French Resilience: Designing for Change on the Comtat Plain

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The Yellowrider / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Changes in infrastructure, namely the construction of canals, helped to ease the crisis of the 19th century.

The Comtat Vénaissin plain is a small area in Southern France with such a specific economy and strong internal organization that it can be considered as a separate socio-environmental unit, even though it is currently part of the Vaucluse département. It was part of the papal domain until 1814, when it was officially recognized as part of France. Two socio-environmental crises tested the resilience of the area: one in the 1860s and the other some 120 years later. These two crises brought out very different results, demonstrating how foresight, planning, and preparation are essential to resilience.

The 19th Century (c. 1860–1890)

Three unexpected and sudden perturbations created an economic crisis for the Comtat in the mid-19th century: (1) the discovery of a chemical substitute for madder, a plant used to manufacture dye and one of the Comtat’s main agricultural products, (2) a Phylloxera epidemic that heavily damaged the region’s vineyards, and (3) the construction of a railway connecting Paris, Lyon, and Marseille that changed the geopolitical position of the Comtat and opened other markets to its products. Simultaneously, the area underwent other gradual perturbations, including rising imports of wheat following the opening of the national borders and imports of diseased silkworms from Asia that destroyed local silkworm breeding. Both wheat and silk were important sources of income for the Comtat at that time.

Towards the end of the 19th century, and after much debate, the region’s farmers finally adopted substitutes for the cultivation of madder, wine, and silk. Their decision to adopt arboriculture and market gardening owed much to the fact that proven know-how was locally available because these activities had been practiced on a small scale in the area since the Middle Ages.

The new horticulture system was labor-intensive and thus required a large workforce for daily activities such as irrigation and pruning as well as seasonal workers during the harvest. The farmers’ families were generally too few to provide sufficient manpower. Fortuitously, the now defunct silkworm breeding and madder cultivation operations helped to attract immigrant workers from nearby regions.

Although there was no irrigation system for agriculture in the Comtat, a dense network of canals supplied the population with water. The development of cash-crop agriculture improved this network substantially and extended it to a very large part of the region. However, if the core of that canal system had been absent, the conversion to horticulture would have been much more difficult as its construction would have required raising capital.

Other historical legacies contributed to the Comtat’s recovery from the crisis. Equal division of parents’ properties among their sons had led to fragmentation of land holdings since the 15th century. The resulting small, owner-operated farms proved to be nicely adapted to the new crops and methods, which the owner could rapidly introduce without major organizational changes or investments. Large properties were divided into small plots and sold, thereby generating financial benefits for the owners. The specialization in market gardening thus perpetuated and spread a pattern of small farmer-owned properties.

Nevertheless, none of these structural characteristics alone or in combination would have been sufficient to ensure the system’s resilience. The crisis could have easily damaged the local economy were it not for the perception that change was urgent, and the fact that the spatial structure of the region lent itself to rapid transformation. Some of the dynamics triggering the crisis were rapid, whereas others were quite slow. However, the population perceived the disturbance as an acute crisis and acted quickly. Thus, the perceived urgency of the situation and the immediate response were crucial in ensuring a successful transition.

The other important condition for resilience was a spatial structure more or less adapted to the new situation. When the crisis occurred, the region had recently improved its transportation infrastructure, facilitating the movement of goods, people, and information throughout the region’s towns and villages. It also connected the Comtat to outside regions, enabling the introduction of new ideas and access to wider markets. Altogether, the dense urban network and well-developed transportation system in the region played an essential role in the farmers’ successful adaptation to the changing economic circumstances of the late 19th century.

In summary, during the second half of the 19th century, the existing urban and transport structures contributed to the Comtat’s ability to overcome an economic crisis because the readjustments needed did not significantly require any modification of the system’s geography. The more fundamental changes that occurred concerned the type of crop and the emergence of more specialized markets. Furthermore, the farmers’ immediate recognition of the crisis enhanced their chances of successful adaptation to the resulting changes.

The 20th Century (c. 1970–1990)

In the 20th century, the crisis emerged at a slower pace. The creation and expansion of the European Union led to increasing competition in vegetable and fruit production among Union member states. Thus in contrast to the 19th century, the initial changes were external to the Comtat region. The global trend towards integration of economic activities, which made local or regional systems more vulnerable to disruptions, compounded the problem.


