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«COMPARING ECOLOGICAL AND HUMAN COMMUNITY RESILIENCE Lance Gunderson Department of Environmental Studies Emory University Atlanta, Georgia Date ...»

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CARRI Research Report 5



Lance Gunderson

Department of Environmental Studies

Emory University

Atlanta, Georgia

Date Published: January 2009

Comparing Ecological and Human Community Resilience



One of the commitments of the Community and Regional Resilience Initiative (CARRI) is to understand what resilience is and how to get there, based on research evidence.

As one resource for this effort, CARRI has commissioned a number of summaries of existing knowledge about resilience, arising from a number of different research traditions. This paper is one in a series of such summaries, which will be integrated with new resilience explorations in several CARRI partner cities and with further discussions with the research community and other stakeholders to serve as the knowledge base for the initiative.

For further information about CARRI’s research component, contact Thomas J. Wilbanks, wilbankstj@ornl.gov, or Sherry B. Wright, wrightsb@ornl.gov.

CARRI Research Report 5 iii Comparing Ecological and Human Community Resilience


Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Community and Regional Resilience Initiative (CARRI) is a program of the Congressionally funded Southeast Region Research Initiative.

CARRI is a regional program with national implications for how communities and regions prepare for, respond to, and recover from catastrophic events. CARRI will develop the processes and tools with which communities and regions can better prepare to withstand the effects of natural and human-made disasters by collaboratively developing an understanding of community resilience that is accurate, defensible, welcomed, and applicable to communities across the region and the nation.

CARRI is presently working with three partner communities in the Southeast: Gulfport, Mississippi; Charleston/Low Country, South Carolina; and the Memphis, Tennessee, urban area. These partner communities will help CARRI define community resilience and test it at the community level. Using input from the partner communities, lessons learned from around the nation, and the guidance of ORNL-convened researchers who are experts in the diverse disciplines that comprise resilience, CARRI will develop a community resilience framework that outlines processes and tools that communities can use to become more resilient. Of critical importance, CARRI will demonstrate that resilient communities gain economically from resilience investments.

From its beginning, CARRI was designed to combine community engagement activities with research activities. Resilient communities are the objective, but research is critical to ensure that CARRI’s understanding is based on knowledge-based evidence and not just ad hoc ideas— we want to get it right. To help with this, CARRI has commissioned a series of summaries on the current state of resilience knowledge by leading experts in the field. This kind of interactive linkage between research and practice is very rare.

In addition to its partner communities and national and local research teams, CARRI has established a robust social network of private businesses, government agencies, and nongovernmental associations. This network is critical to the CARRI research and engagement process and provides CARRI the valuable information necessary to ensure that we remain on the right path. Frequent conversation with business leaders, government officials, and volunteer organizations provide a bottom-up knowledge from practitioners and stakeholders with realworld, on-the-ground, experience. We accept that this program cannot truly understand community resilience based only on studies in a laboratory or university. CARRI seeks to expand this social network at every opportunity and gains from each new contact.


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Ecological resilience, adaptive cycles, and panarchy are all concepts developed to explain abrupt and often surprising changes in complex socio-ecological systems prone to disturbances.

These types of change involve qualitative and quantitative changes in system structure and processes. This paper compares theories of ecological resilience, adaptive cycles, and panarchies between ecological and human community systems. At least five ideas emerge from this comparison. One is that both systems demonstrate the multiple meanings of resilience—both in terms of recovery time from and capacity to absorb disturbances. The second theme is that both systems recognize the role of diversity in contributing to resilience. The third theme is the role of different forms of capital. The fourth is the importance of cross scale interactions. The fifth theme involves the need for experimentation and learning to build adaptive capacity. All of these have broad implications for attempting to manage complex systems with human and ecological components in the face of recurring natural disasters.

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2.1 Resilience and Adaptive Capacity

2.1.1 Adaptive Cycles and Panarchy


3.1 Anticipation

3.2 Vulnerabilities: Factors that Influence Ecological Resilience

3.3 Responses

3.4 Renewal and Recovery




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1 Similarities and differences between ecosystems and human communities with respect resilience and adaptive capacity in the face of natural disasters.

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On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico and quickly moved over the city of New Orleans. The storm surge, rainfall, and winds resulted in massive flooding and loss of life and property. It also reminded us of failures by humans attempting to control nature. That control took the form of a complex levee and canal system that was design to withstand flooding of the Mississippi and surrounding lowlands. The storm surge of Hurricane Katrina raised water levels in the sound east of the city, causing levees to fail and subsequent flooding in the city.

The flood damaged components of the coupled social-ecological system at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Fifty levee breaches were recorded, and much of the levee system needs to be rebuilt. Homes and other municipal infrastructures were destroyed by the flood, with losses estimated at greater than 50 billion U.S. dollars (Kates et al. 2006). More than 1500 lives were lost, and some (estimates of up to one-third) of population of the city has moved away following the storm. While some portions of the system were irreversibly changed, other portions have recovered at different speeds (Kates et al. 2006). Just as temporal scales of recovery are variable, so are the spatial scales of impacts and recovery. At the smallest of scales, vegetation patches are recovering, as are some individual homes. Neighborhoods, especially the downtown business districts, have bounced back, as have components of regional energy production. The U.S. federal government, which takes a lead role in disaster relief, however, was seen as slow to react and incompetent.

