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Collapse and Reorganization in Social-Ecological Systems: Questions, Some Ideas, and Policy Implications

Nick Abel, CSIRO
David H. M. Cumming, University of Zimbabwe
John M Anderies, Arizona State University


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We tested the explanatory usefulness and policy relevance of Holling’s (2001) “adaptive cycle” theory in exploring processes of “collapse,” also called “release,“ and recovery in regional social-ecological systems (SESs) in Zimbabwe and Australia. We found that the adaptive cycle is useful in recognizing changes in system behavior during the various phases. However, our small sample of cases did not generally show either the sequential passage of stages or the prerelease decline in resilience that adaptive cycle theory implies. In all cases, however, the reasons for releases were apparent with hindsight. On the other hand, our examples mostly supported the proposition that resilience is controlled by slowly changing variables. Although we found the adaptive cycle, and complex system theory in general, to be useful integrating frameworks, disciplinary theories are required to explain causes and effects in specific cases. We used theories linking distribution of political power to institutional change; to investment in natural, human, social, and physical capitals; and to access to financial capital. We explored patterns of change of these capitals before, during, and after release and reorganization. Both the patterns of change and relative importance of the different capitals during reorganization varied widely, but the importation of resources from broader scales was often a key to recovery. We propose that the resilience of most regional or national SESs can be explained in these terms. The capacity to self-organize emerged from our studies as a critical source of resilience. Although rebuilding this capacity at times requires access to external resources, excessive subsidization can reduce the capacity to self-organize. The policy implication is that cross-scale subsidization should end when self-organization becomes apparent, because subsidization can increase the vulnerability of the system as a whole. When the aim is to recover without changing the system fundamentally, the focus should be upon conserving or investing in the elements of capital critical for this. If the current system is not viable, it is necessary to invest in forms of capital that will enable fundamental change. It will also be necessary to stop investing in the capitals that maintained the unviable regime. The political difficulty of doing this is why SESs so often remain maladapted to current conditions and opportunities and eventually reach the point of collapse.

Key words

Key words: resilience, collapse; recovery; social-ecological systems; adaptive cycle; natural capital; social capital; human capital; Zimbabwe; Australia

Copyright © 2006 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087