Good overview of resilience as a concept. Chapter 4, in particular, is a good overview of the adaptive cycle (the figure 8 on its side: exploitation/rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization), much easier for the non-scientist to understand that the book Panarchy.

Resilience is used in two ways and the distinction is important: the capacity to bounce back from a disturbance or the ability to get back to the earlier state.

I liked that the book looked at social and ecological systems as one system. The book provides chapters on different situations and ecosystems which could be used as case studies: Broken River basin in Australia, the Everglades in the US, the Northern Highland Lakes district in Wisconsin, Kristianstads Vattenrike in Sweden. Some of my favorite insights in the book:

Socio-ecological systems are affected by many variables but they are usually driven by only a handful of controlling variables. They usually have thresholds. So you can measure the resilience of a system by the distance to the thresholds. The closer you are to a threshold, the less it takes to put you over. If you cross over a threshold such that it’s not socially or economically feasible to get back, get to work on transformation as soon as you can and don’t waste resources trying to get back to the original state if there really is no other option. (Think about all the storms and flooding in the middle part of the US. Or the condition of Detroit. It might be wise to rethink land use rather than quickly replace what was lost.)

In the adaptive cycle, attention to standardizing processes is often a signal that you’re reaching the end of the conservation phase. (So does that mean that lean manufacturing is a canary in the coal mine?) Systems generally spend a lot of time in the rapid growth/conservation phases. The best time to influence change is in the next two cycles. So from a sustainability perspective, maybe we should focus on having good plans in place for when our system is disrupted.

When considering systems, it’s important to look up and down in scale, to see what controlling variables are at work there, especially the slow moving ones. Deal with social systems and ecological ones together because they are interconnected.


Walker, B., & Salt, D. (2006). Resilience thinking sustaining ecosystems and people in a changing world. Washington: Island Press. ISBN-13: 978-1597260930

Other publications by the authors:
Resilience Practice: Building Capacity to Absorb Disturbance and Maintain Function.