Resilience and Adaptation

What is the relationship between resilience and adaptation? Are they the same? Mutually exclusive? Overlapping? Complementary? If something is resilient, is it necessarily adaptive, and vice versa? These basic questions hold significance for how one seeks to cultivate resilient landscapes, as well as communicate with resource managers, elected officials, and diverse publics. However, the concept of “social-ecological resilience” can be esoteric, and its connections with adaptation seldom explained. This post elucidates, from a partly academic and largely practitioner perspective, how the two concepts can variously fit together. It uses real examples from the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership to demonstrate these configurations.

My need to clarify the relationship between resilience and adaptation stemmed from helping to convene the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership in 2016. This landscape initiative aims to restore the resilience of numerous social and ecological values inherent in the 60,000 acres of mixed conifer forest covering the Lake Tahoe Basin’s west shore. Our stakeholder, agency, and science teams needed grounding in the professional literature to differentiate our approach to building resilience – based in complex adaptive systems – from simplistic engineering-based approaches. I produced the following Select Resilience Terminology handout (click here to view or download) in the first few months. The handout placed scholarly definitions of resilience (Walker et al 2004), adaptability (Berkes et al 2003), and transformability (Walker et al ibid), alongside Fisichelli et al’s concepts of persistence, autonomous change, and directed change (2015).


One can summarize the former as follows:

  1. Resilience: The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.
  2. Adaptability: The capacity of a social-ecological system to learn, combine experience and knowledge, adjust its responses to changing external drivers and internal processes, and continue developing within the current stability domain or basin of attraction.
  3. Transformability: The capacity to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic, or social structures make the existing system untenable.

One can summarize the latter as follows:

  1. Persistence: An approach to climate change adaptation that focuses on the maintaining current conditions. In this context, neither conditions nor the system would change.
  2. Autonomous change: An approach to climate change adaptation in which a resource responds to change with no management intended to drive the system toward a specific state. In this context, the conditions as well as the system could change.
  3. Directed change: An approach to climate change adaptation where management intends to drive the system toward a specific desired new future state. In this context, the conditions would change while the system would remain the same.


In the Lake Tahoe West process, each of these approaches applied to different issues and parts of the landscape.

  • With regard to persistence, discussion focused on California spotted owl, whose sub-population in the Central Sierra Nevada continues to decline. Referencing the federal Endangered Species Act, some stakeholders in principle supported thinning vegetation across the landscape, but in practice wanted to maintain all pockets of dense vegetation that could support bird nests. They hoped that maintaining these current conditions would minimize the risk that birds would abandon their nests and vacate the area.
  • California State Parks advocated autonomous change in portions of its lands. In some areas, staff deliberately avoided any management intervention – for fire or wildlife habitat or other purposes – as part of research to understand vegetation dynamics over time. Parks had no goal for those areas other than to observe what occurred, even if conditions or the entire system changed.
  • Again taking spotted owl as the subject, directed change involved attempting to thin some pockets of dense vegetation to reduce fuel loadings and minimize the risk of wildfire, while still maintaining enough high quality (dense) owl habitat to minimize the risk of nest abandonment. Accomplishing these simultaneous, potentially conflicting goals, depended on carefully sequencing vegetation treatments over space and time.
  • In light of climate planning scenarios built around Representative Concentration Pathways 4.5 and 8.5, stakeholders also contemplated the possibility of transformative change. In this context, conditions might no longer support mixed conifer forests, and management might seek to foster an entirely new system. This “forest type conversion” had already been witnessed in parts of the Southern Sierra Nevada, where incense cedar, white fir, and ceanothus species now predominated.


A year or so later, I became motivated to create a companion resilience diagram focused on adaptation. I had been contributing to the Sierra Nevada Regional Report, as part of California’s Fourth Climate Assessment (click here to view or download). I felt that the Report’s “framework for adaptation” (page 5) downplayed human interventions, flirted with engineering resilience, blurred the distinction between conditions and systems, and would ultimately confuse lay readers. I wanted to produce something that stayed consistent with what we had developed for Lake Tahoe West, and provide a clear foundation for an interested lay audience to track the relationships between resilience and adaptation. In many cases they correspond with one another, but not necessarily. Eventually I rolled out the new diagram as part of a staff training at the California Tahoe Conservancy; the following image extract provides its essence (click here to view or download the entire diagram).


resil adapt extract


The resulting diagram illustrates that resilience and adaptation can exist in various configurations, and that determining their precise articulation depends on clarifying one’s intended outcome. Are you attempting to hold onto things just as they are today? Do you not care what direction the system goes, and you are not attempting anything? Are you attempting to create certain new conditions? Are you attempting to change the system entirely in response to foreboding trends already you have already witnessed?


In light of anticipated climate change here in the Lake Tahoe Basin, efforts focused on persistence are unlikely to be resilient, and by definition are not adaptive. Autonomous change, meanwhile, may result in resilient conditions and the system may adapt, while directed change deliberately builds resilience within the existing system by adapting. Transformative change by definition moves beyond adaptation within a given system, yet also seeks resilience, and can be adaptive within the new system. Most of our work in Tahoe focuses on directed change (while humbly recognizing a social-ecological system’s inherent complexity, dynamism, and non-linearity), yet we also recognize that some circumstances may warrant other types of interventions, and do not rule these out.


In your work, How do you characterize the relationship between resilience and adaptation?



Unless otherwise noted, the information presented herein does not represent IUCN’s or the Commission’s position on the matters presented.

8 thoughts on “Resilience and Adaptation

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  1. I am curious about the difficulties that people have with the meaning of resilience. As an ecologist and ecosystem manager, resilience simply means the ability to recover or bounce back from disturbance. It has the same meaning as persistence or the ability to survive. A forest that comes back as the same forest after a fire or beetle attack is resilient. Extending the boundary of the system to include humans and their activities, a resilient system is one in which the various things that people do forests (logging, hiking, fishing, hunting, etc.), the associated businesses and settlements bounce back along with the recovery of the forest.

