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Resilience Thinking and a Decision-Analytic Approach to Conservation: Strange Bedfellows or Essential Partners?

Fred A Johnson, United States Geological Survey
B. Ken Williams, The Wildlife Society
James D Nichols, United States Geological Survey


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There has been some tendency to view decision science and resilience theory as opposing approaches, or at least as contending perspectives, for natural resource management. Resilience proponents have been especially critical of optimization in decision science, at least for those cases where it is focused on the aggressive pursuit of efficiency. In general, optimization of resource systems is held to reduce spatial, temporal, or organizational heterogeneity that would otherwise limit efficiency, leading to homogenization of a system and making it less able to cope with unexpected changes or disturbances. For their part, decision analysts have been critical of resilience proponents for not providing much practical advice to decision makers. We believe a key source of tension between resilience thinking and application of decision science is the pursuit of efficiency in the latter (i.e., choosing the “best” management action or strategy option to maximize productivity of one or few resource components), vs. a desire in the former to keep options open (i.e., maintaining and enhancing diversity). It seems obvious, however, that with managed natural systems, there must be a principle by which to guide decision making, which at a minimum allows for a comparison of projected outcomes associated with decision alternatives. This is true even if the primary concern of decision making is the preservation of system resilience. We describe how a careful framing of conservation problems, especially in terms of management objectives and predictive models, can help reduce the purported tension between resilience thinking and decision analysis. In particular, objective setting in conservation problems needs to be more attuned to the dynamics of ecological systems and to the possibility of deep uncertainties that underlie the risk of unintended, if not irreversible, outcomes. Resilience thinking also leads to the suggestion that model development should focus more on process rather than pattern, on multiple scales of influence, and on phenomena that can create alternative stability regimes. Although we acknowledge the inherent difficulties in modeling ecological processes, we stress that formulation of useful models need not depend on a thorough mechanistic understanding or precise parameterization, assuming that uncertainty is acknowledged and treated in a systematic manner.

Key words

adaptive management; alternative stability regime; biodiversity; conservation; decision analysis; decision science; dynamic decisions; modeling; optimization; resilience; robust decision making; systems; uncertainty

Copyright © 2013 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