Why is resilience so important? While it’s nearly impossible to foresee and plan for every future event, there are attributes that can help a person or system to better adapt to any change, and find fulfillment in the vast range of circumstance that the world tends to offer. Because the impact of change on our lives often depends on the gap between our expectations and our reality, one could go so far as to say that lack of resilience is one of the key causes of suffering, whether starvation and disease in the wake of overpopulation, or economic depression in the wake of over-sold debt. I worry we’ve created a culture and social structure that undermines the resilience of our selves, our communities, and our broader environment. While this blog will look at specific constructive responses in the future, the positive principles discussed below can offer a general set of ideas to begin applying in our day-to-day lives.
Most people have a good natural sense of what resilience means—Muhammad Ali taking punches on the ropes, that old Volvo station-wagon still running at 200k, my mother who never seemed to get sick while working eighteen hours a day as a full-time employee and full-time mom. To get a bit more academic, I would define resilience as the ability to maintain (or quickly re-assemble) a system’s core functions and general arrangement in response to changes. To get a bit more down-to-earth, we’re going to look at forms of resilience in different systems—in this case, the three that seem to most dramatically shape our daily reality—1) our environment, 2) our social connections, and 3) our personal experiences. From an analysis of these three different levels, I will try (over the next few days) to distill general attributes that contribute to the resilience of any system, which will give us a set of principles applicable to choices in our day-to-day lives.
Today’s Topic: Ecological resilience
Are you living in a city? Next time you go for a walk, look at the cracks in the pavement. I’ll bet you’ll find most of them teeming with life—dandelions pushing up between the asphalt, ants pouring out to find the nearest garbage can, perhaps a spattering of pigeon-droppings from overhead. The resilience of life is dazzling—there, covered in concrete, the soil stripped bare, poisoned, and sealed away for miles in every direction, life soldiers on. Ecosystems, broadly speaking, are some of the most resilient systems on earth, in their ability to adapt and re-form in the face of shocks and change. What gives them this power? What kinds of ecosystems are more resilient than others?
Biodiversity—“More is more”
Imagine yourself standing in an open forest, with eyes closed. You can hear a chorus of different birds chattering above you, while bees hum between the trees. The delicate perfume of hibiscus and pine finds your nose. Opening your eyes, a carnival of life greets you. Different species of trees filter the sunlight through their multi-shaped leaves. Large, spongy mushrooms climb their trunks. A clearing opens ahead, ringed by thorny bushes and plump blackberries. Below your feet, ants, beetles, worms and millions of other unseen creatures toil away amid the rotting leaves and dark, rich soil. This is a diverse, and resilient, ecosystem.
For every ecosystem, there are many functions that need to be done. Pollen needs to be spread from flower to flower. Seeds need to be spread, on the wind, or in the poop and fur of passing (and hungry!) animals. Dead matter needs to be broken down into food for new life, while precious water needs to be held in the land between rains. All of these different functions-pollination, seeding, the cycling of various nutrients, the retention of water, can be done by many different species. Bees pollinate, but so do birds. Different trees offer different varieties of shade, while rabbits, ants and worms take turns aerating the soil, keeping the many other forms of life within it breathing and alive. A wide variety of species leads to a redundancy of functions, such that if any individual species disappears, the overall functioning of the system continues. As with investing, different species will be vulnerable to different conditions. A multitude of species means there are very few changes that will affect them all—a limited number means exactly the opposite.
At the same time, concentration of a single species not only makes an ecosystem more vulnerable to its loss, but actually increases the likelihood of that loss occurring. As farmers have discovered, planting massive fields of single crops is like offering a buffet to the pests that like it. Imagine yourself as a humble cornstalk borer (A nasty type of corn-pest). Life is pretty tough. The cornstalk (more likely corn-like weed) you’ve spent your whole life on may be yards away from the next plant, and perhaps a half a mile from the next clearing where a copse of these corn-like weeds might naturally grow. You’ll have a tough time finding a mate, and if you and your family grow too fast, within a few generations your little copse of corn will die, and you along with it. Now imagine your delight as a chainsaw rips through the trees, opening up before your bulbous eyes a view you never could have imagined (and never could have occurred in nature)—millions of acres of corn, in even rows, all in delightful, easy jumping distance, for you and all of your family for as many fecund generations as you can possibly produce. A similar story plays itself out at the microscropic level with diseases and fungus. This is the dynamic that leads to the never-ending arms-race of modern agriculture: the massive application of ever changing herbicides, fungicides and pesticides to maintain the most basic function, while naturally occurring ecosystems offer a self-regulating balance.
Self-regulation of inputs—“Taking an inch and going a mile”
Let’s return to that same cornfield (the one assailed by our delighted and virile straw-borer). Massive irrigation pipes (made from metal strip-mined off the top of mountains that once hosted their own vital ecosystems) draw water from miles away to spray in every direction. Because the soil has been turned over (and over, and over) all of the life within it, those worms, ants, mushrooms and bacteria that make the soil dark, dense and ripe for growth, have all been killed. Without them, massive amounts of fertilizer must be brought in from elsewhere—first guano (bat poo) deposits found off the coast of South America in the 1800s, and more recently phosphorous and nitrogen compounds distilled from oil and mineral deposits drilled in countries half a world away. And those herbicides, fungicides and pesticides which need to be bought, re-invented and resprayed every season?
