Professor Marten Scheffer:
‘Nature is extraordinarily
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BY Didi de Vries | PHOTOGRAPHY Jeroen Hofman
Marten Scheffer is the expert in the field of resilience. “There is a kind of optimal level of challenge at which you are at your most resilient.” A chat with the resilience professor.
When Marten Scheffer tried to clean up murky ponds, he became interested in significant tipping points in nature. He published his now famous tipping point theory in 2009. This theory turns out to apply to other complex systems, both small and large, whether in the field of health, climate or business. Scheffer is seen by his colleagues as the expert on resilience.
Professor and ecologist Marten Scheffer demonstrates his famous tipping point theory. VIDEO Berber Hania
The term resilience seems to have more than one meaning. How come?
“Resilience is used and interpreted in different ways in different fields. You come across it in psychology and psychiatry, where it’s about the recovery of patients, and in civil engineering, where it refers to how strong bridges are. But resilience can also refer to a pond that becomes clear again after pollution, or a rain forest that spontaneously changes into a savanna after a forest fire.”
‘If the challenge is too big, you reach the tipping point and go under’
“The social sciences emphasize that the capacity to adapt to a new situation – known as ‘adaptive capacity’ – is part of resilience. And radical transformation can also be necessary sometimes, perhaps to make our energy system sustainable or to prevent a climate tipping point. That is called ‘capacity for transformation’. That is a dimension that people find difficult, I notice, because something has to change in order to prevent change. Why would you do that?”
Marten Scheffer’s notebook.
How do you foster great resilience?
“In complex systems, resilience is acquired by dealing with challenges. If you sometimes have to run fast, if it is sometimes extremely hot and then freezing cold, and if you have nothing to eat for a few days, that makes you resilient. Not always of course, because if the challenge is too extreme, you reach the tipping point and you go under. There is a kind of optimal level of challenge at which you are at your most resilient.
“Those challenges only work as long as they are in the system’s memory. If there has been no flooding for a very long time, we build houses near rivers. Until there’s another flood and the whole area is under water.”
Can an ecosystem cope with the challenge posed by pollution by humans?
“Nature is extraordinarily resilient. Human beings have been around for a million years, but the Earth for much longer than that. What is one million years out of four billion? There have been several mass extinctions in which 75 percent of species disappeared. That is not such a big problem because if you wait a million years, lost species are replaced by new ones, and often more, even. The question we should be asking is: how do we want to leave the Earth behind for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the generations that follow them?”
‘Radical transformation can be necessary sometimes, perhaps to make our energy system sustainable or to prevent a climate tipping point’
Why are some systems not resilient?
“Resilience has its price. A tree that has adapted to drought makes very narrow xylem vessels so that even in times of drought, those vessels have the capillary capacity to get water up to the crown of the tree. But under normal circumstances, trees with narrow vessels pump water upwards and grow more slowly than trees with wide vessels.”
Prof. Marten Scheffer
Professor of Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management at Wageningen University & Research
Marten Scheffer researches tipping points in complex systems such as the climate, society, ponds, the sense of balance and intestinal bacteria. He focuses on the warning signs of tipping points, so we can recognize when a tipping point is approaching.
Marten Scheffer: “The question we should be asking is: how do we want to leave the Earth behind for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the generations that follow them?”
“And in the financial world, look at banks, which take massive risks to make a lot of money. A local bank manager knows that investing in resilience is more beneficial in the long term than making a big profit at high risk. But the banker will make less money and if it goes wrong, society as a whole will bear the brunt of the costs. So for each individual bank it makes sense not to invest in resilience. That went very wrong in 2008 when Lehman Brothers went under. Because banks are interdependent, there was a domino effect of bankruptcies all around the world, which we now call the financial crisis.”
Resilience and tipping points
“There is a clear tipping point between being awake and being asleep. You fall asleep and you wake up, and that gets repeated over and over. There is an evolutionary reason for that rhythm, because it is not handy to be half-awake for much of your time. It is better either to be awake or to sleep. Your degree of alertness loses resilience towards the end of the day and it gets easier and easier to fall asleep. The same goes for sleep. As morning approaches, you are more and more likely to wake up if a mouse squeaks. So resilience weakens as tipping points approach.”
Marten Scheffer in his office. “For the resilience of the larger whole, it is important to invest in the resilience of small systems too.”
Which system is most in danger?
“An elderly person. It doesn’t take much to knock the health of an elderly person out of kilter.
“On a larger scale, I sometimes worry about food production. The global distribution of food is under pressure from growing inequality: the concentration of money and resources among a small group of companies and individuals. At the same time, there is climate change, which means large areas of the planet can produce less food. In mid-September the FAO said in a report that the number of people going hungry has gone up for the first time in years. Half of the world’s population is fed by means of small-scale agriculture. So for the resilience of the larger whole, it is important to invest in the resilience of those small systems as well.”