We now understand that we live not so much in a world of things as in a world of processes, some of which maintain themselves far from equilibrium. In the context of such processes, small differences can be dramatically amplified. If you are walking in a valley, a few steps off your path will make little difference. If you are hiking on a mountain ridge, the consequences can be decisive.
Life maintains itself as a cascade of chemical reactions far from thermodynamic equilibrium. This means that organisms react in sensitive and sometimes surprising ways. They are intrinsically unpredictable. This is also true of the larger systems that organisms create, whether we are speaking of ecosystems or human societies. At times they behave stably and predictably, but they have tipping points.
When we understand that uncertainty is an objective condition not a subjective attitude, our approach changes. We no longer try to minimize uncertainties: risks and opportunities are vividly real.
There is no guarantee that unplanned change will always be creative. On the contrary, it is usually deleterious and not infrequently disastrous, as it may well be in our time. But life has proved astonishingly resilient, able to absorb setbacks, reorganize, and make creative new beginnings. One of the most important challenges of our time is to become more resilient. A global society hyperconnected by social media, travel, and finance is dangerously vulnerable to pandemics of many kinds. We need to build in buffers. As a wag put it, “Only disconnect.” We must also recognize that there are some disasters for which there is no possibility of resilience. There is no protection from a global nuclear war; prevention, through the global abolition of nuclear weapons, is the only defense.
Facing global climate change, a group of ecologists have formed the Resilience Alliance. As they say on their website, “Key elements of resilience in practice include:
- Describing and developing a conceptual model of the social-ecological system;
- Understanding system dynamics including alternate regimes and thresholds;
- Identifying interactions across scales including structural influences of larger systems and novelty emerging from smaller sub-systems;
- Mapping governance networks and exploring adaptive governance options;
- Active adaptation, resilience-based stewardship & transformation.”
What exactly is “resilience-based stewardship and transformation”? We have much to learn. This is the urgent new knowledge for our overstressed century. Meanwhile, we must recognize that uncertainty is necessary to a creative future, but we must also beware of subjecting natural and human systems to stresses that they cannot bear. One of the most common and dangerous reactions to such stress is, precisely, a quest for certainty. That is what brought fascism in the 20th Century and continues to test our global society today. Resilience thinking offers grounds for hope, but it calls for humility and wisdom.