Complexity, Resilience, and Conservation


The Ecosystem Approach. Complexity, Uncertainty, and Managing for Sustainability . Waltner-Toews, D., J. J. Kay, and N. E. Lister . 2008 . Columbia University Press , New York , NY . 384 pp. $45 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-231-13251-0 .
Discontinuities in Ecosystems and Other Complex Systems . Allen, C. R., and C. S.Holling , editors. 2009. Columbia University Press, New York, NY. 288 pp. $34.50 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-231-14445-2.
Complexity Theory for a Sustainable Future. Norberg, J., and G. S.Cumming, editors. 2009. Columbia University Press, New York, NY. 312 pp. $34.50 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-231-13461-3.

The nature of conservation science has changed dramatically over the past 5 years. Whether we think these changes are for the better or the worse, the world now is dominated by the language—and rhetoric—of human-forced climate change. Editors of journals and magazines, environment-oriented funding bodies, and even the mainstream media now actively pursue information on climate-oriented science and associated policies. This intense focus is seen by many conservation scientists and practitioners as a golden opportunity to place conservation issues on the mainstream political agenda.

Ensuring the “resilience” of the Earth's ecosystems has become part of the mantra of political and scientific leaders when talking about solutions to climate change. This has led to calls for conservation action focused around holistic management of ecosystems as distinguished from historical reductionist approaches that focused on individual assets of an area, such as threatened species. However, I argue that beyond our leaders’ loose use of terms such as resilience, systems approach, and ecosystem-based management, there is little idea of what these terms actually mean for conservation planning and sustainable development or of how the practice of holistic ecosystem-based management will help achieve, for example, resilience. This is not to say that nothing has been written on these subjects. There are many papers and books on these topics, but little published material outlines the actions or the types of planning strategies needed to create resilient ecosystems.

Fortunately, these three books will help fill this gap and are part of the vanguard of knowledge needed by both decision makers and conservation practitioners to undertake effective conservation action as climate changes.

In their edited volume The Ecosystem Approach, Walter-Toews and his colleagues provide a summary of the literature on system-based conservation planning. The editors should be commended for their efforts in linking the complexities of system-based planning to a set of real-world case studies. In the first section of the book, the authors explain what a systems-based approach can provide for those interested in managing ecosystems sustainably. The following section is a set of case studies from around the world that demonstrate different strategies for integrated management of land, water, and living resources that promote equitable conservation of plants and animals and sustainable land use. The last two sections offer additional case studies that outline the challenges practitioners and scientists face when applying an ecosystem approach. An important, and often unrecognized, theme arising from these case studies is the need to understand the processes, functions, and interactions among organisms and their environment while recognizing that culturally diverse humans are an integral component of ecosystems.

In a similar way, Norberg and Cumming's edited volume, Complexity Theory for a Sustainable Future, effectively integrates a large body of ecosystem resilience theory with different concepts of ecosystem sustainability. A strength of this book is its tone and style. The first chapters clearly articulate important issues in complex systems (e.g., the difference between biological diversity and heterogeneity is described and environmental asymmetries are defined), and later chapters provide detailed accounts of information processes and practical approaches to applying complex theory to sociological and ecological systems. The conclusion, which outlines a number of recommendations for managing natural resources and involving stakeholders in decision making, is particularly relevant because it summarizes succinctly many of the complex ideas outlined in the volume.

Allen and Holling's edited volume, Discontinuities in Ecosystems and Other Complex Systems, focuses on another component of holistic ecosystem management: discontinuity in ecosystems. This volume takes the view that ecosystems (and other complex systems) are inherently discontinuous and that conservation approaches, such as systematic conservation planning, must recognize such discontinuities. The book focuses first on the contrasting views of discontinuous organization of complex systems (of which, I was surprised to find, there are many). The second section provides a number of examples of these contrasting views for ecosystems and other complex systems, such as social systems. The topics covered in these examples are highly varied, ranging from discontinuities in the size of the geographic range of North American birds and butterflies to a comparative analysis of the regional size structures of cities in the United States. I found this variety both a strength and weakness of this volume. The strength was that it showed the many different methods that can be used to document the inherently discontinuous nature of natural ecosystems. However, the topics were so variable that they often had little to no relation to each other (other than the fact they were highlighting the discontinuity of systems), which made it difficult to discern overall patterns. The third section, which I was thought was the best in the volume, outlined the importance of understanding the discontinuities in complex systems and the complex issues surrounding conservation planning in dealing with these systems. In this last section, the authors link many of the case studies and provide some broad principles that relate to all complex systems.

These three books are complementary and together will be useful to any student interested in complex theory, resilience thinking, sustainable development, or advanced conservation planning. However, I could not help but wonder whether these books will be useful to those beyond the university fence because, although they are well structured and written, they are dense with theory and jargon. The dense style of writing may inhibit uptake by those tasked to develop policies and actions that achieve resilience in ecosystems. It is probably unfair to hold authors of the three books strictly to account over this because none intended their books to be laymen's guides to ecosystem-based management strategies and system approaches. But the fact remains, although these books provide a good academic discussion of the complexity surrounding resilience theory and ecosystem-based management, there needs to be a similar effort to convey these ideas to nonacademic audiences.