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 ES Home > Vol. 6, No. 1 > Art. 19

Copyright © 2002 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Folke, C. and L. Gunderson. 2002. A kaleidoscope of change. Conservation Ecology 6(1): 19. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol6/iss2/art19/


A Kaleidoscope of Change

Carl Folke1 and Lance Gunderson2

1Stockholm University2Emory University

As noted at the Second Session of the Preparatory Committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, human activities are having more and more of an impact on the integrity of the complex natural ecosystems that provide essential support for human well-being and economic activities. As a result, we must learn how to manage our natural resource base to protect the land, water, and living resources on which human life and development depend.

The solstice has just passed. The northern part of the planet is entering a period of increasing solar input with all of the associated conditions of summer: longer and warmer days, liquid precipitation, and increased biological production and storage, among others. The opposite phase of the annual cycle is beginning in the southern hemisphere. We are starting to wonder if each heat wave or severe storm is part of a longer pattern of cycles, or is it indicative of an abrupt shift in climate? We have a general idea of what is going to happen in terms of weather during the next few months, but know few or none of the specifics. However, what we do know is that change is an inevitable and pervasive characteristic of all complex systems. Our attempts to understand the nature and type of change capture and funnel our energies and provide a thematic focus for this journal.

In this editorial, we discuss the changes that are occurring in two systems. Both are global in spatial scale, although they span slightly different time horizons. One system that has undergone an abrupt shift is the system that produces Conservation Ecology (CE). We will come back to the changes at CE in a later section, but first we would like to describe the activities that are coming into focus as the paradigm of sustainable development attempts to organize action to cope with global changes.

A world of transformations

State governments, the United Nations system, and many other actors are preparing for the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg in August 2002. The main focus of this summit is sustainable consumption patterns and the alleviation of poverty. Preparatory meetings and conferences have already taken place. Attendees at these meetings express a sense of urgency about the situation and the need to improve the human condition within the biosphere. However, there is also a lack of direction, vision, and innovative frameworks when it comes to actually dealing with the situation. Outdated solutions that have already been tried and failed are still being proposed, e.g., many people continue to view economic growth and technology transfer as the engines for a prosperous future.

As we enter this new millennium, human use of natural resources is changing all the aspects of the world we live in: its atmosphere and climate, its human and nonhuman inhabitants, its land surfaces, and its waters. We face different, more variable environments with greater uncertainty about how ecosystems will respond to inevitable increases in levels of use. At the same time, we seem to be reducing the capacity of these systems to cope with change; in other words, we are undermining their resilience. In resilient socio-ecological systems, change has the potential to create opportunities for development and innovation. These opportunities should foster incentives for maintaining and improving ecological goods and services. Policies that rely on command and control to stabilize nature make it more vulnerable to unwanted changes. The combination of these two trends calls for a shift from the existing paradigm of stabilized "optimal" production to one based on managing for socio-ecological resilience. This shift in paradigms should become a key policy of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The development challenges now evident in both rich and poor nations, where millions of people in scores of regions are caught up in enormous ecological and social changes, are full of surprises and uncertainties. We are facing "permanent whitewaters" that demand strategies that allow us to adapt to uncertainty. To quote a decision maker in a large multinational firm, "The future is moving so quickly that you can't anticipate it. We have put a tremendous emphasis on quick response instead of planning. We will continue to be surprised, but we won't be surprised that we are surprised. We will anticipate the surprise ... " (Malhotra 1999).

Unfortunately, all these surprises make it increasingly difficult to achieve the sort of integration of social, ecological, and economic processes that would lead to the development of resilient solutions. Any foundation for sustainable policies and investments must integrate ecological with economic, institutional, and evolutionary understanding. Such an understanding must not only be grounded in empirical studies but also combine disconnected nodes of academic and managerial perspectives into a coherent, plausible, and useful whole that is capable of guiding society to more productive, unfolding encounters with nature over uncertain and contested futures (Gunderson and Holling 2002).

On June 17 and 18, in preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the Swedish government organized a conference devoted to the challenges facing humanity and the life-support systems on which we depend. The recommendations of the conference can be found at http://miljo.regeringen.se/Projekt/plus-30/index.htm. The Resilience Alliance was asked to produce a background document on behalf of the Swedish Environmental Advisory Council and the International Council for Science (ICSU) to be used in the WSSD process (Resilience Alliance 2002). This document can be found at http://www.resalliance.org/reports/resilience_and_sustainable_development.pdf.

