Systems Thinking Tools – Resilience

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As I prepare to teach my new Agricultural Systems Thinking class at UMass this fall, I have become more and more intrigued with the thinking underlying the science of resilience.  Ecologists, psychologists and engineers are quite familiar with the idea that sustainable systems are able to withstand disturbances, large and small.  Most humans with significant life experiences can surely understand the value of resilience, as life is rarely “smooth sailing” and as the bumper sticker says “shit happens.”

The need for a deeper  understanding of resilience in agriculture has never been more obvious, as the U.S. experiences the impact of drought on the 2012 corn crop and on subsequent food and energy costs.  The inability of the industrial system to adjust gracefully to the shock of drought is just one of the indicators that it is at a tipping point.

Resilience science has taught us that systems designed for economic efficiency can maximize short-term profitability but at the same time will sacrifice resilience or the ability of the system to adjust to shocks and stresses such as drought.  Industrial agriculture and thus the modern food system is highly vulnerable to collapse.

According a report from the Prince Charities Foundation International Sustainability Unit (established by His Royal Highness, Charles the Prince of Wales), titled “What Price Resilience: Toward Sustainable and Secure Food Systems,” the systemic stresses for which industrial agriculture is NOT well-prepared to adapt to include:

A. Disruption caused by declining supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel and the subsequent escalation of energy prices.

B. Erosion of the natural capital upon which the system depends such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity and disturbance of global climate.

C. Global hunger, poverty and inequality, creating social unrest from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement.

Ecological agriculture on the other hand is more resilient as it addresses each of the systemic stresses that threaten the industrial system;

A. Agroecological systems minimize dependency on fossil fuel by increasing reliance on solar and energy reuse and efficiency.

B. Agroecological systems build rather than deplete natural capital  such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity, and sequester carbon to help ameliorate climate change.

C. Agroecological systems directly address social inequities, hunger, and poverty by creating opportunities for small landholders and community-based farming.

Systems scientists define resilience as “the capacity of a system to experience change while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedbacks, and therefore identity, e.g.agricultural system properties and services.”  Resilience is conferred to living systems which (unlike industrial agriculture) exhibit the following attributes:

    1. Diversity – most ecologists agree that biological diversity adds to the resilience of a system.  This is achieved in agriculture through multiple cropping systems, permaculture and crop diversification.
    2. Openness – this is a measure of how easily components of a system such as people, ideas and species can move into or out of a system.  In agriculture it might be manifested in the ability of a farmer to change crops in response to market demand. 
    3. Reserves – reserves add to resilience in response to shocks.  In agriculture, this might be financial reserves, stored seed, or local knowledge.   
    4. Feedback – critical information on productivity, environmental quality or socioeconomic impact is needed by system managers to make good decisions.  In agriculture this might be information on the extent of soil erosion, sales figures, profitability of each product,

I’ll explore resilience in agriculture more in future blog posts but for now I’ll share a list of interventions available for systems in distress.  According to Walker and Salt in their 2012 book Resilience Practice, there are four main areas of intervention:

  • Management – changes in recommended management of components of a system
  • Financial – assistance, investment, subsidies, taxes which support the function of a system
  • Governance – laws, regulations, and policies
  • Education – knowledge to influence behavior (and especially to help decision-makers overcome denial)

If this topic is of interest to you, please check out this new video (click on the picture below) in which Fred Kirschenmann speaks about resilience in agriculture.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.



11 thoughts on “Systems Thinking Tools – Resilience

    David Paul said:
    December 4, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    In our Systems thinking class, our group looked at a local farm and found a leverage point for change, a composting program that diverted trash from landfills. In exploring the system that was currently in place we found that it was not very resilient. The land fills in our area are filling or full, and the trash we dispose of is being trucked out of state, increasing the cost and carbon foot print of our trash disposal methods. This system is far from resilient, depending on landfills that are a limited resource. The new system allowed for trash to be treasure- there is a high capacity for land that needs compostable material, thus its resilience is far higher than that of the system currently in place.


