The essential feature of biocultural systems that has ensured their persistence in time and space has been their resilience. Prominent resilience scientist Dr. Brian Walker describes resilience as the propensity of a system to learn, adapt, self-organize (through co-evolution between different sub-systems) and absorb change without losing functional integrity. Resilient systems are characterized by a diversity of patterns, functions, and processes — from nutrient cycles to ecological niches, from inter- and intra-specific variability to between and within the richness of languages, from epistemologies to traditional institutions of governance — that ensures a wide range of responses to external or internal challenges.
Resilient systems are characterized by a diversity of patterns, functions, and processes that ensures a wide range of responses to external or internal challenges.
Another important characteristic of a resilient system is its modularity, the presence of relatively autonomous “nodes” (e.g., local communities, ecological refugia, pastoral networks) throughout a system that reduces its over-connectedness and therefore enhances its ability to resist rapid transmission of environmental and social shocks. Tight feedback mechanisms between various elements of biocultural systems enable detection of approaching thresholds, or tipping points (from coral- to algae-dominated systems, from rainforest to savannah, from commons to private property, from subsistence to market-based economy), long before the system is on the verge of flipping into a new, potentially irreversible state.
Functional overlap is a reflection of redundancy in the system that enhances its continuity when some of its elements experience change (e.g., carbon sequestration is achieved in different parts of an ecosystem; traditional diets include varied sources of protein; wildlife harvest is regulated through different institutional arrangements). Substantial social capital — in the form of trusted social networks, wise leadership, intergenerational transmission of knowledge, an equitable integration of different ways of knowing into decision-making — also allows for diverse systemic responses to change.