A central challenge for the future is to develop ways of relating to and managing complex systems. We need to develop methods of adaptive comanagement that contribute to our knowledge and understanding of resource and ecosystem dynamics by exploring uncertainties through management actions and scenarios. Social learning should take place via monitoring systems that interpret and respond to ecological feedback and support flexible organizations and institutions that learn while managing. These institutions should create novel approaches while conserving social memory, the arena in which captured experience involving change and successful adaptations, embedded in a deeper level of values, is actualized through community debate and decision-making processes into appropriate strategies for dealing with ongoing changes.

Conservation Ecology continues to be a medium through which these ideas can find their way into the political arena. The world summit is only one venue in which concepts that were born in Conservation Ecology can be debated and transformed into collective action for sustainable futures.

Shift change

Conservation Ecology itself has not escaped change. After six years, C. S. (Buzz) Holling has resigned his post as editor in chief. To acknowledge his contributions and legacy, he will be listed on the masthead as founding editor in chief. We also thank him for the wonderful creation that we all call Conservation Ecology. We make no promises to attempt to fill his shoes (much less match his creativity and leadership). However, we do promise to maintain Buzz's rigorous standards and to do our best to keep CE on the leading edge of science. We hope to create a journal that is characterized by imaginative, integrative, and interdisciplinary scholarship.

This issue contains the fruits of seeds that Buzz sowed years ago. In his quest for new and novel ways to use the medium of the Internet to communicate scientific studies, he started a competition. The competition is named for an iconic figure in systems ecology, Ralf Yorque, whose spirit typifies fun, creativity, and new (not regurgitated) approaches to science and policy. The four competition papers in this issue will be judged after publication, and we will declare the winner in a future issue. Each of these papers uses the graphical interface of computers to analyze and communicate information about dynamic complex systems. The topics covered include the use of fractal geometries to generate realistic landscapes, the design of conservation areas based on simple models, the use of models to analyze the self-organization of forests and fires at landscape scales, and the ways in which the lessons of conservation can be quickly and easily spread via the Internet.

In contrast to the imaginative entries described above, the other articles of Volume 6 are interdisciplinary and integrative. This issue contains a section on extinction research with papers that present the evidence for and alternative hypotheses that contribute to this undesired population state. Synthesis articles examine the links between resource economics and invasive species, human disturbances and predation risks, and poverty and land management in an Asian watershed. The report section includes papers that describe frameworks and analyses for land use decisions, habitat models, and theories of sustainable tourism. The insight papers explore the relationships between patch size and population density and generate new hypotheses to test for resilience management. We end with 15 separate discussion pieces that comment on articles published in previous issues.

The flow of high-quality articles submitted to Conservation Ecology is now substantial. For this reason, we will in the future publish separate regular issues and special issues. The regular issues will contain an assortment of articles, and the special issues will be devoted to scholarship on specific topics of interest. As before, all the articles in the regular issues will appear on the Web as soon as they have been accepted. We will continue to publish two regular issues a year, but announce them four times a year. In addition, we will announce the special issues as separate issues at any time during the year in which they have been finalized.

Our vision for Conservation Ecology is to continue to build on the robust foundation laid by Buzz, the original associate editors, and the hardworking managing editors and staff. We view humanity and nature as co-evolving systems that interact within the bounds of the biosphere at various temporal and spatial scales and across scales. We hope to create a rigorous scientific forum where we can discuss issues related to the linked and dynamic systems of humans and nature and generate an improved understanding of essential interactions that will enhance our capacity to actively adapt to change without eroding resilience or creating vulnerability. These topics include the role that living systems play in social and economic development, the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, the diversity of ecosystem functions, our ecological and social capacity to sustain desirable states and associated ecosystem services, and the institutional, organizational, and economic dimensions that erode or enhance social and ecosystem resilience and their essential role in sustainable management. We hope that the community of scholars, practitioners, and other interested parties will join us in that discourse.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a comment, follow this link. To read comments already accepted, follow this link.


Gunderson, L., and C. S. Holling. 2002. Panarchy: understanding transformations in systems of humans and nature. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Resilience Alliance. 2002. Resilience and sustainable development; building adaptive capacity in a world of transformations. ICSU Series for Sustainable Development, Number 3. Available [online] at: http://www.resalliance.org/reports/resilience_and_sustainable_development.pdf.

Malhotra, Y. 1999. Toward a knowledge ecology for organizational white-waters. Knowledge Management, (3):18-21.

Address of Correspondent:
Carl Folke
Natural Resources Management
Department of Systems Ecology
Stockholm University
S-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46 8 164217
Fax: +46 8 158417

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