      Spenser Lanier said:
      December 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Just as the blog talks about, it is very challenging for our economic system, focused on efficiency and profit, to understand that choice between short-term success and resilience. This is not only true of agriculture, in which droughts and pest outbreaks annihilate entire seasons, but most systems of global production. One of the examples that jumps out to me is the oil crisis of the 1970s, in which a tripling of petroleum prices almost brought our entire economy to a grinding halt. Efficiency means trimming the fat and eliminating redundancies from systems, yet those redundancies are often what enable systems to survive external shocks. Many companies understand this phenomenon by diversifying their product lines and marketing channels, so that the loss or failure of one component is able to be absorbed. We need not only need this in agriculture and the economy, but in all areas of our social design, environment, and mental models.


        Amber Halkiots said:
        December 5, 2012 at 8:02 pm

        Why do we do this to ourselves? We have created a system that produces more negative feedback than positive results. These negatives come in the form of chemicals, waste, erosion, global warming, and depleted natural resources. Our current food system is anything but resilient. Only a turn toward local sustainable agriculture will return the resilience back to our environment, communities, and souls.


    Emma Fitch said:
    December 5, 2012 at 7:12 pm


    Kirschenmann’s definition of resilience, “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbances and still retain the basic function and structure,” seems to be embedded within the goals of systems thinking. As I read your article, I envisioned causal loop diagrams: a set of downward spirals for reasons A,B, and C listed under industrial agriculture, and upward spirals for the attributes A,B,C, and D of resilience for living systems. It is obvious [to me] that we all need to push towards reliance on a more resilient food system.

    I really enjoyed how Kirschenmann suggested Permaculture and perennial plants as fostering elements of food resiliency because the waste products of one system can be the energy of another, and because deeply rooted plants are more resilient to natural disaster than shallow-rooted annuals. These suggestions are proof of the upward spirals than can established at farms to create a more resilient food system. I also really appreciated what he said to urge us to think critically about food systems and resiliency: “We can live without automobiles, we can live without computers, and if we need to we can live without underpants, but we cannot live without food.”


    Nathan Jones said:
    December 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Great post John. It is fun to see that this blog was happening at the same time as our class and I am glad that I will be able to refer back to this resource in the future.
    I can not help but approach this from my major area of interest and study, which is energy. The concept of resiliency really succinctly describes the issue that I see in one expanding aspect of agriculture, biofuels. The increasing use of corn for producing ethanol recently has had many adverse effects and the system has clearly not been thought through properly in a systems thinking sense. As corn use for this process increases, corn prices increase, overall corn growing increases, and biodiversity and resilience decrease. The momentum that instigated the use of corn for this purpose seems to be that the infrastructure for growing corn was well established. But, corn itself is actually quite an inefficient feedstock for producing ethanol. Perhaps if the system were to diversify and grow other plants for use in the process, it would not only increase efficiency, but also increase resilience by not being so vulnerable to a single crop failure.


    John M. Gerber said:
    December 5, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Posted for Molly….

    The blog post brought up two memories for me.

    One was when I was studying Sustainability at Arizona State University. Each one of our classes had ‘resilience’ as a key component. The term resiliency was utilized in almost every classroom setting and we were constantly being asked to define it and address it in the case studies and topics we were exploring. After all that, I must say I’m still learning about resiliency because how it is applied to every situation is so very unique to that situation. Because there are so many sectors that one needs to be resilient, economic, ecologically, socially, resilience faces ‘a wicked problem.’ In effect, a wicked problem is an a sustainability issue, where one attempts to fix the problem by changing one thing, and suddenly another problem arises. Let me give an exmaple.

    In Costa Rica, the coral reef on the coast is a huge tourist area and also ellicits a lot of tourism. However, the degradation that the coral reef is facing is huge and the coral reef is no longer providing a source of food for the people there because it is unhealthy and overfished. To shut down the tourism is to preserve the ecological and social integrity of the area, but cuts down on the economy. This effect can be seen widely.

    In regards to the drought this past summer…the second memory comes. It is true that corn farmers were suffering because high yielding varieties are only high yielding and vigourous when they are providied with adequate water; they haven’t been programmed to be drought resistent…yet…However, I went to see Winona LaDuke speak, an Anishinaabe Indian who lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. White Earth cultivates wild rice (harvest in canoes), maple syrup, and also plants indigenous corn varieties. She commented that this past summer at White Earth, while farms near and far were experiencing issues due to the water shortage, her corn was kickin, kickin just fine. That’s thousands of years for ya, for us. Resilience.



