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Rebecca Benner: What Do We Mean By Resilience? And What Do We Do About It?

Rebecca Benner 11/15/2012

When I first approached the prospect of writing for Chronicles on resilience and conservation, I had lofty goals. I’d planned a synthetic essay that teased out the myriad and often confusing ways TNC and conservation have defined and applied the term, thinking I could generate discussion and perhaps even debate. But my research and thinking simply generated more and more questions. So I present those questions here in hope that they spur others to clarify what we, the Conservancy, mean by resilience in nature and, perhaps more importantly, what we plan to do about it.
This isn’t just an academic exercise. At least for me, the lack of clarity is something I confront each day in my relatively new position as director of science for The Conservancy’s North Carolina program. Soon, our team will have in our hands two resilience analyses — terrestrial (led by Mark Anderson and his team) and freshwater (modeled after Mark’s resilience analyses). And the task before me and my colleagues here in North Carolina is: What should we do with these analyses and soon, so that the data and analyses do not go stale? What is our plan? What is our objective? Why are we doing these analyses? It’s not simply to show us where resilient places are. But for now, “where” is all that we have.
A Confusion of Terms?
Though lots of work has been done to define resilience, for me, at least, it’s still muddled with other terms, like climate adaptation. I suppose that makes sense; an ecosystem’s adaptive capacity is a good measure of its resilience. The things we talk about with climate adaptation are similarly things we discuss for resilience — e.g. connectivity, climate refugia, conserving the stage, maintaining ecological function and processes, etc.
So my first question: Are these concepts — adaptive capacity and resilience — synonymous? And if not, how should the Conservancy define resilience? If we define it, it will help us streamline how we assess it. In light of our whole systems work, this synchronicity is increasingly important.
Building, Enhancing or Protecting Resilience?
Once we have the analyses telling us where resilient places are, what do we do with that resilience? Are we building it in places that lack it? Enhancing or protecting it in the places it exists? If the answer to the above question about adaptive capacity is “yes,” then perhaps we use the increasingly discussed climate adaptation strategies for resilience strategies. (For an example, see the Yale Mapping Framework mentioned in the August Chronicles by Craig Groves.)
But even then, should we take similar approaches in marine, terrestrial and freshwater systems? In each system, we seem to have slightly different emphases…or we have yet to define an emphasis at all.
In the marine world (of which I admittedly know the least about), we talk about building resilience. We conserve mangroves to build coastal resilience; we create marine protected areas to increase the resilience of coral reefs. There seems to be discussion about how and if these strategies build resilience; but regardless, to my knowledge there is at least a general consensus around the main goals: building or enhancing resilience.
But regarding terrestrial ecosystems, I hear talk of protecting resilience — the idea that we should identify resilient systems and then purchase a full or partial interest in them. This exposes a contradiction to my mind: If these systems are indeed resilient, why would we work there? Why wouldn’t we instead work to build resilience in less resilient areas that are still critical for biodiversity?  Of course, that question begs another, more fundamental one: Can we build resilience? The major threat I can think of that could make a resilient system not resilient is urban development. So if there is a credible threat of development, perhaps the best strategy is to acquire some form of interest in the land. But in some ways, that approach also depends on what we care about. If we want to protect a particular species, it will likely move as climate changes. So we may then own a presently resilient ecosystem that will eventually look totally different. Is that what we want?
Another possibility: Instead of conserving or protecting the resilient core of a system, could we try to build resilience around that nucleus? Again, the success of this approach clearly depends on the threats to that system. But should we be trying to grow our work in conservation finance, ecosystem services, environmental education and other types of conservation approaches that work directly with people to improve their management of the land and thereby create resilient buffers around resilient ecosystem cores? And is the answer to all the above questions simply “yes” — do any or all of it, depending on the situation? Which begs yet another question: Is resilience a site-specific topic, meaning there is no point in creating a generalized framework?
How Do We Integrate People Into the Resilience Calculus?
Moving to freshwater, the answer is no clearer, and while people factor into the other two systems, too, here it becomes particularly glaring — whom are we building resilience for? Can we build resilience in freshwater systems without considering both biodiversity and people? Human needs for water and therefore their uses are only going to increase. Freshwater resilience for biodiversity requires environmental flows. Freshwater resilience for people requires the availability of abundant clean water. So to build resilience in freshwater systems, should we be focusing on the intersection of these two elements — or developing strategies that somehow ensure both? To elaborate: In each system in which we decide to work to build resilience or conserve resilience, should we be working on terrestrial riparian strategies, flow strategies and water-use strategies (e.g. water footprinting)? 
Definitions of resilience abound. And we increasingly know where resilient systems are. But I think the conversation is much less well researched as concerns which definition is most useful for conservation and how we should integrate our growing knowledge into our practices. If we use different definitions and conduct analyses accordingly, we won’t be able to work across state or country boundaries or across whole systems. And even if we have a consistent definition, if we don’t put our heads together to come up with a framework for how to use such analyses, all we’ll have is the analysis. We at least need a good mechanism to share lessons learned and what others are doing about resilience. Data without use quickly becomes antiquated.
I want to use the analyses I have coming my way, but strategically and in ways that make sense. So what are those ways? As promised, lots of questions; but I hope ones that will provoke answers.

 Rebecca Benner is the Director of Conservation Science for The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina.