NEWS 2021-02-22

Building back better after Covid-19

There are many calls to use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity for transforming to a future trajectory that is more equitable and environmentally sustainable. But this window of opportunity may be short, researchers warn, and propose that resilience theory could provide the necessary framework to achieve real transformational change.

Resilience is the capacity of a system, be it a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about how humans and nature can make use shocks and disturbances to spur renewal and innovation and redirect development toward sustainable futures. According to this theory, many social-ecological systems go through cycles of change consisting of sequential patterns of growth, development, crisis (or collapse/release), and reorganization (see figure).

Source: Holling, Gunderson and Ludwig. 2002. Quest of a Theory of Adaptive Change. In: Panarchy. Island Press, Washington DC.

Now is the time for bright ideas

In an article in Ecology and Society the authors advocate interpreting the current pandemic as part of an adaptive cycle, because the reorganization phase that will follow the current collapse/release phase will be critical to how the new system is structured and behaves. It is during this brief period that new things become possible, for socioeconomic systems this means new ideas, structures and processes.

“In the near future the globe will enter a new growth phase, either a version of the existing unsustainable system or a different one. For an alternative system to emerge it needs to be imagined and articulated before the collapse phase ends. It will be too late to wait until the collapse is over; reorganization to bring the system back into its existing form will begin while the collapse happens, and without a clearly articulated alternative the opportunity for introducing change will be lost.”, the interdisciplinary team writes, led by Beijer Fellow Brian Walker (CSIRO) and including Beijer director Carl Folke and several Beijer Fellows.

Consequently, being prepared for the looming re-organization is critical.

Central areas for a sustainable transformation

The authors identify five broad underlying dimensions that determine human well-being and environmental sustainability in the present global system, they think can and should be changed. (i) the economic system, (ii) homogenization, (iii) human population growth, size, and densities, (iv) consumption patterns, human ethics, and behavior, and (v) governance.

“Time is now ripe for transforming out of the industrial era into sustainable futures and these five dimension are central in such change” says Carl Folke.

Attempts to change these fundamental dimensions have a better chance if based on resilience principles. Testing interventions, learning how the system responds, keeping options open as the system changes through time, and avoiding directions that lead into undesirable states, enable a system to cope with uncertainty and levels of future disturbance that would otherwise precipitate collapse.

“The world is searching for ways to build-back better after the COVID19 crisis and in the light of the climate challenge. A lot is happening in practice and policy, but insights like these from research on system dynamics and how to make use of windows-of-opportunity for transformation may enhance the likelihood of positive outcomes” concludes Carl Folke

Read the article

Walker, B., S. R. Carpenter, C. Folke, L. Gunderson, G. D. Peterson, M. Scheffer, M. Schoon and F. R. Westley. 2020. Navigating the chaos of an unfolding global cycle. Ecology and Society 25(4):23.