Human Resilience, Adaptation, Transformation and Development

Reflections on the International Resilience 2011 Conference

Will you and I, can humanity adapt fast enough to The Great Acceleration of change going on all about us so as to be capable of thriving in the new world now being born? This question haunted me as I attended the recent Resilience 2011 conference at ASU, in Tempe, AZ.
Attending required major adaptations in my life and schedule, particularly given that I had just spent the previous week out of town with a dear friend who decided it was time to die. A few things came into alignment however, and so I signed up the day before the conference began and made a wild dash drive from the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains into the Sonoran desert.
This was the second such international conference, the last being held in Stockholm in ’08, and when else might I get a chance to attend such an auspicious event so close to home? What an opportunity!
Hanging out with seven hundred or so of the world’s top resiliency and sustainability scientists and researchers and practitioners from around the globe was an opportunity not to be missed by me. I expected it to be an intense experience but given two keynote type lectures a day and over 150 scientific papers presented daily for four days in a row… it was like kayaking oceanic swells of cognitive and conceptual and analytical energy. And given that the conference opened the day after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and the morning news breaking that a nuclear disaster was in the making, the conference opened with a heart felt acknowledgment of the human plight of suffering there.
That human disaster was openly acknowledged and viscerally felt in the room. It was a symbolic and tangible presence of why we gathered. Roughly half of us had traveled from outside of the US, and all of us were seeking to explore the possibilities and potentials of human survival and thrivabiltiy in a world where the man made and the world of nature are increasingly experienced to be in conflict. The list and headlines of such conflicts, crisis and potential tipping points of ecological destabilization have become so common that it is easy to be mentally and emotionally anesthetized to their looming impact.
And indeed, the largely ineffectual ability of these scientists to communicate their findings regarding the extremities of our collective circumstance to the public was cause for frequent self-reflection and examination. Why have we been so ineffective? What will it take to shift public perceptions and our social institutions and policy makers to move into proactive modes of adaptation?
And as C.S. (Buzz) Holling said, the noted father of Resilience Thinking in ecology and now also increasingly applied in the social systems sciences, “Since my book Panarchy came out, there has been increasing interest in the transformation aspect of the resiliency cycle.”
Thus he acknowledged the growing recognition of the need for regime shifts (transformations) in our personal and collective worldviews if we are to bring them into alignment with the reality of the earth as a living system. If we are to adapt—and to thrive.
Requisite to this adaptation is the courageous willingness to see what is, what we have and are collectively creating; this is the recognition that we are not in Kansas anymore, as Dorothy rightly said in the Wizard of Oz. Fact is, we are in uncharted territory.
Humanity now lives in a world of our own co-creative but unconscious  partnership with planet Earth. We live now in the newly named geologic age of the Anthroprocene, the age wherein humankind is now a biogeophysical force upon the planet along with water and wind and yes, earthquakes and historical life-quenching giant meteorites too.
Interestingly, I don’t believe I ever heard reference to the phrase, “6th great mass extinction” at the conference however. This is the increasingly used reference for the adaptive challenge expected to be too much for perhaps 75% of species on the planet to survive even another 300 years. (Where is Noah when we need him anyway?)
Adaptive Capacity and The Adaptive Cycle were a few of the most frequently used terms throughout the conference, these and references to flexibility and hardiness and robustness and sustainability, perturbation and front loops and back loops and…time. The longer our awakening takes the less time and resources, the less our resilience capacity will be for adapting and transforming ourselves and institutions for what will come.
Three time periods each day were devoted to multiple panels of presentations in six different conference tracks. I attended panels on everything from the resilience and sustainability of our cities to our agricultural systems, energy systems, businesses, education, forests, lakes, desert riparian areas, grasslands, climatic destabilization, the role of innovation, urgent Biophilia and urban gardening, Topophilia, desperate human migrations and so much more. The word adaptation was surely used in every presentation.
I caught the conversational attention of a few folks however when I noted one of the Wild Resiliency Assumptions: “Adaptation Works Until It Kills You!”
And that is exactly what adaptation does when we continue adapting ourselves to fit into a worldview that is out of sync with reality. This kind of adaptive thinking is the worldview-handicap behind our banking collapse, Enron’s fantasy bookkeeping and the systemic assumptions leading to The Longest War, and behind too Japan’s current double blow nuclear debacle. This delusional adaptive thinking is why our social systems are collapsing around us. And our forests and waters and fisheries…too.
No blame. We are in this together and our evolutionary spiral could not but have brought us to where we now are: We are living in the end times of the Age of Separation and in the birthing times of the Age of Reunion.
This is articulated eloquently by author Charles Eisenstein in, The Ascent of Humanity: The Age of Separation , the Age of Reunion, and the Convergence of Crises that is Birthing the Transition. It is a six hundred page book and worth the read for those invested in helping to co-create the “more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible.” Therein, Charles places human development both within a historical context and in a visionary worldview of human thrivability.
Such a vision of human flourishing and thriving is a vital offering if we are to also effectively communicate the desperation of our current human vulnerability. It is too damn hard to open our eyes to what is and a sure prescription for despair without this opening to a vision of something beyond sustainability.
This will be a new vision of community and a new vision of what it is to be a human being. This will be an integration of the arts and the sciences, an integration of the body, mind and spirit.
This is a challenge, at its core, of identity. Philosopher, historian and cosmologist Thomas Berry articulated this challenge as The Great Work, and the requisite worldview of such a time as the Ecozoic Era. He described it as  the era of humanity consciously playing our role with earth and life as co-creators of a thriving planet Earth.
Now is the time of this birthing. Now is the time of our birthing into a new story, a worldview of our interconnectedness with all of Life. We just had to leave home so to speak, before we could return and so appreciate the long journey of our human transformation into Beings of conscious presence. In truth, this is a story of a species and individuals developing from a fetal dependency into childhood and adolescence, and now facing the challenges of consciously and developmentally transforming into co-creators of our future in concert with Planet Earth.
Perhaps it is we who are the Noahs we have been waiting for. And the Ark capable of carrying us into that future is the developmental transformation of our consciousness. This is a birthing process and we are now in the midst of it.
Note: Also see Do the Stars Long to Shine? for more conference reflections.
Audio and slides of invited presenters are now up on the conference web site program page: Resilience 2011 Program.


