1 Approach | 3.4 Resilience
State of the Environment 2011 Committee. Australia state of the environment 2011.
Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Canberra: DSEWPaC, 2011.
What is the capacity of the environment to retain or recover essentially the same structure and functions when it experiences shocks or disturbances?
After assessments of state, pressure and management, the condition of environmental and cultural systems is revisited in terms of their resilience. This report adopts the definition of resilience as ‘the capacity of a system to experience shocks while retaining essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks, and therefore identity’.5 This definition is based on a large body of research (e.g. Walker et al.,5 Resilience Alliance6) and recognises that the resilience of the environment and of human societies cannot be considered separately from one another as they interact in so many ways. These coupled ‘social–ecological systems’ cannot adapt to change by staying exactly the same—in fact, resisting change is likely to make a system inflexible and vulnerable to shocks. Therefore, a resilient system is considered to be one that allows change within limits. In the analyses here, resilience is deemed not as either positive or negative but simply as an attribute of a system that arises from a broad suite of characteristics.
- the amount of change the system can undergo and still retain the same controls on function and structure
- the degree to which the system is capable of self-organisation
- the ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.
In turn, these characteristics are based on the system’s:8
- diversity (including diversity of ideas, resources, responses, skills and experience, as well as diversity of species)
- modularity (connections and redundancies between parts of the systems such that a collapse of one part does not cause collapse of the whole system)
- tightness of feedbacks (how quickly and strongly the consequences of change in one part of the system are felt and responded to in other parts).
We cannot assess resilience quantitatively, based on our current understanding, information and modelling capabilities. In this report, resilience is therefore discussed in a qualitative way rather than in a report card format. It is possible to identify aspects of coupled social–ecological systems that are likely to add to or detract from resilience, and this can help to guide long-term decision-making.
In each theme chapter, the resilience of environmental values in the theme is generally examined by discussing four components:
- an interpretation of what resilience means for the theme
- any evidence of past resilience, such as cases in which a system has previously recovered from a disturbance
- identification of the main factors affecting resilience, such as vulnerability and exposure
- the anticipated ability of systems and their associated functions to cope with future disturbances whether chronic, acute or sporadic.
The discussions are framed around the relations between particular disturbances and their likely impacts on the functionality of a particular system in immediate and longer terms. Both specific resilience (to known pressures) and general resilience (to unknown or future pressures) are discussed, and case studies are used to illustrate key points, using examples of responses to shocks in the past.