This vignette of natural disaster reveals many of the problems, issues, and challenges facing planners and managers who attempt to understand and manage disasters in human communities (Pelling 2003; Adger et al. 2005; Barthel 2005; Elmqvist et al. 2003; Janssen et al.

2006; Scheffer et al. 2003). From a systems perspective, many natural disasters can be viewed as perturbations or disturbances to a human community system. The speed, severity, and complexity of natural disasters continually challenge the ability of society to generate fitting responses. Kates et al. (2006) suggest that planning for such disturbance may involve trade-offs between adapting to short-term, common events and larger, perhaps costlier disturbances that occur over a longer time horizon. While managers can anticipate some of the types of impacts associated with different disturbances, there is a lot that can’t be known, foreseen, or predicted.

Hence fitting responses must include anticipating the unexpected, and never-beforeexperienced effects and impacts (Holling 1978; Walker and Salt 2006). Also, it is important to understand how previous actions and extant structures may contribute to increased and unforeseen vulnerability (Holling 2001; Kates et al. 2006).

Human communities are systems dominated by people but have extensive ecological components. They can be viewed as complex, adaptive systems (Alberti and Marzluff 2004;

Barthel et al. 2005; Elmqvist et al. 2004; Liu et al. 2007). Complex adaptive systems are not easily analyzed or understood but rather characterized by emergent properties, self-organization, historical patterns of abrupt, non-linear change, and unpredictable dynamics (Costanza et al.

1993; Holling 2001).

One premise of this article is that human communities and ecosystems can be characterized using a systems perspective. That is, they are both systems in the sense of being comprised of internal structures and processes, which are in turn subject to external variation or perturbations. By conceptualizing both as systems, then emergent, systemic properties such as resilience or adaptive capacity can be compared. The extent of the similarities and differences between these systems is explored in this article.

CARRI Research Report 5 1 Comparing Ecological and Human Community Resilience The remainder of this article is structured in four sections. The first section describes theoretical frameworks largely derived from study of ecological systems. That ecological literature describes different models and metaphors of change in systems over time, including resilience and adaptive capacity of ecological systems, and adaptive cycles and panarchy models. The second section describes how understanding of ecological resilience applies to human community systems and disasters, in context of anticipation of events, understanding vulnerabilities to change, developing adaptive responses, as well as robust renewal and recovery. The third section attempts to tie together these ideas by using a systems perspective on how community resilience could be fostered and maintained. The final section presents some insights on key similarities and important differences between the ecological and human community resilience.

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2.1 Resilience and Adaptive Capacity Resilience can be traced to the Latin word resalire, which translates to “walking or leaping back” (Skeat 1882). As such it has the meaning in many different disciplines as the capacity to rebound or recover after a shock or event. Some scholars use the term resilience to describe the amount of time needed to recover following an external force or perturbation. Holling (1996) distinguished two types of resilience that have been applied by ecologists; one is engineering resilience and the other is ecological resilience. Engineering resilience is the time to recovery— how long an ecosystem takes to recover following a disturbance. Ecological resilience was first described by Holling (1973) to describe two different aspects of change in an ecosystem over time. His (op.cit.) first characteristic of resilience involved the “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 defining characteristic described resilience as “the size of a stability domain or the amount of disturbance a system could take before it shifted into alternative configuration” (op cit.). These two views of resilience are not incompatible, yet the major difference is whether or not the system of interest returns to a prior state or reconfigures into something very different.

Ecologists who work in disturbance-driven ecosystems found that ecological resilience was a more applicable concept to the complex changes that they were observing. These scientists observed qualitative changes in both the structure and function of ecosystems (Gunderson 2000;

Scheffer and Carpenter 2003; Folke et al. 2004) or the ecological regime or identity (Walker et al.

2006; Walker and Salt 2006). Many examples are recorded. Walker (1981) and Dublin et al.

(1990) found dramatic shifts between grass dominated and shrub dominated in semi-arid rangelands that were mediated by interactions between herbivores, fires, and drought cycles.

Scheffer and Carpenter (2003) describe two alternative states (clear water with rooted aquatic vegetation and turbid water with phytoplankton) in shallow lake systems. Gunderson (2001) described shifts in wetland vegetation as a result of changes in nutrient status and disturbances such as fire, drought, or frost. Coral reef systems shifts between coral domination and macroalgae domination have been demonstrated (Hughes 1994; Nystrom and Folke 2001; Bellwood et al. 2004). Many pathways have been documented for this phase transition, including overfishing and population decline of key grazing species, increase in nutrients, and shifts in recruitment patterns (Hughes et al. 2003). Estes and Duggin (1995) and Steneck et al. (2004) have shown how near-shore temperate marine systems shift between dominance by kelp and sea 2 CARRI Research Report 5 Comparing Ecological and Human Community Resilience urchins, as a function of the density of sea otters and other grazers. At even larger scales, the transition between the Sahara and Sahel has been described as regime shifts (Foley et al. 2003) and is driven by internal and external factors.

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