of a proposition or idea. And if we accept that we don’t know everything about how everything works, and that even if we do know how things work, it’s like they’re going to change over time, it suggests that our management should be viewed much more, rather than answers, as a learning process where we kind of test different ideas, see what works, but we’re really thinking about having some pluralism and change in what we do.
And this is a lot of types of approaches people have developed these ideas of thinking about adaptive management or experimental management, but there needs to be learning embodied in managing nature. And this is quite different from how most things work.
The other one is that controllability in a diverse world, often you can’t tell people what to do. When rivers cross borders, when carbon dioxide is mixed in the atmosphere to impact all the people of the world, we need to work on ways in which – how do we bring people together? – to agree upon stuff. And when we recognize that it’s not also just about balancing interests, that sometimes a compromise may be ecologically or socially impossible.
We need to think about processes that can build social learning, not just understanding how things work, but shared agreement and trust among people to improve the ability of people to act collectively. And this is again a really different, focus away from a kind of technocratic approach to management to enabling what kind of institutions, (and) what types of actions enable social learning.
So this kind of comes into sort of what in resilience thinking we would say is sort of three big kind of areas for action.
One is trying to develop new understanding to cope with uncertainty, the unknown, and the evolution of new things. We need to think about social, technical, and institutional ways to enable learning.
If we also have novelty though, we also need to build resilience to the unexpected, we need to be prepared for the unexpected, both to be able to cope with shocks, but also to take advantage of potentially positive surprises.
And finally, I think and maybe most important of all, we need to develop capacity to navigate change. And this is basically so that the learning and change can be very traumatic and people – I mean everyone, myself, you want to keep doing things the way you want to do it, and the way you’ve been used to doing things. But in a changing and transforming world that’s not necessarily an option for us, but we need to make sure there’s some kind of broad social capacity to enhance the ability of people to navigate change, especially people who are maybe marginalized or having change imposed upon them. And what are fair, just and desirable ways to do this is a huge area of research.
So just to finish up, I think it’s also useful that resilience has become a very popular word in the past decade as people have tried to understand and live in the turbulent era were are in.
But I think a lot of this linear thinking gets into the way people think about resilience. And I think if you hear people talking about something that is “resilient,” it should be maximized or good, it’s not really thinking about resilience in a good way. I think resilience thinking is about trying to understand dynamic change, understanding all sort of different processes that interact at different levels that mean you can’t ever sit still even if you want to.
And we need to both have institutions, and ways of managing that embrace uncertainty, and diversity to cope with novelty and surprise. We need to have approaches that navigate rather than, just optimize resilience. And these have to deal with the fact that increasing the resilience of one thing can decrease the resilience of something else. And we have to understand how we deal with these trade-offs, and that we need to have discussions not just about increasing resilience, but what type of resilience do we want to increase? Of whatever is desired it can be increased, but there’s lots of ways that, dysfunctional, undesirable things, such as, for example, our current fossil fuel economy are amazing resilient.
And we need to understand how to undermine the resilience of these things. And it’s this kind of understanding what creates, destroys, trades-off resilience that really needs to be developed in as a resilience thinking for navigating the Anthropocene.