If you notice, most things seem to grow just fine without all of this. Strong eco-systems are able to take a few limited inputs (occasional rain, sun, some minerals in the soil) and construct a radically more complex system. Fungus breaks down minerals and toxins into nutrients usable by plants, or transports needed nutrients from miles away via mycelium and mycorrhiza . Trees provide sugar to the funguses via their roots and dead bodies, and fruits to the animals that, in turn, add their fertilizer to the soil. All plants, with their roots, hold that rich soil in place, shielding it from heavy rains and wind. That soil, held in place over time, forms a healthy mix of sand, clay and organic matter, ensuring that water neither drains too quickly, nor too fast. Forests even create their own climate; trees absorb sunlight that otherwise is reflected off the ground, allowing for clouds to form in the air above—as numerous African countries around the edge of the Sahara found, periods of extensive logging were often followed by years of below-average rainfall. The balanced retention of water and build-up of nutrients over time allows massive forests to grow even in areas of limited rainfall—all of the Southern Mediterranean, now dry hillside spotted with low shrubs and the occasional olive, were once rich deciduous forests.
It is interesting to compare the self-maintaining processes of a full forest to the artificial fields and pastures (types of ecosystems as well, we should remember) which require constant fertilization, first via guano strip-mined off islands in the Pacific (such as Ocean Island and Nauru) and shipped halfway around the world, and more recently through a complex chain of chemical processes dependent on the seamless operation of financial markets, transportation logistics, and available oil. And what of water? The massive aquifers sitting under the Great Plains in the US and the southern rice-growing regions in China, filled by rainfalls over millions of years, are being rapidly pumped dry to meet the irrigation needs of industrial farming, a form of ecosystem design that seems engineered to retain as little water and nutrients as possible in the process of growing food (most of which will go to animal feed). How many people know how to garden without constantly spraying their plants with water pumped from these ancient (and rapidly drying) aquifers or melting glaciers?
In an undisturbed forest every input cycles continually, with very little entropy—every element creates ever more complex nutrients for the others, ensuring that everything, even in death, leads to new life. Early societies often (though not always) understood this process, which was the basis for their nomadic structure, while societies that have ignored it (the Sumerians, the Mayans, and many lost to history) saw their soil eroded and their land turned to dead sand. The process of desertification is in fact one of deforestation—by clearing trees for crop or pastureland, water is no longer retained, the hot sun scorches the ground killing the worms, bacteria and fungi that keep the soil alive and fertile, and the wind blows away the resulting dead matter (otherwise known as fertilizer), leaving behind in a few growing seasons an empty wasteland where once a forest stood. This was the process that culminated in the American dustbowl in the Great Depression, and ravages much of Africa, South America and Australia today.
Resilient ecosystems need little and produce much. What type of ecosystems have we created for ourselves to live in?
Supportive functions—“Everything has more than one part to play”
As discussed above, every plant and animal in an ecosystem not only sustains itself, but also provides an additional function to the overall stability and growth of the ecosystem. At an ecosystem’s boundaries (or in the wake of catastrophe), pioneer plants like Comfrey stretch deep roots into the barren earth to draw up nutrients that (via their rotting stems) will create a new layer of soil for the less hardy plants that follow, while stands of prickly shrubs like blackberries shield newborn trees from the overeager grazing of deer and rabbits. Those trees, in turn, both anchor the soil with their roots and shield the ground with their leaves, limiting evaporation and allowing for the temperate birth of a dazzling array of insects, plants and microorganisms that each add their own function to the whole, aerating the ground, breaking down previously unusable minerals, spreading seeds and pollinating new flowers. In this way, a forest performs a continual process of creation, self-fertilization and renewal with limited external needs. These self-supportive functions act as an immune system, breaking down poisons, filtering sunlight, shielding wind, culling overabundant species. They also behave similarly to our skin, as a method of self-repair.
What do we do as we cut down the trees, burn the undergrowth, slaughter the animals, till the soil (killing the microorganisms and fungi that give it its richness), and plant massive rows of single crops bred and engineered to perform no function other than a short-growing season, easy harvest by combine and lengthy storage? We are taking living, regenerating, resilient things, and turning them into non-living machines, which need our constant attention, input and maintenance to perform their most basic functions. We are systematically, and often needlessly, stripping away the resilience and abundance that has supported us for millions of years.
While this may sound terrifying (and it should), significant (and often startlingly successful) work is being done in permaculture, agroforestry, and regenerative agriculture that attempts to grow food in ways that recreate and regenerate the fertility and resilience of natural ecosystems. We will be exploring these solutions (particularly what we saw in person on our research trip!) in more depth in upcoming posts.
In the upcoming days, we’ll be taking a look at the features of resilience in social organization, so stay tuned.