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Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social–ecological Systems

Brian Walker, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
C. S. Holling
Stephen R Carpenter, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Ann P Kinzig, Arizona State University


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The concept of resilience has evolved considerably since Holling’s (1973) seminal paper. Different interpretations of what is meant by resilience, however, cause confusion. Resilience of a system needs to be considered in terms of the attributes that govern the system’s dynamics. Three related attributes of social–ecological systems (SESs) determine their future trajectories: resilience, adaptability, and transformability. Resilience (the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks) has four components—latitude, resistance, precariousness, and panarchy—most readily portrayed using the metaphor of a stability landscape. Adaptability is the capacity of actors in the system to influence resilience (in a SES, essentially to manage it). There are four general ways in which this can be done, corresponding to the four aspects of resilience. Transformability is the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic, or social structures make the existing system untenable.

The implications of this interpretation of SES dynamics for sustainability science include changing the focus from seeking optimal states and the determinants of maximum sustainable yield (the MSY paradigm), to resilience analysis, adaptive resource management, and adaptive governance.

Key words

adaptability, adaptive cycles, alternate states, dynamics, regime shift, resilience, social-ecological, stability, systems, thresholds, transformability, transformation

Copyright © 2004 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