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Craig Groves: Moving Beyond the Meaningless: Advancing Resilience and Other Adaptation Approaches

Craig Groves 11/15/2012

​In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell criticized the trend of using meaningless words in politics and other disciplines, noting that “language can also corrupt thought.” Rebecca Benner’s essay on “resilience” is a great highlighting of such word corruption — a corruption that has been noted in other conservation quarters recently.
For instance, in their recent review of the climate adaptation literature, Patty Glick and colleagues at the National Wildlife Federation wrote: “Unfortunately, the term resilience is being used so broadly and indiscriminately — and proffered so often as an adaptation panacea — that its utility as a meaningful conservation goal is being undermined” (Glick et al. 2011). They go on to suggest that practitioners must ask “resilience of what, to what” and (citing Zavaleta and Chapin 2010 as well as others) define what the core attributes or functions of a system are that make it resilient. And Jodi Hilty and WCS colleagues make a similar point in their 2012 book Climate and Conservation about how the term often lacks any explicit meaning (Hilty et al. 2012).
To complicate matters further, both “resilience” and “adaptive capacity” (another term that Rebecca notes confusion with) are terms routinely used in the social and ecological sciences in relation to adaptation — the former referring to human communities, the latter to ecological ones.
Rebecca can take solace in the fact that there is considerable confusion about resilience in the scientific community. At the same time, there is general agreement that resilience represents a component on a spectrum or in a toolbox of adaptation approaches that include resistance on one end (the ability of species or ecosystems to resist forces of climate change and maintain current values); resilience in the middle (the capacity of a system to absorb climate impacts without changing states, such as from forest to grasslands); and a response or transformation approach on the other end (actions that assist transitions of ecosystems or human communities to a different state [1]).
There is also general agreement (based on the work of the IPCC) that adaptive capacity can be defined as an innate quality of a species, ecosystem or human community to accommodate climate impacts with minimal disruption (2). Adaptive capacity is also related to the concept of vulnerability.
Conservationists, therefore, try to build or enhance resilience through an approach or set of actions for adaptation. These actions will vary, of course, depending on the nature of the ecosystems, especially whether it is terrestrial, freshwater or marine. Elizabeth McLeod and TNC colleagues, for example, defined resilience and outlined a set of actions for designing MPA networks to help build resilience. Similarly, TNC’s Global Marine Team, NOAA and other partners have built a web mapping application (Coastal Resilience) to help communities respond to sea-level rise by using natural ecosystems as one defense.
Different definitions of resilience are likely to persist, and in as organization as large and diverse as the Conservancy, I wouldn’t spend much energy trying to bring consistency to how it is used. Instead, Rebecca, I’d spend your time trying to thoughtfully advance the resilience analyses of Mark Anderson and colleagues and other adaptation strategies through on-the-ground implementation.
To do that, I’d first make sure you understand the analyses and the adaptation approach that underpins them (“conserving the stage” plus some sophisticated landscape “connectivity and permeability” analyses); the many assumptions behind these analyses; and the degree to which those makes sense in North Carolina’s setting (4). Be forewarned, though: The scientific community is anything but settled on this approach as THE (or the only) path forward; there will be a symposium on this topic at next summer’s SCB meeting in Baltimore.
Second, if the analysis hasn’t been done already, I would use Climate Wizard and other tools to examine what impacts climate change may have on the biodiversity and ecosystem services you care about in North Carolina (much as you and others did in the Climate Clinic). Then I would step back and ask where you might need to revise your conservation goals and projects in light of these likely impacts as well as other land-use changes that are having an impact on these resources. Finally, I’d then consider what actions are needed to implement the results of the resilience analyses and what other adaptation approaches may make sense as well.
There you have it — a few answers to many questions that may be of some assistance to your team in moving forward.
1 See Peterson et al., Responding to Climate Change in National Forests: A Guidebook for Developing Adaptation Options (2011) (USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PNW GTR-855) for good examples of management actions that reflect resistance, resilience and response approaches.

2 See National Wildlife Federation’s Scanning the Conservation Horizon (2011) for a good discussion of adaptive capacity.

3 Front Ecol Environ (2009) 7:362-370.

4 Fortunately Mark and his colleagues have written a detailed report that defines how they use resilience, explains their analyses in a very transparent way, and has numerous examples: Anderson, M.G., M. Clark, and A. Olivero Sheldon. 2012. Resilient Sites for Terrestrial Conservation in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Region. The Nature Conservancy, Eastern Conservation Science. 168 pp.
Glick, P., H Chmura, and B. A. Stein. 2011. Moving the Conservation Goalposts: A Review of Climate Change Adaptation Literature. National Wildlife Federation, Washington, DC. Available from:
Zavaleta, E.S. and F.S. Chapin III. 2010. Resilience frameworks: Enhancing the capacity to adapt to climate change. Pages 142-158 in D.N. Cole and L. Yung (eds.), Beyond Naturalness: Rethinking Park and Wilderness Stewardship in an Era of Rapid Change. Island Press, Washington DC.

Craig Groves is the director of the Conservation Methods Team, Central Science, of The Nature Conservancy.