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Salmon and resilience: Beyond simple fixes

Our demands for nature’s “goods and services” increase with burgeoning population and nature is broadly being depleted.

By Joseph Cone

Excerpted from the preface to Pathways to Resilience: Sustaining Salmon Ecosystems in a Changing World (Oregon Sea Grant, 2012).

What is the path we’re on if it’s not a path to resilience? The path of the status quo tries to get the most out of — “optimize” — some element of a system. The essays in Pathways to Resilience, a new volume about salmon challenges from Oregon Sea Grant, present views of a profoundly different paradigm — that of resilient whole systems.

Although the essays are devoted to salmon and, importantly, represent key insights by the first generation of scientific experts who have thought deeply about salmon and resilience, the reader of today — and also of the future — is encouraged to see this work in its broader significance. A time capsule from today would reveal a world fitfully struggling to come to terms with ecological and social systems that are dangerously vulnerable to major shocks: global climate change, international terrorism, polarized and fractious publics in nation-states, an interconnected global economy that rewards the few but effectively punishes the many.

Where is the wisdom of resilience, of attending to the dynamic whole that would sustain these linked systems? If such wisdom were acquired easily, presumably it would have been broadly achieved by now. But it has not been, which is one reason why the example of the essays are valuable to anyone concerned about a sustainable future.

Those who take the challenge of trying to understand our human relationship with Earth as a totality describe that totality in terms of a complex, interrelated system. This so-called human-nature (or social-ecological) system is ever-changing and multidimensional, but the problem today with this human-nature system is that we have been the perennial receivers in the relationship and nature the giver, and while our demands for what economists call nature’s “goods and services” continue to increase with burgeoning population and hu­man aspirations, nature is broadly being depleted.

Many in the United States have been concerned with this depletion over many years, and concepts of conservation, stewardship, and, more recently, “sustainability,” have enjoyed many adherents. These are good and valuable concepts, but these ideas have not shown themselves sufficient to shift our understanding, much less our collective behavior.

We tinker with pieces of the whole, trying to be more focused or more efficient, to gain from this or that component of the system some particular advantages in this or that place: more salmon for fisheries through hatchery production; better fishery management through maximum sustained yield calculations; greater timber production and profit through clearcutting and replanting monocultures… such approaches in the Pacific Northwest have had undesired consequences to the broader social-ecological system of which they are parts.

Taken as a whole, the essayists in Pathways to Resilience believe in a holistic view that embraces complex social-ecological systems and a perspective that helps those systems anticipate and avoid major shocks, and where the shocks are unavoidable, be able to respond and adapt to them. In short, the resilience of the system needs to be in view.

“Resilience holds the key to our future. It is a deceptively simple idea, but its application has proven elusive,” wrote Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon State University marine biologist who became the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under President Obama. Truly, the goal of resilient coastal social and ecological communities will not be easy to achieve. The concept is still emergent and is not well understood, appreciated, nor in the cultural mainstream. But we in Oregon Sea Grant believe resilience thinking is a good compass to guide us into the future and help us be of public service.

Joseph Cone is the assistant director of Oregon Sea Grant; this piece was edited by Rick Cooper, managing editor of Oregon Sea Grant.