  1. Wild Resiliency and Deep Future | The Ecozoic Times

    04/08/2011 at 8:18 am

    […] […]

  2. Tom Wojick

    04/08/2011 at 2:28 pm

    thanks for the info on the conference. It is disturbing to have a wealth of scientific knowledge critical to the planets survival to be capture inside the ivory walls of academia, and to have the rantings of the unknowing and self-interested spewed in the media. However the best part of the blog is your “Adaptation works until it kills you.”

  3. Larry Glover

    04/08/2011 at 5:19 pm

    Thanks for catching that “Adaptations works until it kills you” piece, Tom. What this also raises for me is this question: What is it, what does it take, to come into conscious relationship with life/nature as a transformative agent in our own living? By this I mean too: What does it take to not just continue unconsciously adapting to what life…culture…work…throw at us…but to proactively be willing to transform toward ever greater wholeness, toward thrivability for all?

  4. kent

    04/24/2011 at 8:52 pm

    You note here that scientists and others have been ineffective communicating the real and immediate danger in which our species and the planet find ourselves and ask how that could be fixed. Here is a suggestion about one piece of the answer.
    The professionals in your field see clearly things that the rest of us do not. To tell us about it and convince us it’s true, you’ll need to use words we understand.
    I don’t mean to pick on C.S. “Buzz” Holling who you identify as the father of the resiliency movement, but you quote him and if he writes in the same vein as he speaks, I would rather have a root canal than read his book.
    Here he is: “Since my book Panarchy came out, there has been increasing interest in the transformation aspect of the resiliency cycle.”
    Whatever else he may be trying to do, Buzz is irritating me. He utters a nineteen word, thirty-three syllable sentence, and in the passive tense. (Strike One) It drives me to my dictionary three times. (Strike Two) And, even after the dictionary trips, it conveys no meaning to my mind. (Strike Three) Let’s have a look at why.
    We’ll start with that title word, “panarchy.” I have four dictionaries readily available and that word appears in none. Does he mean “wide-spread anarchy”? (The root “pan” meaning “all.”) Or is he talking about one of my favorite literary characters, the fictional cockroach “archy”? The closest word I find is “panegyric”, meaning hyperbolic praise and I doubt that conveys his meaning.
    I presume that Buzz begins his book by carefully, precisely defining that word and perhaps it’s unfair of me to demand that it be in a dictionary; but, if he is trying to reach a wide audience, that’s a bad beginning.
    Then I read that I should be interested in “the transformation aspect” of something called the “resiliency cycle.” Back to the dictionary where I study “aspect” and wonder if the noun “transformation” can ever modify it.
    Finally, I don’t know what the “resiliency cycle” is. In fact, so abysmal is my ignorance I don’t even know that one exists. What is it? How does it work? The earth’s orbit is a cycle and, even if I wanted to, there is nothing I could possibly do to affect it. Is the resiliency cycle the same? And if our current troubles are just a part of a cycle, why should I worry? The cycle will continue and everything will be fine again.
    So, in part, the problem lies with the words. The professional rhetoric needs translating into everyday, mundane language. I see from your poem “Do the Stars Long to Shine” that you understand that.
    Of course, stars don’t “long” to do anything. They are just thermonuclear furnaces busy fusing hydrogen atoms into helium and, just before they die, fusing that helium into other stuff, notably carbon. They have no consciousness and can’t experience longing or anything else. But the metaphor is striking, understandable, and you quickly bring it to earth with your examples of life forms on this planet that possess a life force. All the species in the history of this planet that have died, had at least a “desire” to propagate their species, just like humans. They had a life force and it’s gone forever. (That doesn’t sound “resilient.”)
    Another piece of the frustration around communicating the danger may be what I, as a lay person, see as an unquestioned fundamental assumption made by resiliency professionals. I thought of it while reading a review of the work of Ansel Adams, the famous 20th Century American photographer. The reviewer, John Szarkowski, wrote,
    “Those of us who make little trips to vestigal remnants of half-wild land, carrying freeze-dried food and space-age camping gear tend to believe that we are ready to live in a symbiotic relationship with the earth. We also assume, with little evidence, that the earth is ready to live in a symbiotic relationship with us. This optimistic view has tended to make us reject the traditional opinion that the relationship between man and the rest of nature is typically adversarial and adopt instead the belief that it is essentially friendly. This is a novel and largely untested idea. . . .”
    No reason appears why Nature would favor humans. Humans are killers. And fairly effective ones at that. Where ever we go, death follows in our wake. We kill without fear or favor. We kill each other as well as many of the plant and animal species we contact. And, as a current National Geographic article notes, an alien arriving on earth would not demand to be taken to human leaders; they would want to contact the ants.
    So even if we personify the earth by giving her a name – let’s call her “Gaia” – and even if we endow her with some form of consciousness, we cannot assume that she likes us. In fact, given her own life force and desire to live, how could she regard us as anything other than a pest species? And why would she not attempt to cleanse herself of the pest species in exactly the same manner we attempt to rid our personal bodies of harmful bacteria? As we form fevers to raise our body temperatures high enough to kill the bacteria, so would she raise her temperature in an effort to exterminate us. (Global Warming) Continuing the metaphor, sometimes our fevers kill the bacteria, but sometimes the fever gets so high that it kills us. So it may be with Gaia; either her fever will kill us or it will kill her.
    Either way, we’re toast.
    So we need to convert ourselves from pests into desirable guests and soon. Good luck convincing us.

  5. Sepp

    11/05/2011 at 7:59 pm

    Hi Larry,
    Just read this and thought you might be interested in my project dealing with these topics, see my page at:
    Thanks a lot & all the best,

  6. Larry Glover

    01/10/2012 at 5:36 am

    Thanks for the comment Sepp and good luck with your film. Looks to be a fascinating project you are into, valuable and timely. I encourage readers to follow your link for more: “…the film in which an eclectic mix of people, both actors and non-actors – amongst them scientist in the fields of resilience, futurology, economics and political science – will pre-enact this possible future. And once down in the shelter they will explore the challenges which humanity is facing and how we can deal with them.”

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