Calling Buzz Holling: An Exclusive Interview with the Father of Resilience Theory

By Ross, Nicola | Alternatives Journal, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Calling Buzz Holling: An Exclusive Interview with the Father of Resilience Theory


Ross, Nicola, Alternatives Journal


Nicola Ross You've written that "Novelty emerges from the interaction between opportunity and crisis." Can you explain what you mean by novelty?

Buzz Holling Novelty is something that is new, and something that emerges from invention. The reason that sentence links crisis and opportunity is because novelty typically emerges only from the sea of invention that exists when there is some sort of crisis that makes people seek new ways of doing things. Crisis to me is both creative and destructive. It destroys accumulated rigidities, but it is creative in the sense that it utilizes the creative capital for new opportunity.

Ross You say that we want rare transformations, not simple change. Is this something we can design for, or is this something that just happens?

Holling We see three kinds of change. One is very incremental and slow, very common and terribly important. The second is more disruptive. For example, in a business when there has been a saturation of markets, or in an ecosystem when a forest changes through some event like a forest fire. The third kind is transformation that is still deeper than the other two, and involves a change in the structure of relationships across scales. In a social system, you have a range of examples of societies that have collapsed. Take the Mayans, for example. They moved to a state of increasing rigidity and organization, such that when change was needed the structure made it impossible to do so. The politics and religious relationships prevented any exercise of actions that could transform that society in a constructive way. Contrast that to a transformation that moved the hunter-gatherer societies into agricultural and industrial [societies]. I think we are in the midst of another one. It may not he as great and deep a transformation as from hunting-and-gathering to agriculture, but it is a major economic, social and environmental transformation.

We are headed in a direction of considerable unknown. That's the feature of this theory itself and its discoveries. There are things you know, there are things that you are uncertain about, and there are other things that arc simply unknown. When you move into a rare transformation, you are moving into a world of deep unknowns. You know some things you need to do, like control rigidities and stop them from inhibiting change; you know you have to protect the sources of knowledge you'll draw on. You will have to introduce experiments to test out ideas and inventions that are not incorporated in society yet, hut could be, and are needed to synergize for the next step of the transformation.

Remember, there is a human creature called the "explorer"--an individual who journeys into the unknown. An innovative scientist journeys into landscapes of the mind that are unknown. Nevertheless, there is a great resistance to transformative change, and there will be strong efforts in the existing power bases to prevent any transformative change.

Ross Is climate change an unknown unknown?

Holling I agree with that. We are in the midst of climate change right now. We are in a major transformation that is reflecting the way the world is linked across space through atmospheric processes, and the consequences that link oceans, land and atmosphere. It's truly moving our world into regimes of behaviour that we've never seen before, so that the natural systems, social systems, economic systems and ecological systems, have not adapted to what is emerging. Not having adapted, the consequences of climate change mean that the responses of the people, vegetation, and so forth, will be inherently unpredictable. The key is resilience.

Ross How effectively have we dealt with climate change so far?

Holling It has been quite ineffective, but it will become more effective as time progresses. The first step is to recognize that the climate is going to change. It's irreversible. It might change in one direction in one region, and another direction in another. …

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