    Transformation is what happens if the forest is not resilient. Some parts of the forest system are lost, new parts are added. For example the replacement of coniferous with broad leafed species and the replacement of the timber industry with vacation homes and small ranches. This is a different system from the one that was burned down in the fire.

    Mechanistic ideas about resilience do not recognize the potential for transformation. Management practice based on a mechanistic view is aimed at keeping the forest in the same state to maximize sustainable yield of forest products. Ecological resilience recognises that alternate states exist and that systems evolve (or regress) be moving from one state to another. Management for maximum sustainable yield, simplifies a forest system and reduces its resilience.

    Autonomous change seems to be similar to the concept of “self-organisation” in complex systems of which forest ecosystems are an example. Forest communities of plants, animals, people interact – self-organise and change over time. This is how evolution occurs. New things emerge from the interaction, are tested and either succeed or fail, depending on the outcome of the interactions within the system.

    Directed change sounds like an intervention to deliberately create change and the example given suggests that it is aimed at two potentially conflicting outcomes. The outcome of interventions cannot be predicted because of self-organisation. Therefore interventions are opportunities to learn about forest system dynamics to inform the design go future interventions.

    I use Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking:
    integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20. [online] URL: http:// for formal definitions of resilience, adaptability and transformation. “Adaptability (adaptive capacity) The capacity of actors in a system to influence resilience.” There are many ways in which forest system resilience can be influence by management.

    Gallopin describes resilience as a subset of adaptive capacity In other words if a system is low on resilience its adaptive capacity will also be low. The paper is behind a paywall but the illustration (fig. 5) that describes the relationship is viewable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the difficulties with the concept of resilience from an indigenous community perspective is the connotation that derives, I suspect, from the psychological notion of resilience and which is often seen as obscuring the real need for structural societal change. It is a difficult tension at times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Makere, this strikes me. I’ve seen several critiques of “resilience” as a new buzzword coopted by those in power (e.g., Your comment, however, reminds me of the choice we all have to make each day as to whether we will work on systemic reform or agitate for revolution. In other words, when do we double-down and bear something stoically (be “resilient”), and when does the time come, as Mario Savio memorably put it in the Free Speech Movement, “when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”


  3. We did a study about how water professionals interpret resilience, and we found it interesting to see how this abstract concept was seen by practitioners. We asked them not to translate resilience per se – but rather broke it down into how they interpreted “enabling and disabling factors” for resilience “thresholds” and identification of “step changes or transitions /transformations”, We found among many things that:

    1. Practiioners distinguished between three levels of resilience: Socio-ecological (e.g. larger landscape, river basin, what we normally refer to as socialecological resilience) scale; external hazard considerations (resilience to hazard events like storms); and finally individual capacity of stakeholders/socio-economic operation aspects (eg resilience of drinking water provision to operate although financial capital is low).

    2. In each of these domains, adaptive capacity could increase (for example in stakeholders capacity) while the resilience described the process of getting there – often including resistance to new knowledge and collapse of old structures or knowing. Often this process is described in a linear fashion and technology focused (for the water sector) eg capacity is increased gradually in a linear fashion, going from one technology to the next, but the added dimension of resilience makes a difference as it also adds dynamic and agency: first there can be resistance – then collapse of capacity for other capacity to emerge and replace old structures/or knowing.

    The paper is open access in Ecology and Society:

    Johannessen, Å., and C. Wamsler. 2017. What does resilience mean for urban water services?. Ecology and Society 22(1):1.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Ase, it is intriguing to hear about the tacit framings of professionals working with the term, which extend from system through event through individual; and to hear that the linkages between these levels may — or may not — be mutually reinforcing (e.g., does an increase in individual capacity necessary mean an increase in systemic capacity?). At minimum it sounds like dynamism and agency receive greater recognition, a critical benefit when thinking about thresholds and transformations.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Dorian, it is an interesting question you pose. In this and in other studies we have found that the building of resilience at one level can indeed erode resilience at another, if they are not linked. One example is the building up of access to water with urban communities. Such good achievements increasing resilience at one level (and indeed sometimes referred to in humanitarian/Water and Sanitation and Hygiene organisations as building resilience) will very likely be eroding the water resources at larger scale is not governed at that level. This governance includes providing progress in other areas such as urban planning enabling infiltration of water to the groundwater, good sanitary practices, drainage etc.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi Åse, Your description of the interactions between knowledge, risk assessment and agency reminded me of the modified adaptive cycle proposed by Fath et al (Fath, B. D., C. A. Dean, and H. Katzmair. 2015. Navigating the adaptive cycle: an approach to managing the resilience of social systems. Ecology and Society 20(2): 24. which illustrates the convoluted path of many small cycles of growth, collapse, reorganisation and renewal that may occur in the development of the institutions necessary for the growth of a new social system.

      I find it a more useful metaphor for understanding change in social systems than Holling’s monotonic model, that in essence is no more than von Bertalanffy’s biological growth curve.


  4. Many of the environmental problems that we experience today arise from structural problems within society. In part, these emanate from ideology (for example the belief that we can have unlimited economic growth) and in part from structural weaknesses that allow some to accumulate power at the expense of others. The problem arises from a system trap called “success to the successful” (Meadows, Thinking in Systems). There is a great need for structural change and the ideologies that inhibit the purposeful social action required to break out of the trap. The nested adaptive cycle metaphor is a tool that can be used to guide the change process. Stoicism is not resilience. It might enable people to survive in harsh conditions but it creates brittle societies.


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