According to studies of what makes ecosystems resilient, (1) there are three features that are central to a system's ability to reorganise itself following shocks. They are:

  • Diversity
  • Modularity
  • Tightness of Feedbacks

Diversity relates to the number of elements that comprise a particular system, be they people, species, businesses, institutions or sources of food. The resilience of a system comes not only from the number of the species that make up that diversity, but also from the number of connections between them. Diversity also refers to the diversity of functions in our settlements (rather than just relying on one - say, tourism or mining) and a diversity of potential responses to challenges, leading to a greater flexibility. Diversity of land use - farms, market gardens, aquaculture, forest gardens, nut tree plantings, and so on are key to the resilience of the settlement, and their erosion in recent years has paralleled the rise of monocultures, which are by definition an absence of diversity. (2)

Another meaning of diversity is that of diversity between systems. The exact set of solutions that will work in one place will not necessarily work in other places: each community will assemble its own solutions, responses and tools. This matters for two reasons. Firstly because it makes top-down approaches almost redundant, as those at the top lack the knowledge of local conditions and how to respond to them. Secondly, because resilience-building is about working on small changes to lots of niches in the place, making lots of small interventions rather than a few large ones."

The term modularity, according to ecologists Brian Walker and David Salt, relates to "the manner in which the components that make up a system are linked". (3) Towards the end of 2007, the Northern Rock bank crisis led to major problems and uncertainty in the British banking system. It was caused by over-lending to high-risk house-buyers in the US thousands of miles away, but within a short period of time one system had knocked on to another and then another, showing how the globalised networks, often trumpeted as one of globalisation's great strengths, can in fact also be one of its great weaknesses. The over-networked nature of modern, highly connected systems allow shock to travel rapidly through them, with potentially disastrous effects.

A more modular structure means that the parts of a system can more effectively self organise in the event of shock. For example, as a result of the globalisation of the food industry, animals and animal parts are moved around the world, leading to increased occurrences of diseases such as bird flu and foot-and-mouth disease. Reducing animal transportation and reintroducing local abattoirs and processing would lead to a more modular system, with local breeds for local markets and a much reduced risk of disease spreading with the rapidity that we have seen in recent outbreaks.

When designing energy descent pathways for Transition Initiatives, the concept of modularity is key: maximising modularity with more internal connections reduces vulnerability to any disruptions of wider networks. Local food systems, local investment models, and so on, all add to this modularity, meaning that we engage with the wider world but from an ethic of net working and information sharing rather than of mutual dependence.

Tightness of Feedbacks refers to how quickly and strongly the consequences of a change in one part of the system are felt and responded to in other parts. Walker and Salt write: "Centralised governance and globalisation can weaken feedbacks. As feedbacks lengthen, there is an increased chance of crossing a thresh old without detecting it in a timely fashion." In a more localised system, the results of our actions are more obvious. We don't want excessive use of pesticides or other pollutants in our area, but seem happier to be oblivious to their use in other parts of the world. In a globalised system, the feedbacks about the impacts of soil erosion, low pay and pesticide use provide weak feedback signals. Tightening feedback loops will have beneficial results, allowing us to bring the consequences of our actions closer to home, rather than their being so far from our awareness that they don't even register. When people live off the grid in terms of energy, they are more mindful about their consumption because they are closer to its generation - the feedback loop is smaller.

The three ingredients of a resilient sy…