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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Persistence: An approach to climate change adaptation that focuses on the maintaining current conditions. In this context, neither conditions nor the system would change.
- 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.
- 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).
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.