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Abstract

Resilience is turning out to be a resilient concept. First proposed way back in the 1970s in the context of ecosystem dynamics, it was then dissected and elaborated spawning terms such as malleability, elasticity, hysterisis, inertia, resistance, amplitude as ecologists struggled to make it into something measurable, usable, and distinct from its notoriously slippery predecessor stability .
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Resilience, sustainability, and
environmentalism
SHARACHCHANDRA LÉLÉ
Ecological Economics Unit, Institute for Social and Economic Change, P.O.
Nagarabhavi, Bangalore 560 072
Resilience is turning out to be a resilient concept. First proposed way
back in the 1970s in the context of ecosystem dynamics, it was then dis-
sected and elaborated—spawning terms such as malleability, elasticity,
Environment and Development Economics 249
Financial support from the MacArthur Foundation’s World Environment and
Resources Program is gratefully acknowledged.
hysterisis, inertia, resistance, amplitude—as ecologists struggled to make
it into something measurable, usable, and distinct from its notoriously
slippery predecessor ‘stability’. But in the post-Brundtland era, the focus
appeared to have shifted to the umbrella concepts of ‘sustainability’
(Brown et al., 1987; Lubchenco et al., 1991, Levin, 1993), ‘ecosystem health’
(Schaeffer et al., 1988; Costanza et al., 1992) or ‘ecosystem integrity’ (Regier,
1993; Angermeier and Karr, 1994). The article by Levin et al., however, is a
strong pitch for reviving the concept of resilience and even for applying it
in social contexts. Why has resilience been resuscitated? How can it be
operationalized? How does it relate to sustainability? And can either
resilience or sustainability be considered sufficient for environmental
soundness?
Resilience, ‘the ability to recover from [presumably severe shocks or
stress]’ as the dictionary puts it, is a flag to draw attention to the need to
incorporate non-linearities in models of socio-ecological systems.
Superficially, it might seem surprising that it should take so much effort to
get us to recognize the importance of non-linearities. After all, we experi-
ence non-linearities and irreversibilities on a daily basis: plants die of too
much watering as well as too little, children falter with too little guidance
but rebel at too much. Non-linearities are well-recognized in traditional
philosophies and knowledge systems, be they those of Indian sages,
Amazonian hunters, dialectical Marxists or even nineteenth century
natural historians. Nevertheless, those branches of natural science
(agriculture, fisheries, forestry, even medicine) and of social science (essen-
tially economics) that most directly inform public policy today appear to
be oblivious of such phenomena, sticking to their linear mechanistic mind-
sets. That such approaches continue to hold sway in face of everyday
experience, traditional philosophy, and also recent developments in non-
linear systems theory speaks of their hegemony over the policy-making
process (Holling et al., 1995; Norgaard, 1987). Any attempt to break these
mindsets and hegemonies is therefore to be vigorously applauded.
Once we accept the basic thrust of the argument, however, we can
proceed in the traditional manner of science, viz., developing a clear tax-
onomy and hypotheses. How then should resilience be defined? Here, I
found Levin et al.’s treatment inadequate and had to take recourse to
Holling (1973), who states that resilience is the size of the stability domain
around stable time-invariant equilibria (point attractors) or stable oscilla-
tions (periodic attractors). From this definition, a number of points follow.
First, resilience should not be measured in terms of the distance of the
current state of the system from the edge of the stability domain, which is
a constantly changing parameter. This in turn implies that reductions in
the magnitude of the excursion away from equilibrium should not be termed
as increases in resilience. Second, reductions in the perturbing force or in the
deviation per unit perturbing force (the latter being the inverse of ‘robustness’
or ‘inertia’—Westman, 1986) should not be confused with increases in
resilience. They are complementary ways of ensuring the same end result
(viz., system stays within the stability domain) as increasing resilience
(increasing the size of the domain). Third, resilience must refer to a situ-
ation where the perturbation applied to the system is significant (to cause
250 Policy Forum
it to move far away from equilibrium) but temporary (a shock or a period
of stress—Westman, 1986), because a continuously applied perturbation
will eventually drive any system out of its stability domain, regardless of
the size of the domain.
