What does resilience really mean?

By Lorraine Gordon

In November 2019, off the back of the toughest drought in Australian history, my family farm at Ebor was ‘smashed’ by the Ebor fire at one end of the property and the East Cattai fire at the other end.

This took out approximately 20kms of boundary fence and $700,000 in infrastructure. These catastrophic fires completely devastated our landscape in a few hours.

Come March, we had just re-opened our farm tourism and function centre, when COVID-19 hit. This shut down our tourism business for much of the remaining year.

This is a familiar 2020 story for many Australians. It initiated a deep dive on my behalf into what makes people and landscapes truly resilient.

Firstly, what exactly does resilience mean? According to the International Resilience Alliance, resilience is the ability to live and develop with change.

Well, there is much change afoot. We are now in an epoch known as the “Anthropocene”, where human activities fundamentally shape the functioning of the planet. Many refer to this period as the tipping point.

Today, no ecosystems in the world that go un-influenced by human development. So, more than ever, our personal resilience and the resilience of our landscape goes hand in hand.

It is important to recognise that the earth is a complex adaptive system, which is forever re-calibrating itself and evolving.

As such, species are actively adjusting to anthropocentric changes; but not necessarily successfully.

In Australia, we have a very high reputation for species loss because of this. Resilience is not just about ensuring our own adaptability, but about protecting the ecological communities of which we form a part.

So what does the International Resilience Alliance have to say about the principles for building resilience both in ourselves and our environment?

  • Maintain diversity and redundancy (having several species that can perform the same critical role in the environment, in case one becomes extinct). Think of how catastrophic it would be if we lost our native bees given the vital role they play.
  • Manage connectivity (the way and degree to which resources, species and social actors disperse, migrate or interact across ecological and social landscapes). Imagine if humans couldn’t mix outside family circles to find a partner to breed with.
  • Manage slow variables and feedbacks (a variable whose rate of change is slow and therefore often incorrectly considered constant). Simply because icecaps melt slowly does not mean they won’t tip ecological systems towards collapse, rising temperatures and sea levels.
  • Understanding that social-ecological systems are complex adaptive systems (have the capacity to self-organize and adapt based on past experience, non-liner behavior and uncertainty). We cannot predict outcomes and control social-ecological systems, there are no ‘simple’ solutions.
  • Encourage learning and experimentation, this is vital for ensuring that we continuously transform ourselves to deal with a constantly transforming world.
  • Broaden participation (active engagement of relevant stakeholders in management and governance of our social-ecological systems). For resilient governance and decision making, numerous perspectives need to be heard and involved.
  • Promote polycentric governance systems (having local, state and federal government), like that of which we thankfully have in Australia.

It is important to understand that you are connected to your environment. You can’t be resilient outside the context of your environment.

If we separate ourselves from the environment, our resilience deteriorates. In that regard, we will not be able to cope with change we have brought upon ourselves.

Lorraine Gordon is Southern Cross University’s Director of Strategic Projects at the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance and Farming Together Program. She is also an Associate Director at Southern Cross University’s Centre for Organics Research.

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