Wherefore resilience?

By John Zablocki

Resilience. The term has now grown common in discussions of ecology, with leading environmental NGOs such as the World Wildlife Foundation touting it as a primary management goal. But what does resilience actually mean? Director of Oxford University’s Biodiversity Institute, Professor Kathy Willis explored the concept of resilience in her 2012 Linacre Lecture, “Planning for ecological resilience on landscapes: the importance of the past to plan for the future.” Her work deciphering paleo-ecological records, to determine what has driven ecosystem changes in the past, has led to a greater understanding of how to approach ecosystem management today. Often what we thought was human-induced change, such as the conversion of littoral forest in Madagascar to a heath-dominated system, has turned out to be driven by natural factors. Identifying what actually drives ecosystem change is essential to prioritizing management and conservation efforts. The idea of “resilience” as Professor Willis defines it, fits into this paradigm. A “resilient” ecosystem is a system which can withstand disturbance and return to its previous functionality without transitioning to an alternative stable state. In the discussion that followed her lecture, she emphasized the slippery slope of nebulousness when the term “resilience” is used outside of this context. Applying the term to individual species, for example, changes the meaning of the word and can lead to confusion with other processes such as organism adaptation and behavioral plasticity. Resilience is undoubtedly a key concept for the future of ecology, yet there remains much confusion about what is meant by it, both within and outside the scientific community. The ongoing work of Professor Willis and her colleagues provides crucial insights which must to be taken into account when attempting to clarify our terms of discussion.

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