In the absence of sufficient resilience, i.e., if the perturbation drives the
system out of a stability domain, the system may either collapse (when
there is no other stable equilibrium) or may enter another stability domain,
characterized by a different system structure, such as a reversed Gulf
Stream. Intuitively, this seems to be the situation in which one should use
the term adaptability: the ability of a system to keep some ‘ultimate’ desired
state variables (say net food production) at the desired level in the face of
domain shifts in ‘underlying’ ecosystems (say the agro-climatic system).
Again, one can talk about the time required to adapt, the extent of recovery
to the old level of the desired variable, etc. as different aspects of adapt-
ability. But it is clearly useful to distinguish adaptability from resilience.
For instance, an agricultural system may be resilient to (able to recover
from) occasional severe droughts, but it may not be able to adapt to a shift
to a significantly drier climatic regime.
Using the above framework, one can begin to evaluate various
hypotheses about the resilience of socio-ecological systems tossed out by
Levin et al., and propose a few others. First, if the perturbation is anthro-
pogenic (such as net CO2emissions) and clearly of significant magnitude,
then, regardless of the exact nature of the system and one’s distance from
equilibrium or the edge of the stability domain, reducing the perturbing
force (stopping the burning of fossil fuels) is clearly one (and probably the
best) means of reducing the chances of a disastrous domain shift (say in the
climate system), even though this does not really constitute an increase in
system resilience. And a careful distinction between resilience and adapt-
ability would, for instance, prevent the climate change debate being
hijacked by the adaptationists.
Second, a key result of resilience research (mentioned in passing by
Levin et al.) is that one should attempt to work with natural variations.
Small perturbations should be utilized to build resilience rather than be
suppressed in order to reduce variability of the state variable. For instance,
it is better to leave mild illnesses untreated so as to build immunity rather
than ingest antibiotics at the mildest sneeze. It follows that Levin et al.’s
general statement that ‘effective feedback is necessary for resilience’ needs
to be qualified, because taking medicines at the mildest sneeze is in fact a
sign of a system with a very effective negative feedback! Normal negative
feedbacks reduce short-term variability, what resilience needs is a non-
linear negative feedback: nil at low values of deviation and high at values
close to the edge of the stability domain.
Third, competition—and the positive feedback it provides—may lead to
greater efficiency, but it is not necessary for resilience: most traditional
resource management systems, now seen as being resilient and ecologi-
cally well-adapted (Berkes et al., 1994), have evolved in non-competitive
communitarian settings. Fourth, the link between risk-spreading and
resilience is complex. If risk is adaptively internalized, by say a person
developing multiple skills, the results are different than if it is externalized,
Environment and Development Economics 251
by the person continuing to specialize but hooking up with a much larger
system: the regional or national job market. The latter approach increases
the connectance of the overall system. It has been shown in a number of
cases, ranging from food webs (May, 1973; Siljak, 1978, who worked on
‘connective stability’) to trade networks (Siljak, 1978), electrical systems
(Fink, 1991), and (qualitatively) even stock markets (Rochlin, 1991), that
indiscriminately increasing connectance may increase efficiency and even
asymptotic stability, but it reduces resilience to structural perturbations in
the system. Furthermore, ‘dynamical systems composed of interconnected
subsystems are stable [with respect to disruptions in connectance] if
the subsystems are self-contained and the interdependence between the
subsystems is properly limited’ (Siljak, 1978, p. 2): something for us to
ponder over in this era of indiscriminate globalization, free trade, and
networking.
Fifth, resilience may in fact require some ‘slack capacity’ (Rochlin, 1997)
that is relatively ‘unplugged’ from the larger system (such as a stash of
gold jewellery at home as against simply a diversification of one’s stock-
market investment portfolios), so that this capacity is unaffected by shocks
in the larger system. ‘Exploiting all opportunities for mutual gain’ (Levin
et al.) may in fact reduce resilience by leaving no such ‘slack’. On the other
hand, adaptability may require a different kind of slack: a store of as yet
unexplored, unvalued resources (such as biodiversity), and of course the
ability to learn.
