The Principle of Resilience

May 9th, 2021

“To restore stability to our planet we must restore its bio-diversity – the very thing we’ve removed.”

David Attenborough

This week we look at the Universal Principle of Resilience to see how we might help (or at least stop hindering) nature’s ability to return to a steady state of dynamic balance.

Professor Ann Masten (1) defines resilience as:

“The capacity of a dynamic system to adapt to challenges that threaten the function, survival or future development of the system.”

Heaven knows (and the earth even more so) that we have contributed more than our fair share of problems to the planet and its ecosystems. There is hope however. This is because nature knows more than a little about resilience. Let us look at the first part of the Principle of Resilience so we can be in the know too:

”Diversity + Redundancy = Resilience. Diversity is nature’s safety net and insurance policy.”

Let us focus for the moment on the first part of this equation: diversity. As we mentioned last week in the Principle of Cycles (click here if you missed it), one of the primary reasons for the long period of stability we have experienced on our planet was the huge bio-diversity it has developed.

It has also become abundantly clear during this series that we need each other. Many life forms performing different and complementary functions improves the quality of life for all. Therefore, it is in our own interest to see others flourish and succeed.

Our patriarchal, “dominator culture” over the last few thousand years has distorted this natural law however. In the last hundred years it has taken Darwin’s theories of adaptive genetic mutation and distorted it into a tooth and claw fantasy of kill or be killed competition. It has taken our shared resources and sold us an economic pyramid scheme that creates ”winners and losers”, “haves” and “have nots”. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted is the creation of a very small percentage of ”haves” and a majority of ”have nots”.

Section from U.S. one dollar bill

The short-sighted greed of such a distortion has seen the ravaging of planetary resources in a futile quest for infinite ”growth” from a finitely resourced planet. It is the mentality of the addict spiralling out of control while everything and everyone around them becomes collateral damage to that world view and the destructive practices coming from it.

Not really the attitude of a “team player” then. Diversity, on the other hand, wants and needs everyone to prosper.

One might think then that a return to diversity will fix everything, right? Well, kinda…

May Day, May Day! We need backup!”

While a healthy biodiversity is vital, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that fail-safe mechanisms are present in the system. This is where redundancy comes into the equation of Resilience:

“Functional redundancy exists in all known mature ecosystems. As environments change, certain species will boom and others will bust. As long as the ecosystem has a large variance of species which perform similar functions, the overall health of the system continues”

Everyone needs a backup plan now and then and nature is no exception. If a species that performs a certain function within an ecosystem dies out, the system can still remain resilient if another species performing a similar function can be found. Redundancy is the inclusion of these extra components. They may appear to serve little immediate purpose – that is, until they’re needed.

While it might seem that a healthy biodiversity would automatically create redundancy, nature can sometimes prove to be vulnerable despite it being present. Let’s look at a few examples from both human life and the natural world showing the threat to resilience when diversity exists without redundancy:

1. A small, isolated village: There may be a variety of people performing different functions. This helps village life to thrive as all the tasks needed for health, survival and tradition are performed. But what if only one of them is a doctor? If the doctor becomes ill, dies or just decides to move to another village the healthcare needs and the survival of its inhabitants are threatened.

2. A marine system surrounding a coral reef: While there is a dazzling and colourful biodiversity of species, there is only one “keystone species” – the coral itself. If it dies due to pollution, acidification or mining for example, the whole chain of diverse species connected to it is threatened.

Resilience in human health

Meanwhile, back in the complex, dynamic ecosystems of the body, we find the same Universal Principle of Resilience at play. The single biggest players in a healthy body, resilient to outward infection, are immunoglobulins. These guardians of our internal galaxy exist primarily in the gut and the blood and function as antibodies that recognize and neutralise threats to our health.

Like an anti-virus program on our computer, they need to be updated regularly with the latest skill sets to deal with new challenges. It is actually helpful for this system to be exposed to challenges on a regular basis. The first world’s obsession with hygiene – even more so in the “Year of Covid” – has, ironically perhaps, made our immune system less resilient killing off our redundancy backups through maintaing unnaturally sterile environments.

Brainstorming resilience

The Principle of Resilience also states:

”Every connection in a multi-dimensional web of life has countless links that tether it to the whole.”

Moving from the complexities of the gut and upwards to the brain (it should be noted they are surprising similar in structure and even some functions), we can witness diversity, redundancy and resilience at work through neuroplasticity. See the video below for a quick primer on how that works.

Mental and psychological resilience are dependent on diversity and redundancy too. If we do not remain open to points of view wider than our own, we become isolated, ’tribal’, insular and hypersensitive to any approach different to our own. As we saw in the Principle of Dynamics (click here if you missed it) a healthy, resilient system can accept feedback and opposition. Without that ability, when an opposing view to our own gains popular ascendancy we can feel devastated and defeated. Witness the divisions between political affiliations, racial discrimination or even fans of opposing sports teams for examples.

Anchorage News. All rights reserved.

Division and living only in the narrow reinforcement of our one-sided ”bubble” is the opposite of diversity. Is it any wonder so many people feel scared, threatened and react aggressively to these perceived threats? Outdated ideologies from bygone eras regularly need to be made redundant. Newer ones can gain ascendancy and the whole system evolves and progresses.

Bouncing checks – and balances: Resilience in economic systems

For the last 150 years or so we have become unwitting participants in economic boom and bust cycles. This is by no means an inevitability however. Of course, if we keep ignoring universal principles and ravage our resources trying to create a false, short term surplus, then we guarantee a future collapse.

There is no need for cycles of boom and bust of the total economy. As we have already seen, a resilient system has the inbuilt redundancy to handle a shortfall in one area by allowing others to thrive. This is, in turn, enabled through diversity. This is why we need to move away from a system based on debt, with the wealth in the hands of the few, and into one based on diversity, redundancy and resilience.

At the personal economic level, the more skills we learn (higher diversity) the higher our chances of re-employment and economic survival. Even if the industry we currently work in becomes redundant or suffers a downturn our personal diversity of skills helps us thrive elsewhere. We may even create new businesses of our own.

Circling away from triangle dramas

Patriarchal, pyramid schemes need to be consigned to the graveyard of dead ideas. These times call for a more feminine touch: A cyclic, dynamic, interdependent web of life at all levels – not just economics. Diversity and redundancy are its methods. Resilience is the result.

(For a more wide-reaching look at these Universal Principles, go to )

(1) University of  Minnesota College of Education and Human Development

© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation:

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