Inauguration Day, Resilience, and American Society

I must admit that I’m feeling very patriotic today.  It’s a bit of a hangover from the Inauguration earlier this week.  Nothing that follows has a blatant right vs. left political agenda, so I apologize in advance for any looking for a fight over that.  I’m sure that there will still be plenty to pick apart.  Again, this isn’t a rigorous scientific study, but I hope that it’s a thoughtful editorial.  For my international friends, it will have a bit of flag-waving.  So be it.

I am fortunate enough to be in the midst of a project on how to enhance the resilience of ecosystem services with other Resilience Alliance Young Scholars.  For those that don’t know, ecosystem services are provisions and services supplied to humankind from ecosystems, generally split into provisioning services (food, wood, etc), regulating services (erosion control, flood mitigation, etc), supporting services (crop pollination, nutrient cycles), and cultural services (recreation, religious use, etc).  In a paper recently published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, we identified 7 principles seen as enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services (see Biggs et al. 2012. “Toward Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services”, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37:3.1-28. for the details).  For present purposes, I’ll skip over formal definitions of resilience and, to the chagrin of many of my colleagues, let’s just equate this with sustainability for the moment.  These 7 principles are:

  1. Maintain diversity and redundancy,
  2. Manage connectivity,
  3. Manage slow variables and feedbacks,
  4. Foster an understanding of complex adaptive systems,
  5. Encourage learning and experimentation,
  6. Broaden participation, and
  7. Promote polycentric governance systems.

If you are interested in what these mean in more detail and getting past the jargon, please contact me and/or read the full article.

For now, let’s return to Inauguration Day.  Clearly the (These) United States face a large number of challenges.  Several of these were mentioned in the various speeches, responses, and talking head debates from both sides of the fence.  Without prioritizing, these include a slowly growing economy, climate change, a violent world, a lagging educational system, a gridlocked political system, and so on.  However, if we think about the principles above as mechanisms for sustainability and long-enduring social-ecological systems, I feel enthusiastic about the future of this country.  In particular, the United States, by its design, is built around diversity and having a unique blend of peoples, cultures, and ways of thinking.  Clearly this often creates divides and dissension (see immigration reform).  It also creates opportunities and fosters new ideas.  We have a society, a political system and a private (and third) sector focused on learning and experimenting.  This is the America of innovation and entrepreneurship – in both the private sector and public.  Our society engenders as well as depends upon broad participation.  Putnam’s thoughts on social capital aside, I remain steadfastly optimistic about this as well.  Finally, the Federal system of government, the number of collaborative governance arrangements that I encounter in my regular research, and the vitality of the NGO community nationwide, provides evidence of polycentric governance systems of great breadth and depth.

Granted, there are a great many problems to fix, and the work is never-ending.  The US faces great difficulties, particularly in understanding and responding to complexity (witness the responses to climate change), but I believe these United States are, were, and will remain resilient.

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