Resilience propels sustainability

BY Louise O. Fresco | PHOTO Jeroen Hofman

November 2018

Resilience is seen by many as the new buzzword after sustainability: we used to strive for sustainability and now we want resilience instead. Few have recognized that sustainability is impossible without resilience. In other words, it is resilience that propels sustainability.

But what is resilience? What do we mean when we talk about a ‘resilient’ agriculture? And why has resilience become so ‘hot’?

Let me start by saying that the concept of resilience is not new. It has been around for more than 40 years. As far back as the 1970s ecologists defined resilience as “a measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables”.

Later it came to be understood as “the ability of a system to absorb disturbances and still retain its basic function and structure” and as “the capacity to change in order to maintain the same identity”.

There are countless other definitions of resilience in different disciplines and fields. But they all basically state that resilience is the key feature of systems and individuals in coping with external and internal disturbances.

Why has resilience become ‘hot’?

Humans have always lived in times of uncertainty and change. Our capacity to deal with shocks and disasters has led to great innovations. Today, however, our current population growth, wealth and awareness of what is happening all over the world make us feel more vulnerable. Increasingly, the world is perceived as unpredictable and uncomfortable. Hence the desire to understand our capacity to cope with disruption and disturbance. Against this background, it is only logical that resilience has become ‘hot’.

Why does WUR invest in Resilience?

I was already arguing that resilience is a core component of sustainability in 1992. Resilience is the most important aspect describing how systems respond to the impact of processes at a higher level. Sustainability has to be defined with reference to specific hierarchical levels and scales of space and time. What is catastrophic on a small scale may be part of the system on a larger scale and less impactful or even beneficial at higher scales, i.e. a forest fire is destructive at one scale but may also lead to renewal at other scales. Conversely, what is robust on a small scale may cause the collapse of the system on a larger scale. Sustainability of a system can therefore only be evaluated when higher hierarchical levels than the system under consideration are also taken into account. Without resilience, a living system can never be truly sustainable.

Resilience is the key feature of systems and individuals in coping with disturbances

At WUR, we aim to understand the interactions between components and subsystems in agrifood systems for the development of sustainable systems. When and how, and under what conditions do tipping points occur? Are there early warning signals and how can we identify them? What are the characteristics of resilient systems and under what conditions are they stable and for how long?

In our research, renewed interest in resilience is spawned by on the one hand deteriorating natural and social conditions and on the other hand possibilities and challenges generated by new technologies. Ever increasing digitalization and computer power, new breeding and cultivation technologies, etc. make it possible to better predict and manage collapses and build resilience in agrifood systems.

What's next?

Resilience comes and goes as part of the research agenda. This does not mean our understanding of resilience has made no progress. It rather shows that the topic of resilience is of a long-lasting nature and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. I hope that readers will be inspired by the examples and findings we present in this magazine. For us, resilience is here to stay. We invite you to join us in our quest for understanding, measuring and managing resilience.

Louise O. Fresco
President of the Executive Board of Wageningen University and Research (WUR)