Natural Resources, School of



Brian C. Chaffin

Ahjond Garmestani

Date of this Version



Nature Sustainability, VOL 2, OCTOBER 2019, pp 898–900

doi 10.1038/s41893-019-0401-4


U.S. govt work


Resilience scholarship continues to inspire opaque discourse and competing frameworks often inconsistent with the complexity inherent in social–ecological systems. We contend that competing conceptualizations of resilience are reconcilable, and that the core theory is useful for navigating sustainability challenges.

Resilience as a scientific concept exploded in the early 2000s and is now being adopted by a range of disciplines and by a wide diversity of actors, from city planners to networks of global protectedarea managers. Resilience concepts are now integrated within national and international calls for proposals, research initiatives and centres in both the biophysical and social sciences. However, resilience scholarship has encouraged abstract discourse including many new and derivative frameworks aimed at re-conceptualizing resilience. Competing frameworks contribute to a loss of clarity about the original concept and theory of resilience; these frameworks often differ only minimally from each other and, most importantly, are often inconsistent with the complexity inherent in social–ecological systems (SESs). We believe that this is because the concept of resilience has both an attractive simplicity, and a rich underlying complexity, which leaves key aspects open for debate. Despite apparent discrepancies among numerous competing frameworks and the recognition that a diversity of approaches is healthy for scientific progress, we contend that the prevailing definitions of resilience, such as those rooted in ecological stability (for example, recovery, robustness and persistence), are reconcilable under the umbrella of the original theory of ecological resilience (the amount of disturbance needed to cause a regime shift; for example, a clear-water lake changing to a turbid lake)2. Reconciling definitions of resilience is not trivial; our collective understanding and application of resilience has widespread implications for how we, as a society, understand and navigate global change. A view of the Earth as nested SESs — systems of dynamic, linked feedbacks between humans and the biophysical environment (for example, the influence of political economy on landscape shifts and vice versa) — is essential for definitions of resilience to resonate. Currently, resilience is applied as a descriptor, a measure, and a tool for relative analysis of system dynamics. Here we revisit three core uses of the term: resilience as a process, a rate, and an emergent property of SESs3. We reconcile these core uses with ecological resilience2 and provide examples of successful application and growth of the concept.