Factors affecting potential capacity to deal with surprises


General resilience is resilience to a wide range of pressures, many of which might be unknown and likely to come as a surprise. Assessing general resilience is particularly difficult, because its attributes interact with one another and different attributes might be more or less important for dealing with different future shocks.

As mentioned above, key attributes that contribute to a system’s general resilience are diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks. (These same attributes are also relevant to specified resilience [Section 5.2], but general resilience is likely to require greater diversity, because it means having the potential to deal with a wider range of unknown shocks.)

In management, the resilience of an ecological or a coupled social–ecological system can be improved by building the resilience of the system itself, or by reducing pressures to levels that the system can cope with. Examples of institutional processes that would be expected to maintain or build the general resilience of Australia’s biodiversity are:

  • processes for looking forward to anticipate possible sources of new pressures and shocks; for example, foresighting by natural resource management groups and by natural resource management agencies, such as the Namoi Catchment Management Authority in New South Wales161 or irrigators in the Goulburn–Broken catchment in Victoria162
  • processes to understand the dynamics of social–ecological systems at a system level, including understanding of slowly changing variables; thresholds, implications of different governance arrangements; and the interactions between human, social, natural, physical and financial forms of capital205-206
  • processes that maintain a diversity of response options for biodiversity by maintaining population sizes that allow for fluctuations in births and deaths and provide a diversity of genes, and by maintaining adequate extent and quality of habitat and connections between pieces of habitat to allow species to continue to find suitable climatic conditions, food, shelter and mates
  • processes that ensure that governance arrangements encourage diversity of ideas and potential solutions, allow for early detection of change in pressures and the state of species and ecosystems, facilitate timely and effective action by those best placed to take it, and ensure that networks are not vulnerable to collapse if key individuals or groups fail.

Some of these processes are built into policies and biodiversity management plans around Australia. By seeking to maximise the diversity of genes, species and ecosystems, or at least minimise their decline, previous policies and strategies have contributed to the diversity component of resilience. Similarly, previous SoE reports have acknowledged the role of programs like Landcare, Bushcare, the Natural Heritage Trust and a range of state government programs in building networks and capacity for biodiversity management and networks in regional Australia.

Only recently, however, has significant attention been given in policies and management planning to the concept of nonlinear change in ecological systems. Resilience is identified as a key objective of the most recent natural resource management strategies around Australia, but it remains to be seen how concepts such as awareness of cross-scale processes and the importance of monitoring are translated into policy and management. In both New South Wales and Victoria, catchment management authorities have been encouraged to employ resilience frameworks in revising their catchment management plans.

There is a growing awareness of the need to apply systems approaches to understanding relationships between pressures, biodiversity and biodiversity management, which could yield improved strategies for addressing specified and general resilience in the future. Most of the measures required to address biodiversity decline are likely to also increase resilience, but several recent discussions have suggested that more needs to be done to address resilience of human social systems, including governance for natural resource management.207

A key way in which governments can maximise the chance of effective information flows and tight feedbacks is through effective engagement with stakeholders. Many government strategies incorporate this as an objective, but there is ongoing debate both about what government engagement should be trying to achieve and how well it is doing that.

A substantial body of theory and observational research is emerging that suggests that management of natural resources, including biodiversity, in Australia and elsewhere could be made more effective, and more responsive to climatic and other variations, if responsibility, authority and resourcing for decisions and action were spread more evenly between central governments and regional bodies (see Section 4.2 and Table 8.26). This means a move from monocentric to polycentric governance—also called adaptive governance—and application of the principle of ‘subsidiarity’, or giving decision-making ability to those most able to detect challenges and opportunities and take appropriate and timely action.1,169,178-179

Australian governments have made moves in this direction over the past four decades, especially through programs such as the Natural Heritage Trust, which created 54 natural resource management bodies around Australia. This approach has been termed the ‘regional model’ of natural resource management.177 Although there are shortcomings in this model’s application, it is widely considered to be the best approach currently available for moving towards adaptive governance, and that it requires more time to mature.179,208 Part of the reasoning behind this conclusion is that there are no quick fixes or simple solutions for managing biodiversity and the broader social–ecological systems. Involving the full range of stakeholders is considered the best chance of finding ways forward.

It should also be acknowledged that there are aspects associated with polycentric governance that some would consider to be costs, such as duplication and reinvention of approaches and concepts. However, resilience theory suggests that a level of duplication and ‘redundancy’ (where there are many species that perform similar functions) is essential to give a system resilience and adaptive capacity. We also acknowledge that other disciplines are addressing questions of efficiency in natural resource management, including the discipline of decision theory.

Table 8.26 Postulated effects on resilience of applying traditional command and control management, based on simple notions of economic efficiency, to conservation policy and management
Key elements of resilience Effects of limited efficiency
Diversity (of ideas, skills, resources, etc.) Elimination of spare capacity; focus on what we need now, leaving us unprepared for later
Modularity (failure in one part does not bring down the whole) Centralised functions can leave a system vulnerable if the centre fails; humans tend to create unstable networks—nature tests its vulnerabilities constantly
Tight feedbacks (effective two-way information flows) Centralised control can reduce intelligence from those working most directly with emerging issues and delay response
Self-organisation The more we try to control a system, the more we risk reducing resilience

Sources: Cork,165Walker et al.,199Walker & Salt201

Cork S (2011). Biodiversity: Factors affecting potential capacity to deal with surprises. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/science/soe/2011-report/8-biodiversity/5-resilience/5-3-factors-affecting-potential-capacity, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65ac828812