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E&S Home > Vol. 13, Iss. 2 > Art. 40 > Abstract Open Access Publishing 
Adaptive Capacity and Traps

Stephen R Carpenter, University of Wisconsin-Madison
William A. Brock, University of Wisconsin-Madison


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Adaptive capacity is the ability of a living system, such as a social–ecological system, to adjust responses to changing internal demands and external drivers. Although adaptive capacity is a frequent topic of study in the resilience literature, there are few formal models. This paper introduces such a model and uses it to explore adaptive capacity by contrast with the opposite condition, or traps. In a social–ecological rigidity trap, strong self-reinforcing controls prevent the flexibility needed for adaptation. In the model, too much control erodes adaptive capacity and thereby increases the risk of catastrophic breakdown. In a social–ecological poverty trap, loose connections prevent the mobilization of ideas and resources to solve problems. In the model, too little control impedes the focus needed for adaptation. Fluctuations of internal demand or external shocks generate pulses of adaptive capacity, which may gain traction and pull the system out of the poverty trap. The model suggests some general properties of traps in social–ecological systems. It is general and flexible, so it can be used as a building block in more specific and detailed models of adaptive capacity for a particular region.

Key words

adaptation; allostasis; model; poverty trap; resilience; rigidity trap; transformation
Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087