Social-Ecological Resilience: What is it and why is it important?

Blog Contributor: Madison Lepp

Recent years have seen an explosion of research and policies using the term resilience. Yet, the word means many things to many people, and is used to evoke a variety of actions. As uses of the term resilience continue to grow, there is value in clarifying the meanings of resilience.

The Rise of Social-Ecological Resilience Thinking 

The notion of ‘social-ecological resilience’ has roots in the field of ecology and aims to describe the complex system dynamics in the context of social-ecological systems (Folke, 2006). From this perspective, humans and the environment are understood as inextricably linked (Walker et al., 2004). This linking of ecosystems and people is vital to the field of social-ecological resilience. In our globalised society, there are virtually no ecosystems that are not shaped by people and no people who do not rely on ecosystems and the services they provide.

In 2005, the United Nations Millennium Ecosytsem Assessment providedthe first global assessment of the world’s ecosystems and introduced the notion of ecosystem services to the global community. Ecosystem services is a term that describes the benefits that humans derive from nature. The report showed that our consumption of  food, freshwater, timber, fibre, and fuel have changed the Earth’s ecosystems. In many cases, the demand for provisioning services such as freshwater, crops, or meat has undermined the delivery of other essential ecosystem services such as climate regulation or cultural heritage. Seven principles for building resilience have been proposed to enhance ecosystem services that support human social and economic well-being (Biggs et al., 2012; Biggs et al., 2015).

Today, the Stockholm Resilience Centre defines social-ecological resilience as: “the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about how humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking.”

Applying Resilience Thinking

The impacts of humankind on the world’s ecosystems have increased the likelihood of large, nonlinear, and irreversible changes (IPCC, 2021). Occurrences such as sea level rise, melting ice sheets, and flooding have devastating impacts on ecosystem services and human well-being. To minimize the negative impacts of climate change, many are calling for strategies to ensure a sufficient, dependable, and equitable flow of essential ecosystem services (IPCC, 2014). Resilience thinking is an important part of the solution, as it is an approach that strives to build flexibility and adaptive capacity rather than attempting to achieve stable optimal production and short-term economic gains.

Resilience thinking aims to strengthen our capacity to deal with the stresses caused by climate change and other aspects of global change. It is about finding ways to deal with unexpected events and crises and identifying sustainable ways for humans to live within the Earth’s boundaries. The sixth IPCC Assessment Report also notes that the concept of resilience to climate change overlaps with concepts of vulnerability, adaptive capacity, and risk, while resilience as a strategy overlaps with risk management, adaptation, and transformation (IPCC, 2022). Notably, social-ecological system research emphasizes the significance of the social, institutional, and cultural contexts in social-ecological systems. This type of thinking represents a shift towards appreciating diverse values and the role of culture in guiding human actions (rather than instruments and incentives), closing the gap between science and society (Reyers et al., 2018).

However, the term and theory are not without their critiques. Various scholars have cautioned that sometimes actions aimed to increase social-ecological resilience can fail to address issues of equity, justice, and power (Cote and Nightingale, 2012). Other critiques include the various misconceptions of the theory and the lack of agreement on applying resilience principles (Walker et al., 2020).

Moving Forward

Given the rapid rate of climate change, biodiversity loss, and rising social inequality there is a pressing need to operationalize in the context of social-ecological systems (Rocha et al. 2022). The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report highlights the need for “effective, feasible, and just means of reducing climate risk, increasing resilience, and pursuing other climate-related societal goals” (IPCC, 2022, p. 41, emphasis added). It is imperative that policies create space for flexible and innovative collaboration and highlight the interrelationships between the biosphere and society (Folke et al., 2021). So, while resilience may not be the only solution, resilience thinking offers a pathway to a building a more equitable and sustainable future.


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