Community Resilience, Ecosystems and Sustainable Economics

This is the first in a series of three articles on community resilience and building a sustainable economy (second article, third article). It is a modified version of an article originally appearing in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.”


Contemplate, if you will, the concept of  “resilience in complex adaptive systems.”

“What’s that all about? ” you might well ask. “And what’s it got to do with me?”

I’ll answer the second question first. In recent columns I have pointed out that humanity is living in a state of environmental overshoot. We are using up the earth’s resources faster than nature can replace them. We are also filling up the earth’s “waste” sinks — the oceans and atmosphere — faster than nature can reprocess the byproducts of our global economy, bringing us to the verge of ocean ecosystem collapse and the onset of disruptive climate change.

Although these conditions potentially could be rectified by an international crash program of environmental restoration, our current population, economic growth trajectories and politics make such a late-hour campaign seem unlikely — at least until quite a bit more environmental damage has been done and the concomitant economic chaos ensues, forcing the issue.

Although the environmental crisis is global, its effects will be felt locally — by you, your family and your neighbors. And as the global economy weakens, the burden of response to the crisis will fall increasingly on local communities.

That’s why some communities are developing “community resilience strategies.” Those communities that have anticipated the changing conditions, invested in sustainable local economies and prepared resilient responses to “systemic perturbations” (trouble), will have a better chance of prospering, or at least of weathering the crisis, than those that do not.

Modeling Community Resilience on Ecosystems

But how can you prepare a resilient response to unknown or unpredictable developments?

That’s where studying “resilience in complex adaptive systems” such as ecosystems and human communities comes in. Ecosystems and human communities are complex because they are comprised of many elements that are constantly interacting with one another and the environment. They are adaptive, because they are capable of changing to meet new conditions imposed by internal and external forces.

Yet they also seek stability to maintain their core function — supporting life in an ecosystem, supporting people in a town. How do ecosystems — and, by inference, how can human systems — maintain their core functions when subjected to stress?

First, the life forms in an ecosystem are completely adapted to local environmental conditions including available sunlight, temperature and nutrients. That provides them with a strong basis for stability and self-correcting behavior to resist perturbations that fit within predictable or previously experienced parameters — “normal” environmental fluctuations such as cyclical changes in weather patterns or periodic fires.

Although humans can create environmental systems that are not constrained by location — we can live at the South Pole, if we so desire — there are significant costs to living in an environmentally inappropriate fashion. For example, consuming too much water by growing lawns in the desert is environmentally destructive and, therefore, ultimately self-destructive. If desert communities adopt strict water-conservation rules that require people to choose between, say, growing a lawn or taking showers, those communities will increase their chances of remaining viable. (They can landscape with native plants that are suited for the environment.)

Second, ecosystems conserve energy — and thus make sufficient energy available for the life forms they support — by closing nutrient loops. Once plants store the sun’s energy in their tissue, that energy is circulated as food up and down the food chain until it is once again reduced to basic plant food: nothing goes to waste.

Humans are notorious energy wasters, using far more energy than is required for the maintenance of their systems. By closing loops within their local economies — for example, reprocessing recycled materials locally, rather than sending them to distant countries for reprocessing, and reusing local food and human “waste” to grow food— communities can conserve energy while increasing local economic opportunity. Simultaneously, they will reduce their reliance on increasingly unreliable external energy, material and food supplies.

While seamless adaptation to local conditions and energy efficiency stabilize ecosystems against normal environmental fluctuations, additional strategies have evolved to protect against unique or extreme events or conditions. They include biodiversity, which ensures redundancy within an ecosystem’s living components; feedback mechanisms that regulate energy imbalances; and innovation potentials that allow for entirely new systems to evolve in response to severe perturbations.

In the next article in this series, Community Resilience, Diversity and Feedback Loops, I’ll discuss how to adopt these strategies to enhance community resilience at our ecological house.



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2 Responses to “Community Resilience, Ecosystems and Sustainable Economics”

  1. scarecities Says:

    Time and again we read posts postulating energy decline, resilience, or whatever; “systemic perturbations” has to one of the best yet!
    But I search in vain for any real answers. There’s lots of ‘we must do this or that’ as if some higher force is going to smooth the path for us. What this article, (and numerous others in the same genre ignore, is the fact that we have used hydrocarbon energy sources to make ourselves safe. If those energy sources are removed, our lives are going to become very unsafe again.
    Our inventiveness with fossil fuel energy and its derivatives enabled us after millennia of being on the losing side, to finally fight the bugs that killed off most of us before we were 30 and made our lives a misery.
    We thought we’d won, and so did most of the medical profession, confirmed by the memorable 1969 quote by Surgeon-General William Stewart, before congress, that it was “time to close the book on infectious disease.”
    We hadn’t.
    We’d just done the bugs a favour by clearing out their weaker brethren, leaving the field clear for superbugs to evolve. This is happening right now, it isn’t a maybe. And the fight against them gets tougher every year and our only weapons are derived from hydrocarbon energy.
    You might see your doctor as having the ability to cure what ails you. He doesn’t, without the support of the energy driven machinery of pharmaceutical factories and hospitals, he can do little more that his predecessors of centuries ago.
    We live here courtesy of bacteria. They will get on perfectly well without us, without them we would all be dead in a week, which should put humanity in the correct perspective in the grand scheme of things. Welcome to your future where bacteria take their world back.

  2. Laci Says:

    Good analysis of the prolem, but where is the solution?
    It is not enough to say that people have to do this or that. We need to overcome the factors that prevent us from doing this or that.
    For instance, you mentioned that we ship recylcled materials, rather than re-process locally. Well that is the most cost efficient, even if not the most responsible aproach. We will always do what is most cost efficient, unless we introduce a mechanism to prevent us from doing it one way or another. Furthermore, we increasingly need global meachanisms to be put in place, because too often local solutions come at the price of losing economic competitivenes.
    The only viable solution proposed so far, can be found in “Sustainable Trade”, by Zoltan Ban. It basically proposes a standardized trade tariff, meant to price into exports of any country the price of environmental damage produced per unit o GDP. In other words, Germany would pay a tariff level of 5%, on all goods exported, while China 20%, due to less eficient production of goods and services. Thus the advantage gained through environmental exploitation is neutralized.
    Aside from this proposal that will probably never make it on the table, I have never seen one good viable solution being proposed, only calls for us to voluntarily do this or that, which usually involves losing economic competitiveness to the competition, which actually gains by doing the opposite, and more than cancels out the benefit to our self sacrifice.

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