Clearly, since resilience and adaptability are defined with respect to a
stability domain, the notions of equilibrium and stability continue to be
relevant even after incorporating non-linearity. In general, for a system to
be able to persist (in some desired form or with some desired properties)
over time, i.e., to sustain, requires that it be at or around some equilibrium,
have some stability in the face of small (‘normal’) perturbations, some
resilience in the face of large (‘abnormal’) perturbations, and some adapt-
ability to domain shifts. Thus, rather than stretch and pull the concept of
resilience (sometimes beyond all recognition) or cast the debate in terms of
short-term stability versus long-term resilience, it would be more appro-
priate to think of these properties as different attributes of sustainability—a
concept general enough to serve in most discourses as one of society’s
meta-objectives (Lélé, 1988, 1993).
Particular situations would require more emphasis on particular attri-
butes: systems characterized by high degrees of environmental variability
(such as semi-arid regions or turbulent business conditions) must give
primacy to resilience (hence the domination of r-selected grasses or small,
loosely structured, opportunistic firms), while those characterized by low
environmental variability (such as moist tropical regions or stable
economies) permit the neglect of resilience (hence the domination of k-
selected trees and complex rain forests or large, complex firms). Each
specialization comes at the cost of some other qualities, and has an associ-
ated productivity gain under certain conditions. Research may no doubt
have hitherto focussed disproportionately on stable ecosystems. But to
insist that resilience is somehow more ‘fundamental’ would be akin to
insisting that k-selected species are unfit to survive.
252 Policy Forum
Finally, it needs to be pointed out that the critique of conventional socio-
environmental science is much broader than just the problem of not
incorporating non-linearities. From a scientific perspective, the study of
complex socio-ecological systems also suffers from the problem of reduc-
tionism—the tendency to look at tree growth only as a function of age
rather than thinking of succession, disease and pollination in modelling
forest stands (Holling et al., 1995)—and the lack of methodological plu-
ralism (Norgaard, 1989).
From a social perspective, conventional, primarily Western, environ-
mental science is also characterized by narrow value systems. Both
resilience as a goal in itself and sustainability as an overarching goal essen-
tially pertain to the temporal dimension of human well-being. There is,
however, also a simultaneously or primarily spatial dimension to many
environmental problems, where current actions of one group affect the
current well-being of another group. Typically, these spatial externalities
(and the political power of the involved actors) are asymmetrical, if not
entirely unidirectional. Unless one takes a clear position that in addition to
our concern for the future, intra-generational justice is also a fundamental
value, these environmental problems will get short shrift. For instance,
when upstream factories pollute rivers that are the primary source of
drinking water for downstream communities, the argument that the pol-
lution is reducing ‘long-term river ecosystem resilience’ or ‘water use
sustainability’ will not cut much ice with the factory owners: one has to
invoke the notion of intra-generational justice. Similarly, a concern for the
climate we may pass on to our future generations will not in itself prevent
unfair arm-twisting by the North. The North would prefer to increase the
resilience of the global climate system by buying up forest lands and
emission rights from the South at historically biased exchange rates, rather
than reduce its own level of fossil fuel consumption. The lessons from the
history of environmental policy are unambiguous: no amount of ‘trust’,
‘clever institutional design’ (a la the already faltering Montreal Protocol),
or ‘epistemic consensus’ (a la the IPCC: but see Jasanoff, 1992) can com-
pensate for major asymmetries in the interests and powers of the different
actors. And no amount of concern for long-term resilience of the human
ecosystem can by itself ensure a fair environmentalism or a just develop-
ment. Levin et al. do not claim that it does, but in a world of limited
attention spans and paltry environmental budgets, we must ensure that
resilience does not knock more pressing but politically inconvenient
matters off the agenda.
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As a region, Asia comprises communist China, democratic India and many small quasi-democratic and authoritarian states. Both China and India play a significant role in maintaining multilateral world order. Asia’s regional power remains with its enormous potential of resources for domestic markets and per capita purchasing power parity. Hence, the economic and the business aspects of the Asian region require comprehensive study. Sustainable operational excellence is a notion carried by an organisation’s sustainable economic development and other values. This study incorporates the multiple case study method. Twelve case organisations such as Tata Motors, Samsung, Nissan, Indigo, Mitsubishi, Huawei, Wilmar, Canon, NTPC, Hitachi, Singapore Airlines, and L&T were chosen to study their sustainability values, and operational and strategic strands. TISM (total interpretive structural modelling) method is used for model building; four variables such as operating activities, investing activities, financing activities, and SVE (Social value expenditures) are taken for empirical analysis. Based on the available secondary data, the study incorporated panel data regression analysis. The result shows that SVE positively and significantly explains operational activities that proxy with sustainable business practices. The study concludes with a Paux strategy framework for discussion and managerial implications.
