boy holding a lantern at dusk

Resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems are not the same thing

Finding and keeping enough food is every organism’s bane. The endless foraging means risking being foraged or failing to find enough food. Success is longevity and the ultimate aim of making more.

The resilience of people is unique. No other organism grows its food with the help of external energy. 

After hundreds of thousands of years of foraging, we figured it was easier and more efficient to farm for sustenance. Modern humans, like a tapeworm in the large intestine, food comes to us. Our time is free to scurry at busy work, free from predators, and to make more.

Not only do we grow our food through crops and livestock, but we have enlisted energetic help by extracting from the ground energy fixed by ancient organisms. We have an army of fossil fuel slaves tending the fields on our behalf.

The previously endless task of getting enough food is now a matter of economics, access and hustle.

Such ingenuity has made humans the single most successful species on the planet in terms of biomass (people and the animals we control), extent (we live everywhere) and impacts on nature (we have altered most of the land and the oceans).

The resilience of people is unparalleled in nature. 

As usual, success is not free. 

One of the many costs is that feeding everyone well is now an endless challenge for the collective. The number of people alive is immense and still growing, and it will take a century or more for the global population to transition downward safely from the fossil-fuelled population spike.  

Nor is success a given. 

A likely alternative to feeding everyone well is that the population collapses.

Most of this website is dedicated to reviewing ideas and solutions to this seemingly impossible challenge of a safe transition to avoid collapse. It means feeding everyone alive and about to be alive, keeping them in reasonably good nutrition whilst maintaining nature’s capacity to maintain the necessary supply of biomass and nutrients. As a bonus, a few other species might persist too.
In short, sustainable food, food ecology and sustainable diet.

bunch of fresh carrots
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay 

Principles for sustainable food 

Previously we reviewed the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggestion for principles for sustainable food systems. Aligned to the Sustainable Development Goal, the FAO describes the principles and approaches in a document Building a common vision for sustainable food and agriculture with the intention to 

focus action toward its global goals of food security, elimination of poverty, and sustainable management and utilization of natural resources, FAO has set itself five Strategic Objectives.

The strategic objectives (also called principles) are 

  1. improving efficiency in the use of resources
  2. conserving, protecting, and enhancing natural ecosystems
  3. protecting and improving rural livelihoods, equity, and social well-being
  4. enhancing the resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems, and
  5. promoting good governance of both natural and human systems 

Here we take a closer look at Principle 4, the resilience of people because our initial thoughts were that resilience means very different things when applied to people, communities and ecosystems. 

Lumping them together might be expedient and neatly fits into a narrative, but it needs to be more precise.

supermarket fresh fruit and vegetables
Image by ElasticComputeFarm from Pixabay 

Principle 4 — Enhancing the resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems is key to sustainable agriculture

At first glance, this is true.

People are already resilient. We know this because humans live in every corner of the planet and survive everywhere despite perils and hardships. Fragile, vulnerable or weak humans do not persist long when exposed to raw nature, yet they manage it by altering conditions and growing food almost anywhere. 

Human communities are resilient too, with cultures persisting for centuries despite changes to the world order. Human cohesion through tribal identities is crucial to our success, not least because no one person can hold all the knowledge or have all the skills to be a successful hunter-gatherer (or even a couch potato)—making the bow and arrows with a poisoned tip requires different knowledge and experience to the skills to use such a tool in anger.  Communities are already honed as repositories of this shared culture and experience.

Here is what we said about the resilience of ecosystems

Ecosystems are less resilient than humans. They cannot move to new regions (the great expansion), appropriate new energy sources (the subsidy from fossil fuel) or invent technologies to buffer against the weather (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). 

Ecosystems respond to changing conditions through a turnover of species (ecological succession) where organisms unable to tolerate new conditions are replaced by another that can. Replacement implies source populations or rapid evolution of the species present. This has worked well for the entirety of life on earth. 

Disturbance unsettles an ecosystem, and it changes to accommodate the changes. 

Implicit here is that communities change, whereas resilience implies stability, an ability to bounce back to a pre-disturbance state.

All good so far. 

What is issue?

There are two.

The resilience of people has limits

It makes sense to promote resilience over fragility. Bouncing back from a disturbance is essential to survival and persistence.

However, if conditions shift too far or a disturbance is especially acute or outside the norm, then resilience is breached. This happens no matter how much resilience is enhanced. No matter how much effort is given to encourage flexibility, there is a limit to how much a person, community or ecosystem can bounce back. 

The implication of a focus on resilience is that the current food production systems will work to feed everyone well. If it isn’t, then no amount of flexibility will help. It can’t be the key to sustainable agriculture because it has nothing to do with the pressures on production, distribution and access for food or the drivers that will determine if the supply chain can persist indefinitely.

In short, the assumption of flexibility as a fix needs to be revised.

Resilience implies persistence not sustainability

The distinction here is subtle, even contradictory. If something is sustainable, then, by definition, it would persist.

Resilience is often a feature of persistence for people, communities and ecosystems, but it is not obligatory. Resistance can confer stability too. 

The resilience of people is a response to change, especially to rapid or acute change that we would describe as a disturbance and outside the norm. But it says nothing about resource use, the resource supply or the ability to renew a resource.

In food systems, resilience has nothing to do with the resource base of nutrients in the soil, the channelling of biomass into foodstuffs or the reliability of inputs.

In short, resilience is not a feature of sustainability. 

Policies and Practices to enhance resilience

In building a common vision, the FAO includes descriptions of policies and practices supporting principle 4. 

The summary infographic talks about preparation, planning, flexibility, contingencies and risk assessment.

infographic from the FAO Principle 4 on enhancing resilience

These governance and technology solutions assume sustainability is about preparing for shocks to the existing food production systems. They assume evolution, not revolution.

Each one is reasonable, and some are even smart—implementing the ecosystem approach to aquaculture—yet they are all reactionary. They suggest resilience comes from being prepared for change rather than making the change go away.

True sustainability means knowing that whatever food production system is in place will match the resource drain with natural renewal or a replenishable supply of inputs.

Intensive agriculture is not sustainable on these terms.  

What sustainably FED suggests

If the weather forecast says rain and you decide to leave your umbrella at home, you take a punt. It may stay dry, or the clouds may open.

No problem, you say, because it’s just a shower. A brisk walk and a steady breeze will dry out the clothes. You are resilient to showers.

What if it rains for a week, two weeks, or a month, and you have to go out in the drizzle each day? Less brazen with an umbrella, you still get wet, and nothing dries in the 100% humidity. It takes a lot to bounce back from such an unusual event.

After three months of torrents, you have had enough and move to California.

In this case, people make themselves more resilient by ordering a Gortex jacket on eBay. They carry on as before, grumbling at the inconvenience.

Nature doesn’t tend to carry on as before. It changes in response to new conditions and is more adaptive than resilient.

And this is the point. 

If the resilience of people is about keeping things the way they are by bouncing back from a disturbance, then resilience is not what we want. Nature has a better solution. It bends with the disturbance and changes the mix of species, the patterns of growth and how more making happens. Nature adapts to change. 

We must remind ourselves that humans are good at this because we need to bounce forward, not back.

Hero image from photo by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay 


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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