Jean-Louis Zimmerman / CC BY 2.0
The development of an international European market in the 1970s challenged the rigid, locally focused agricultural system remaining in the Comtat.

Unlike the positive influence of the existing structures on Comtat’s resilience in the 19th century, those same structures highly constrained the 20th century adaptation process. In the mid-19th century, the regional transportation structure was well adapted to the changing needs of the ‘new agriculture.’ At the end of the 20th century, however, the spatial structure of the Comtat was poorly adapted to the emerging changes; its rigidity and close integration meant that minor oscillations in any part of the system could quickly spread and cause destabilization.

One of the impediments to adaptation was the small size of the farms, which had been an advantage a century earlier. Moreover, excessive divisions of the parcels belonging to individual farms precluded re-allotment. The existing gravity irrigation network also hindered adaptation because it perpetuated the small size of the landholdings and was much less efficient than drip irrigation. A lack of capital, which reduced farmers’ ability to acquire new equipment, further compounded the difficulties. Altogether, the existing agrarian system proved rather rigid for the new crisis.

Moreover, in the 1970s, the commercial organization of the region, which focused on local markets, was unable to deal with changes that were occurring globally. Sales had become heavily reliant on supermarkets and hypermarkets. As a result, the international agricultural system became geared toward centralized trading requiring an efficient regional commercial organization. But in the Comtat, producers and traders frequenting the local markets remained dominant, thereby hampering the region’s capacity to deal with national and Europe-wide transformations.

The spread of modern plastic greenhouses (first introduced in the 1960s), especially around Châteaurenard, best illustrates this situation. The greenhouses spread unevenly and primarily to the new, more distant production areas where traditional market gardening had not left any pre-existing structures. As a consequence, the core areas of the Comtat became less dynamic than the communes situated along its fringes. The market towns, whose central location had connected the different components of the system for a long time, progressively lost their role as driving forces that in turn led to a decrease in the system’s resilience.

It must be emphasized that the difficulties in the core areas did not only result from traditional customs but also from the weight of the established infrastructure that hindered the contemporary adaptation process. This accentuated the tension between the system’s spatial structures on the one hand, and the region’s overall functioning on the other. Currently, as a result of the differences in how the various players responded to change, different parts of the Comtat are subject to different positive feedback loops that drive the system away from a balanced state. Whereas the periphery is adapting to the changes brought about by the increased external competition, the core is not. This generates differences in wealth, social conditions, and attitude (progressive vs. conservative) that reduce the resilience of the region as a whole.

The spatial and agrarian infrastructure became a handicap as early as the 1960s. Within the core, however, the Comtat farmers were confident in structures that had been successful for a long time and remained unaware of the gap between the structure and the actual functioning of the system. For a considerable time, the system’s players perceived the internal structural crisis triggered by the external perturbations as a series of conjunctural crises and were therefore too late in dealing with it.


The relationship between the spatial structures and the dynamics in the Comtat system has reversed over time. Whereas in the mid-19th century the core areas—the agricultural markets and the small farming units run by families—had a positive influence on resilience, in the 20th century they were an impediment to the system’s adaptability. During the 19th century, the perturbations did not impair the relationships between the different components of the system. As a matter of fact, the system not only actively used the existing structures to absorb the perturbation, it also managed to improve its functioning because of them. On the other hand, the 20th century’s growing commercial competition provoked a tension within the spatial structure of the Comtat. The traditions characterizing the core areas and their existing structures inhibited the system’s adaptation. This threat to the system’s survival was to a large extent due to a disparity between the spatial organization and the modernization of agriculture. The evolution of the spatial structures was slower than that of the broader economy, leading to an unsustainable situation.

This historical perspective suggests that a fundamental condition for the incorporation of a perturbation into a system’s functioning is the compatibility between existing structure and current dynamics. It is also apparently important that the response to an external perturbation should be early and decisive. In the absence of such a response, the community would keep reacting to changes rather than anticipating them.

How could these fundamental lessons be used to improve regional resilience in similar cases? Let us look at the need to respond early and decisively to external perturbations (or internal ones, for that matter). The resilient community proposes that ”adaptive management,” meaning continuous feedback between action and observation of outcomes, can best achieve this improvement.


Maria Rosa Ferre / CC BY-SA 2.0
Designing for change, rather than permanence, will enable more long-term, strategic approaches to resiliency.