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Much of the world’s biodiversity has been in the hands of traditional peoples, societies of hunters and gatherers, herders, fishers, agriculturists, for great many generations. Most living resources of the earth have been utilised for a historically long time; exceptions are few (e.g., open-ocean and deep-sea species). As Gomez-Pompa and Kaus [1990] observed, even tropical forests of the ‘Amazon were not untouched environments but the result of the last cycle of abandonment’ by traditional users. The fact is that pre-scientific, traditional systems of management have been the main means by which societies have managed natural resources over millennia [Berkes and Farvar, 1989; Gadgil et al., 1993]. Biological diversity has persisted despite, and in some cases because of, these systems of management so that we have any biodiversity today to speak about.
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Much of the world’s biodiversity has been in the hands of traditional peoples, societies of hunters and gatherers, herders, fishers, agriculturists, for a great many generations. Most living resources of the earth have been utilised for a historically long time; exceptions are few (e.g., open-ocean and deep-sea species). As Gomez-Pompa and Kaus [1990] observed, even tropical forests of the Amazon were not untouched environments but the result of the last ‘cycle of abandonment’ by traditional users. The fact is that pre-scientific, traditional systems of management have been the main means by which societies have managed natural resources for millennia [Berkes and Farvar, 1989; Gadgil et al., 1993]. In many cases, the main reason we have any biological diversity to speak about is because of these systems of management.
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THIS REVIEW EXPLORES BOTH ECOLOGICAL THEORY AND THE BEHAVIOR OF NATURAL SYSTEMS TO SEE IF DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES OF THEIR BEHAVIOR CAN YIELD DIFFERENT INSIGHTS THAT ARE USEFUL FOR BOTH THEORY AND PRACTICE. THE RESILIENCE AND STABILITY VIEWPOINTS OF THE BEHAVIOR OF ECOLOGICAL SYSTEMS CAN YIELD VERY DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO THE MANAGEMENT OF RESOURCES. THE STABILITY VIEW EMPHASIZES THE EQUILIBRIUM, THE MAINTENANCE OF A PREDICTABLE WORLD, AND THE HARVESTING OF NATURE'S EXCESS PRODUCTION WITH AS LITTLE FLUCTUATION AS POSSIBLE. THE RESILIENCE VIEW EMPHASIZES DOMAINS OF ATTRACTION AND THE NEED FOR PERSISTENCE. BUT EXTINCTION IS NOT PURELY A RANDOM EVENT: IT RESULTS FROM THE INTERACTION OF RANDOM EVENTS WITH THOSE DETERMINISTIC FORCES THAT DEFINE THE SHAPE, SIZE AND CHARACTERISTICS OF THE DOMAIN OF ATTRACTION. THE VERY APPROACH, THEREFORE, THAT ASSURES A STABLE MAXIMUM SUSTAINED YIELD OF A RENEWABLE RESOURCE, MIGHT SO CHANGE THESE CONDITIONS THAT THE RESILIENCE IS LOST OR IS REDUCED SO THAT A CHANCE AND RARE EVENT THAT PREVIOUSLY COULD BE ABSORBED CAN TRIGGER A SUDDEN DRAMATIC CHANGE AND LOSS OF STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY OF THE SYSTEM. A MANAGEMENT APPROACH BASED ON RESILIENCE, ON THE OTHER HAND, WOULD EMPHASIZE THE NEED TO KEEP OPTIONS OPEN, THE NEED TO VIEW EVENTS IN A REGIONAL RATHER THAN A LOCAL CONTEXT, AND THE NEED TO EMPHASIZE HETEROGENEITY. THE RESILIENCE FRAMEWORK DOES NOT REQUIRE A PRECISE CAPACITY TO PREDICT THE FUTURE BUT ONLY A QUALITATIVE CAPACITY TO DEVISE SYSTEMS THAT CAN ABSORB AND ACCOMMODATE FUTURE EVENTS IN WHATEVER UNEXPECTED FORM THEY MAY TAKE.