Systems Thinking Tools – Resilience

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As I prepare to teach my new Agricultural Systems Thinking class at UMass this fall, I have become more and more intrigued with the thinking underlying the science of resilience.  Ecologists, psychologists and engineers are quite familiar with the idea that sustainable systems are able to withstand disturbances, large and small.  Most humans with significant life experiences can surely understand the value of resilience, as life is rarely “smooth sailing” and as the bumper sticker says “shit happens.”

The need for a deeper  understanding of resilience in agriculture has never been more obvious, as the U.S. experiences the impact of drought on the 2012 corn crop and on subsequent food and energy costs.  The inability of the industrial system to adjust gracefully to the shock of drought is just one of the indicators that it is at a tipping point.

Resilience science has taught us that systems designed for economic efficiency can maximize short-term profitability but at the same time will sacrifice resilience or the ability of the system to adjust to shocks and stresses such as drought.  Industrial agriculture and thus the modern food system is highly vulnerable to collapse.

According a report from the Prince Charities Foundation International Sustainability Unit (established by His Royal Highness, Charles the Prince of Wales), titled “What Price Resilience: Toward Sustainable and Secure Food Systems,” the systemic stresses for which industrial agriculture is NOT well-prepared to adapt to include:

A. Disruption caused by declining supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel and the subsequent escalation of energy prices.

B. Erosion of the natural capital upon which the system depends such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity and disturbance of global climate.

C. Global hunger, poverty and inequality, creating social unrest from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement.

Ecological agriculture on the other hand is more resilient as it addresses each of the systemic stresses that threaten the industrial system;

A. Agroecological systems minimize dependency on fossil fuel by increasing reliance on solar and energy reuse and efficiency.

B. Agroecological systems build rather than deplete natural capital  such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity, and sequester carbon to help ameliorate climate change.

C. Agroecological systems directly address social inequities, hunger, and poverty by creating opportunities for small landholders and community-based farming.

Systems scientists define resilience as “the capacity of a system to experience change while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedbacks, and therefore identity, e.g.agricultural system properties and services.”  Resilience is conferred to living systems which (unlike industrial agriculture) exhibit the following attributes:

    1. Diversity – most ecologists agree that biological diversity adds to the resilience of a system.  This is achieved in agriculture through multiple cropping systems, permaculture and crop diversification.
    2. Openness – this is a measure of how easily components of a system such as people, ideas and species can move into or out of a system.  In agriculture it might be manifested in the ability of a farmer to change crops in response to market demand. 
    3. Reserves – reserves add to resilience in response to shocks.  In agriculture, this might be financial reserves, stored seed, or local knowledge.   
    4. Feedback – critical information on productivity, environmental quality or socioeconomic impact is needed by system managers to make good decisions.  In agriculture this might be information on the extent of soil erosion, sales figures, profitability of each product,

I’ll explore resilience in agriculture more in future blog posts but for now I’ll share a list of interventions available for systems in distress.  According to Walker and Salt in their 2012 book Resilience Practice, there are four main areas of intervention:

  • Management – changes in recommended management of components of a system
  • Financial – assistance, investment, subsidies, taxes which support the function of a system
  • Governance – laws, regulations, and policies
  • Education – knowledge to influence behavior (and especially to help decision-makers overcome denial)

If this topic is of interest to you, please check out this new video (click on the picture below) in which Fred Kirschenmann speaks about resilience in agriculture.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.