22 March 2009

Australia 21 releases Resilience Report

Australia 21 is an independent non-profit research organisation which was established in 2001 to promote the development of new frameworks of understanding about questions which are important to Australia’s future.

An important new report, Brighter Prospects: Enhancing the Resilience of Australia, was launched in Canberra recently by Australia 21’s Patron, Professor Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. The report is a series of essays, edited by Australia 21 Fellow and leader of our Resilience Project, Dr Steve Cork, an ecologist and futurist who over the last 26 years has been a senior researcher with CSIRO and played a lead role in developing ecological scenarios for the world’s futures in the United Nations Millennium Assessment.

As Dr Brian Walker’s foreword to the Report notes, interest in resilience has emerged in recent years because insights from scientific developments have led to awareness that ecosystems, social systems and linked social-ecological systems (such as agricultural regions, urban complexes or commercial fisheries) behave like complex adaptive systems. That is, they are self-organizing within limits. There are two important outcomes of this systems behaviour:

- It is not possible to tightly control the dynamics of such systems (they shift and change and re-organise if one part is held constant, or ‘optimised’), and, furthermore attempting to do so reduces their ability to absorb shocks. i.e. they need to change and vary in order to remain resilient.

- There are limits to how much such systems can change and still recover. The measure of a system’s resilience is the size of a shock, the amount of change which that system can absorb and still continue to function in much the same kind of way.

This increasing scientific understanding and awareness is occurring at the same time that society’s leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about our ability to cope with a number of looming global and regional scale threats — climate change, pandemics, market collapses, peak oil, ocean acidification, collapsing fisheries, water ‘wars’, terrorist activity, to name some. We cannot prevent or even predict most of them. The priority therefore is to enhance our capacity to cope with whatever shocks occur. In other words, the need is to build resilience.

Australia 21’s work in this area began with a roundtable in Sydney in 2007, which resulted in an Australia 21 working paper, How Resilient is Australia?, by Steve Cork, Brian Walker and Ross Buckley. This collection of papers is a follow-up to that initial effort. Subject to obtaining the necessary funding we plan to continue this line of research and publish a further development of it in book form later in the year.

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