Talk:Complex socio-ecological systems/Critique of resilience

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Jerneck and Olsson. The key message of this paper is "an urgent need to strengthen adaptation in the intl climate change regime," the critique of Resilience is in that context. I see 4 central critiques, only 1 of which I find reasonable:

I do not see why he links resilience to promoting "incremental change" (i.e. insurance schemes). If the central point of resilience is to be aware of tipping points and non-linear discontinuities, that does not lead to managing incrementally.

The other statement in the conclusion is that resilience "refers to systems where levels and domains are not addressed" -- but his paragraph related to transition thinking on page 176 starting with "These three levels" is almost a literal presentation of panarchy thinking.

Resilience has an implicit normative assumption of preservation of the system and resistance to change (p. 175 top). I have seen explicit statements in the resilience literature to the contrary.

Resilience scientists seek to prioritize maintaining ecosystem services over and above analysis and concern for the social subsystem. I think this is a fair critique.

Davidson. Davidson seems to have the idea that Resilience thinking believes that complexity increases as systems grow and that there is a deterministic link between increasing complexity and loss of resilience ... I'm not sure Resilience thinking really says that???? Based on this premise, she critiques resilience on the basis of (1) agency, which we have previously discussed as the main social argument against a supposed deterministic tendency of the adaptive cycle, and (2) the idea that it's power relations rather than complexity that leads to collapse.

She goes on to say we can't predict "critical conditions or thresholds precipitating societal collapse" -- thus resilience thinking does not apply. BUT the whole point of resilience thinking is that we can't predict those thresholds in ecological subsystems either.

She gives examples of how some general observations about ecological resilience may not apply to social resilience. For example, global scale may be fast, not slow. (Billy Turner made this same observation at the Resilience conference.) Memory may come from below, rather than above as in Holling's formulation.Rbusch 18:44, 7 April 2011 (UTC)Reply

There is a sentiment amongst some of us in our estimable crowd that we have generally been too hard on socio-ecological resilience. For some, it seems not only are we beating a dead horse, but that we’re now braiding it’s mane and scrubbing its gums long after rigor mortis.

Perhaps this is the case, but I think that these critiques strengthen certain concepts within resilience thinking, not weaken it (I do agree with Davidson that terming resilience frameworks as theory may not be the best course forward, but she’s not the first to voice that).

Jerneck & Olsson’s critique of resilience is grounded in the development and climate change context, so their qualms with resilience are more focused. While I fully agree that SES may represent conflicts between the ecological and social components (Davidson terms this agency), which are difficult to capture with Panarchy as expressed in Gunderson & Holling’s work and Resilience Alliance types more generally, I don’t believe that this critique falls upon deaf ears. Indeed, throughout the conference the issue of multiscalar feedbacks between social and ecological systems for varying degrees of conflict between elements in the “basin of attraction” was discussed, and I believe that the realization by even the strictest of ecological thinkers is, indeed, that the scale needs to be understood both longitudinally and account for sudden changes (not simply incremental ones). Jerneck & Olsson, and Davidson more so, are quick to accost resilience thinkers for veiling everything under the tapestry of “complexity” (I want one in my living room), but there have been fairly elegant descriptions for the mechanisms necessary to address this kind of complexity (Don Nelson’s work in anthro comes to mind). These don’t seem to be acknowledged by this week’s collection of authors.

Davidson presents a pretty good synthesis of the social science gripes, both in terms of what we heard at the conference and what we’ve discussed within our own little brain trust. Yes, feedbacks, critical thresholds, and perhaps most importantly, agency, need to be more fully integrated into the resilience frameworks for those who carry the mantle, especially if they are to have any deeper meaning. But I take issue with the idea that resilience thinking always trends towards complexity as answer to every problem, or even that the ecologically minded don’t leave any room in their research for those who wish to look at agency. Indeed, even in the clunky Panarchy model the K phase is all about foresight, something Brian Walker and others talked about in Tempe and is alluded to in various res references. True, this does not address the inherent divide between collective and individual agency, as Davidson notes, but it would if you account for how most resilience thinkers define scale: The argument would be that you can’t look at individual agency and combine it with, say, landscape degradation, but if you matched the appropriate scalar dimensions (geospatially and temporarily weighted, etc.) you could approach it.

Obviously this is another topic for another day—scale is the death trap of all interdisciplinary endeavors.

In reviewing Davidson I even wanted to bring in the lessons learned from collective animal behavior, highlighted by this week’s talk by Princeton’s Iain Couzin over in Biology. I didn’t attend his presentation, but Couzin is using models of fish assemblages to talk about individual vs. group level behavior, and extrapolating his findings even to things like American voting patterns. This fits in with the collective vs. individual/passive vs. active debate Davidson mentions, in that it connects to our earlier discussions of complex adaptive systems and the role of the superorganism. In other words, maybe these phenomena can be explained using socio-ecological frameworks, but the systems language is perhaps not sufficient to do so, no matter how hard the Santa Fe Institute would like to change that fact.

Both Davidson’s point about critical thresholds and Jerneck & Olsson’s reflections on incremental vs. sudden change are striking, however, because they do appear to come up again and again in the discussions of why many social scientists are adverse to using these frameworks. I think Scheffer really tried to address this in his plenary, specifically in his discussion of autocorrelation emerging prior to a regime shift (a deviant of the “edge of chaos” concept), but this still doesn’t translate perfectly.

Ultimately I think we have more room for synthesis and theory testing, not less, after reading these critiques. I’d be interested in seeing what others think, but I believe we have before us a formidable pack animal of a framework, a mule; certainly not a thoroughbred. But at least it’s breathing. ~ Sam