    John M. Gerber said:
    December 5, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Posted for Sara….
    This blog about resilience brought to mind the work that Mo and I have been doing with the student Food Advocates and the larger network of the Real Food Challenge.
    After finding out I was going abroad i realized i need to do some restructuring of the group in order to create a resilient campaign moving forward. I had done so much specific work with the Real Food Challenge that is became so hard to explain.
    With a close group of students this semester we began hashing out our experience and what it took for us to get to this place, in order to see what would need to be done in the future.
    We changed our management structure with norms and working groups and have a clear mission statement.In addition we are becoming a class, a physical structure that will allow some resilience as we all move on with our semesters.

    We have also done a lot of relationship building in order to include a lot of voices and perspectives in the process.
    What i have learned is that it takes time to get organized and build a foundation but once that is done you have a resilient group that can extend well beyond when i go abroad and graduate.



    Aaron Drysdale said:
    December 6, 2012 at 8:57 am

    The other night I treated myself to some reading outside of the realm of school reading. I picked up ‘Where the Wild Things Were’ by William Stolzenburg. (yes, my idea of reading for pleasure is studying up on the disappearance of apex predators. nerd.alert.) In the beginning of the second chapter there is this wonderful description of the dawn of time and the first living organisms and how these tiny single-celled beings evolved into the first predators and prey, billions of years ago.

    I love this stuff. It is completely awe inspiring to think of the true age of Mother Earth… how many changes the planet and the creatures who populate it have undergone to get to the point in time we are experiencing right now.

    Talk about resilience, folks. It is so completely obvious, to me at least, that in order for our fledgling race of beings to survive, we need to take a step back and take a lesson from the Earth. We need our systems – be they economic, educational, agricultural, you name it – to be first and foremost rooted in ecological principles.

    When push comes to shove, no matter what great “fix” we come up with, if it doesn’t fit within the resilient systems that have been chugging along since the beginning of time, we’ll be gone and the world will be here. Changed, but still a home to life of some sort.


    alexa smychh said:
    December 7, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Our group in Systems Thinking focused on the implications of Monsanto donating money to UMass and in particular, the Ag learning center. This post got me thinking about the implications of corporations donating money to universities, and partnering with them to conduct research. This means that researchers are almost completely dependent on corporate funding & their research is directed in ways that corporations want. Remove this funding, and you remove their research. We need to create systems in which universities are not reliant on corporations, so that if research findings don’t support a corporations vision and funding is lost, this research can be continued in an open and honest way. I think the concepts discussed in this article really speak to this – public universities need diverse funding, openness to all types and topics of research, and more importantly, openness to different types of results, and a financial reserve, so that researchers, students, & professors aren’t solely dependent on corporations for their research


    John M. Gerber said:
    December 11, 2012 at 9:06 am

    Forwarded from: Rebecca Jurczyk

    Resilience is something we are all experiencing right now during this final exam week. With one test after another we are learning how to sustain our own energy and brain power. This is a lesson applicable to what we have learned in our Ag systems class.
    The key to sustainable agriculture is the ability to bounce back season after season. A really great example of applied resilience is by modeling your farm design and structure after the natural environment. For instance crop diversity; naturally growing root vegetables grow sporadically and in vary type within the common area. If a farmer were to structure his own crop system the way nature intended it to be, rather than thousands of acares dedicated to a single crop, the soil and crop quality is bound to flourish on it’s own, continuously! A really great farm exemplifying this is Simple Gifts Farm, in North Amherst!


    Cate Puccetti said:
    December 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Having taken Community Food Systems this semester I’ve gotten a very good picture of how the industrial food system works in this country. After looking at the Farm Bill I see this as being one of the biggest preventions of resilience. The current Farm Bill favors large farms that produce single crops through subsidies and crop insurance. Essentially, what these two things do is take the risk out of farming and allow them to make almost the same amount of money whether their crop flourishes or shrivels up in drought. These subsidies are hard for small farmers with diversified crops to cash in on because it’s not always worth their while to file the paperwork for 15 different crops on 30 acres. Because of this it makes sense for a farmer to specialize in producing large amounts of a single crop because it isn’t as risky as a diversified operation.

    This is terrifying because it means that our government is almost promoting the least sustainable type of farming. This is the very system that has increased the amount of type 2 diabetes in children and led to a whole slue of other health problems. It has also led to the degradation of soil and pollution of waterways. All of these things are happening at the expense of tax dollars being directed through the Farm Bill. Until policy can change to either favor small diversified farms or create policy for different sized farms it will be difficult for resilience to flourish in this country.


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