female boxer staring menacingly into the camera

Resilience and resistance are not the same when growing food

I get knocked down, but I get up again. So goes the song, and so too our food production systems. At least, we hope they do.

Resilience and resistance equals stability.

Psychologists are keen on resilience, the capacity to recover from complex life events. A resilient person will adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship issues, serious health challenges, or workplace and financial problems.

As you lie on the couch, no pun intended, the shrink will take you through four areas to help build your resilience—connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning—each to gain the power to withstand and learn from complex and traumatic experiences. 

Mental and emotional resilience is crucial because there are plenty of life events that can knock you down.

Borrowing from nature

As ecologists, we see the obvious parallels with how nature works. It is as though the highly trained health professionals borrowed resilience ideas from nature. 

Nature appears stable. Plants grow, and animals survive as energy and nutrients move around in ecosystems that change but with bounds that make them look constant. Collapse is rare; production is the norm.

What ecologists know is that the number and levels of connections in nature maintain core processes of primary production and decomposition that, in turn, determine how much total biomass a location can sustain.

And in these ecosystems, all organisms are inherently well. 

An unhealthy gazelle ends up in the jaws of a cheetah. Predation is an excellent mechanism to weed out the ill and sick.

Similarly, healthy ecosystems are free of pollutants and primarily free of novel organisms that humans would term pests and diseases.

Nature has no concept of ‘meaning’ in the human sense of individual purpose or health, but it is extraordinarily proficient in defying entropy to make more. And it does this all the time irrespective of the disruptions. This meaning of resilience is similar to the one explored on the couch.

Resilience in ecology refers to the ability of a system to continue to deliver the same ecosystem services despite disturbance. 

It bounces back.

portrait of a cheetah in the wild
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal, but they also have an eye for the slow gazelle.

Resilience and resistance are different.

Resistance is about not bending to pressure; standing firm.

Interestingly, our shrink might use the term psychological resistance and see too much of it as a problem for your well-being. People with resistance show combinations of behaviours that include perfectionism, criticising, disrespectful attitude, self-criticism, preoccupation with appearance, social withdrawal, need to be seen as independent and invulnerable, or an inability to accept compliments or constructive criticism. 

Not exactly what is said about resilience.

The reason is that resistance is the ability to ignore or bat away trauma. A suit of armour offers resistance to the lance. A boxer in the ring that keeps getting hit but doesn’t fall over shows resistance and an iron jaw.

Ecologists refer to resistance as the ability of an ecosystem to remain unchanged when subjected to disturbances. 

English ecologist Charles Elton used the word resistance to describe environmental traits that limit the capacity of introduced species to occupy ecosystems successfully. These characteristics include abiotic conditions such as temperature and drought and biotic factors like competition, parasitism, predation, and a lack of required mutualists. Resistance can also be influenced by increased species variety and decreased resource availability.

In short, disturbances have no detectable effect on the ecosystem because the organisms resist change, as the boxer must stay in the fight.

portrait of an African-American female boxer a sport that requires resilience and resistance
Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash

Resilience and resistance equals stability

The pugilist who is flawed by a solid right hook but gets back up again, gets knocked down and gets back up again, as the song goes, shows resilience. He takes the hit and returns for the next one. 

But winning the bout is made more likely by not getting knocked down in the first place.

Psychologists see resilience as a good thing and resistance as not so good, even though they are both necessary for mental stability. Too much resistance and a person reduces their resilience, especially their capacity for connection; not enough, and we spin out at the smallest slight.

In ecology, resistance is the ability of nature to stand up against disturbance and resilience is the ability of organisms and processes to bounce back. 

Together resilience and resistance confer stability on ecosystems.

Stability (of the ecosystem) refers to the capability of a natural system to apply self—regulating mechanisms to return to a steady state after an outside disturbance.

OECD Glossary of terms

Some ecosystems show high resilience and relatively low resistance. 

For example, many eucalyptus forests in Australia are impacted periodically and unpredictably by wildfires that are frequent enough to occur within the lifetime of trees. Burnt trees can recover using stored energy and nutrients in the roots to sprout new branches along the trunk, a process called epicormic growth. In a few months, biomass production is up again, and the system returns to pre-fire capability.

Meanwhile, a lake in northern climes can freeze over in winter, the organisms resisting the cold directly or altering the life cycles to miss the impact and emerge again in the spring.

Is resilience thinking wrong?

Humans like stability, and we look for it in nature, especially now that we see it as a combination of resistance and resilience. Most people like the word resilience as it infers the prospect of predictability. We know what’s going to happen, and there are few surprises.

In the last decade, there has been a steady shift towards resilience thinking in natural resource management. If we understand how landscapes function—in particular, how they respond to drivers that push them away from stable or resilient states—we would make better decisions on how to use the resources they provide. 

This idea is very convenient. 

It implies that nature is inherently stable, which fits very well with our need for constants. It also allows us to think of nature recovering from the things we throw at it: land clearing, pollution, water extraction and the like. 

We like to assume that if ecological stability is tested, nature either resists or bends and bounces back. If we think of nature as having resilience at some level, it justifies our resource use.

Resilience thinking can replace the old way of describing the landscape as environmental assets for human use. It also helps protect the most valuable assets, including the reserve system and laser-levelled cotton fields.

Because resilience goes beyond asset classes to the processes that create and undermine the condition of assets, it forces thinking about the whole. A reserve has lesser value if it is isolated or exposed to weeds and pests, and a cotton field will fail if there is no usable water in the creek. 

Decisions on resource use that both recognise and ideally enhance resilience are expected to promote the whole and deliver a more reliable set of values. 

Possums and potoroos stand a better chance in a connected, functioning landscape less prone to weed incursion. Equally, food production benefits from water retention, shelterbelts and fewer pests.

This is closer to systems thinking, which is always good.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Resilience and resistance are properties of nature. Together they can make ecosystems look stable and behave predictably even when they are buffeted around.

Just as the psychologist likes you to build resilience a little more than resistance because the latter can slip into unwanted responses, we also like ecological resilience.

If ecosystems are resilient, it gives us an excuse to push them around and not worry—they will bounce back.

But here is the thing.

Ecological resilience is a consequence of diversity. It emerges because there are many connections between organisms and many types of organisms doing the connecting. 

Human food production intensifies through simplification—we grow more food in simplified ecological systems. We call them fields, paddocks, meadows, gardens and farmland. 

So if we want resilient systems to grow food, they have to become more diverse, not less.

Alternatively, we can gamble that they resist everything we throw at them.

Science source 

Olsson, L., Jerneck, A., Thoren, H., Persson, J., & O’Byrne, D. (2015). Why resilience is unappealing to social science: Theoretical and empirical investigations of the scientific use of resilience. Science advances, 1(4), e1400217.

Hero image from photo by Reagan M. on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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