In environmental studies, the classic example of adaptive management is eutrophication, a process whereby runoff of nutrients causes algal blooms in ponds and lakes, thereby reducing the water’s oxygen content. By monitoring water quality using sensors, managers can detect and counteract elevated concentrations. Similar techniques are widely used in industry and finance. For adaptive management to be effective, two conditions need to be met: first, the understanding of the system must be sufficiently complete and detailed to activate the correct response to any observed changes; and second, there must be capabilities in place that measure the right early warning signals.

However, adaptive management is based on an equilibrium model of the state of the system. It cannot deal effectively with small perturbations that are likely to trigger phase changes, so-called ”tipping points,” in which the system undergoes a dramatic transformation. Yet if we think about the two Comtat crises, we realize that they both led to such phase changes.

I would therefore argue that adaptive management must be combined with ”design for change.” This concept involves a very different way of thinking than is usually practiced in Western culture. For most of our history, or at least since the beginning of agriculture, we have focused on maintaining stability. That is why we used controlled fires to regenerate a grassy environment, erected dams around areas that were regularly flooded, or took advantage of regular natural flooding to maintain the fertility of our fields, as in the Nile River valley.

In the process, we fundamentally changed the risk spectrum of the socio-environmental system that we created and maintained. This is inherent in any human–environment interaction; at best, humans perceive a limited number of the many dimensions of environmental processes on different scales. Yet when we act upon the environment, we affect all the dimensions of these processes. Over time, we deal with frequent risks by intervening in the environment (or in our behavior) in order to remove them. But in doing so, we act upon a large number of unknown factors in ways that we cannot anticipate. That act engenders potentially unknown risks, some of which may be frequent, and others may be less frequent (say centennial or millennial). The accumulation of the less frequent risks would then lead to much greater perturbations over time. Both Comtat crises, in my opinion, illustrate this process. The population failed to address the root challenges that threatened the region’s way of life, and this generated increasingly important tensions between the region and its environment that ultimately had to be resolved by dramatic changes in the region itself.

In the case of the 19th century crisis, what enabled the region to adapt relatively quickly and efficiently were the small farms and the high availability of low-cost labor as well as the fact that changes in the spatial infrastructure, in particular the construction of irrigation canals, helped the transition. In the 20th century, such an alternative infrastructure was not available. On the contrary, the existing small-farm structure and the spatial configuration of the towns actively resisted change.

Present societies are subject to similar shifts in the risk spectrum. Although we believe that we are accumulating knowledge about the systems we manage, our activities actually engender transformations in those systems that are much more profound than the increase in our knowledge. In a nutshell, the more we think we know about our environment, the less we actually know about its current state because of the changes we have triggered.

Following this train of thought, we can conclude that crises such as those in the Comtat—and other crises of the contemporary world—are in effect part of the same phenomenon: the process that causes our society to be slowly but surely overwhelmed by the unintended consequences of its own past actions. It manifests itself in a shift over time from long-term strategic thinking to short-term tactical thinking to deal with these unintended consequences as they emerge.

Although I do not think that we can avoid this process, I do believe that we can mitigate it, notably by designing for change rather than permanence—by accepting the fact that change is the rule and that stability is the exception. Ideally, any socio-environmental or societal structure or institution should inherently have the seeds of new ways of doing things. These “memories” may be preserved by diversity of infrastructure so that their elements can serve as the basis for a recrystallization of the system or by diversity of institutions and human thought processes.

Consciously building resilience into our way of thinking would imply adopting a different kind of science that is not only aimed at descriptive explanation but also at creative interpretation. Any explanation, and the scientific proof that it demands, necessarily focuses on analyzing historical relationships. Rather than seeking origins and reducing the dimensionality of phenomena to the point that we can infer cause-and-effect, we need to start looking for emergence and value our work based on its projection of possibilities.

Transforming a fundamental aspect of our education can begin this shift. From an early age, we need to educate our children to think about alternatives instead of accepted truths. In much of our current early education system, when we have the choice between socializing children (by aligning their opinions) and developing their creativity (by enhancing their sense of differences and alternatives), we choose the former and instil in them a particular vision of the world based on ”truths.” A change of mindset toward resilience and sustainability would instead emphasize creative thinking about alternatives and unanticipated consequences with all of the social challenges that it would inevitably pose.