Why So Much Ecology?

It may have surprised you to see how often explanations of basic ecology terms such as adaptation and resilience show up in this learning exercise, given how often these terms appear in everything from environmental evaluation literature to popular media. It seems most people feel they have a pretty good handle on what these things mean. Unfortunately, they largely don’t.

Deborah M. Brosnan, a coastal ecologist is President of the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, on faculty in the Global Forum for Urban and Regional Resilience and the Global Change Center, and a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution Natural History Museum. She is therefore well-qualified to address the issue of how well non-ecologists understand key terms such as adaptation and resilience. She did so in a 2021 journal editorial titled “Life on the Rebound: Resilience Science, Extreme Events, and Coastal Resilience.”

“Coastal resilience serves as a valuable unifying concept, but is in danger of losing core features from its roots in ecological science. Resilient ecosystems are defined by three primary characteristics. They suffer periodic extreme events (e.g. hurricanes) which measurably affect natural resources from species composition and abundances, to the range of trophic and non‐trophic interactions; in the aftermath they undergo a recovery process; and return to an ecosystem which closely resembles the original one. The frequency, intensity, and spatial scales of extreme events are integral to resilience. Among scientists, the concept has generated important ecological‐societal debates. In the aftermath of the SE Asia tsunami controversy erupted over whether to restore disaster‐ damaged coral reefs, with some advocating for restoration and others arguing that reefs, having evolved with tsunamis, would rebound if left alone.

“The disturbance‐resilience interaction has been a driver in human settlement and behaviors. Communities have historically congregated on deltas where the cycles of flooding and storms so destructive to human life are also responsible for high productivity and ample natural resources that sustain life. A key challenge is how we will manage these opposing forces into the future.

 “Decision‐makers, unfamiliar with ecological resilience, and seeking to build stability for humans can easily equate resilience with resistance. This can lead to unattainable expectations from nature, and to habitat restoration projects based on a desire to build resistant habitats, rather than resilient ones. Factoring‐in ecosystem resilience requires an approach that is anathema to human’s natural desire for greater stability. . .

 “Coastal resilience is a valuable concept that allows for inter‐disciplinary collaboration and for communication with decision‐makers. The drawback is that without scientific anchoring, it is at risk of becoming too vague or misunderstood.”

Brosnan adds that “This concern is not new,” citing other ecologists’ worries that basic knowledge and understanding of ecology is being lost as multi-disciplinary decision-making processes move increasingly into the hands of non-scientists. Then she adds that:

“Human’s ability to manage novel and combined stressors rests foremost on understanding the natural dynamics of resilient ecosystems, how humans interact with the drivers of resilience, and clear communication on resilience as a scientific principle and as a solution.”

She addresses the kinds of basic ecology that need to be done to support this understanding and then very deftly connects all of this to the issue of mitigating natural hazards (the boldface font below is my own, for added emphasis):

 “One key area where ecological resilience and disturbance science is rarely incorporated but urgently needed is in Disaster Risk Reduction. Disaster response professionals have developed tools to evaluate and respond to human and infrastructural needs in natural disasters from tsunamis to volcanoes. However, even though the effects of these events are frequently mediated by natural resources, and human suffering is exacerbated by damaged or scarce natural resources, the planning, response, recovery and mitigation framework that has proven so effective in addressing direct human needs does not incorporate ecosystems or ecosystem resilience.”

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

How does Brosnan’s view of human resilience relate to “the levee effect” mentioned by Ishtiaque et al?

Brosnan writes “One key area where ecological resilience and disturbance science is rarely incorporated but urgently needed is in Disaster Risk Reduction.” How might this idea connect with DellaSala’s statement that “disturbances are not catastrophes”? How could the ways we think about disturbance, disaster, and catastrophe change in ways that would help resolve some of the issues Brosnan and DellaSala (and other resilience ecologists) have raised?

If you think about sitting down with resilience ecologists to talk about these terms and concepts, and how they apply to the entire concept of developing plans to mitigating natural hazards or reducing the risk of disaster, what things seem most important to explore together and gain insight about?