Practicing, Not Preaching: A Helpful Guide for Resilience Practitioners

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Island Press

Associate Guest Editor for the Resilience Issue

Resilience Practice ably picks up where Resilience Thinking (2010) left off. The book lays out examples of how people around the globe have put resilience principles into practice to manage their environs and their livelihoods. In this sequel, authors Brian Walker and David Salt again demonstrate their skills in presenting the essential elements of resilience in ways that draw in the reader. This work begins with a concise review of 10 essential concepts one must bear in mind to think capably about resilience, meaning that folks who have not read Resilience Thinking can still benefit immensely from Resilience Practice. Case studies are then interleaved with concise descriptions of resilience fundamentals, with the happy result that readers are guided toward a useful and practical synthesis of information almost unknowingly. Lesser treatments of this topic often end in confusion.

The case studies provide insights into various resilience issues in many locales, including those related to (1) managing grazing rangelands in Australia; (2) maintaining traditional irrigation methods, as illustrated in Taos, New Mexico, Bali, and Sri Lanka; (3) managing catchments in New South Wales; (4) the critical role of governance and local community participation in maintaining resilient coastal fisheries, as described for the Gulf of California and Chile, and (5) lessons learned from case studies of management at six iconic wetlands, lakes, and deltas: the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, the Tonlé Sap in Cambodia, the Camargue wetland in France, the Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales, the Everglades in the U.S., and the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan.

To complement the case studies are interleaved discussions on three skills fundamental to practicing resilience: how to describe a given system, how to assess that system’s resilience, and how to develop ways to manage systems through testing a suite of potential interventions as heralded in the book’s title. Notably, these interventions span both science and governance, as either one alone is insufficient for the task.

Some of the most interesting ideas are presented in a set of problematiques, illustrating the application of resilience practices in six different arenas: (1) psychosocial resilience, identity, and coherence; (2) disaster relief and crisis management; (3) engineering; (4) resilience and health; (5) resilience and the law; and (6) resilience and economics.

Given the essential role of law to governance and the predominant role that economics plays in modern society, I found the latter two particularly interesting. In Resilience and the Law, the authors point out the inherent tension between the dynamics of socio-economic systems, as well as the need for legal systems to be tight, explicit, and stable. By contrast, in Resilience and Economics, the authors note that these two disciplines share many characteristics. For example, both disciplines are supported by underlying theories and methods for analyzing system stability, system robustness, the effect of slow variables on system resilience, equilibrium states, and the potential for systems to shift to alternative stable states. This all sounds promising so far. Yet, the lesson derived from this work is that resilience practice necessarily requires investigation as well as management of interactions and threshold effects in the whole coupled human-natural system. The implication is that, similar to the economic system, subsystems also have to consider the likelihood and consequences of significant, potentially irreversible shifts in the natural, social, and technological systems with which the economic system interacts. The authors indicate that both ecologists and economists are equipped with the theory and tools to consider whole systems, but neither group has sufficiently put these theories and tools into practice as yet.

The book tells us why we must do so—and I direct the unconvinced to the book’s postscript: “a view from the Northwest Passage.” In four pages, this postscript sums up a dire set of interacting feedback loops that, in the words of Brian Walker, “give rise to a number of thresholds—some crossed, some looming—and a confusing picture of societal response… What is happening in the Arctic, coupled with the risks—and costs—of increasing global catastrophes, point to the intersections of rising stresses and disturbance, and declining resilience. It calls for a different way of dealing with uncertainty—it puts a high priority on getting resilience thinking into practice.”

This book fills a need for a college textbook on resilience, and its use would bring essential new dimensions to courses in resource conservation, ecology, business, and economics. This reference is equally suitable for use by officials and professionals in government, consulting firms, and NGOs that work on resource conservation, community development, human health and well-being, and economic development. Among these organizations are USAID, the World Bank, and the World Resources Institute.