Adaptability and transformability in practice: Mulch is important to discourage weeds and to provide food for the new crops and trees. Mulch farming was part of the agrarian revolution taking place in Latin America which has resulted in major changes in land management practices in countries like Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Photo: Trees for the future/CC.2.0

Rephrasing resilience

Why adaptability and transformability is part of, not opposite of, resilience.

When 28 of the world's most renowned scientists in 2009 proposed a set of nine critical planetary boundaries, the underlying message was that change is needed if humanity is to continue to develop in a safe operating space. Part of the change is to boost resilience of the world's social-ecological systems (SES).
Discussions on what resilience actually means and entails have gone on ever since Buzz Holling first introduced the concept in 1973 and when centre senior fellow Brian Walker in 2004 published an article in Ecology and Society on what resilience means, it not only became one of the most cited articles ever in the journal, it also led experts to discuss even more intensely what the term resilience does and does not include.
Some six years Iater, an eminent team of resilience researchers fronted by centre science director Carl Folke has tried to put the record straight and rephrase the core elements of resilience thinking in order to remove any confusion on the issue.
Think again
Adaptability and transformability, the latter referring to the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic or social structures make the existing system untenable, have often been considered to be something of an antithesis to resilience. Well, think again.
Resilience of a social-ecological system is the capacity to continually change and adapt yet remain within critical tresholds. The system needs to be adaptive and transformative because the dynamics between periods of abrupt and gradual change and the capacity to adapt and transform are at the core of a resilient social-ecological systems.
"Adaptability is part of resilience because it represents the capacity to learn and adjust responses to changing drivers. Transformability for sustainability is about shifting into new pathways of development within the resilience of the global social-ecological system", says Carl Folke.
Beyond conserving what you have and recovering to what you were
Social-ecological resilience is about people and nature seen as an intertwined system. The social affects the ecological and vice versa. The increasing human imprint on the global environment renders it difficult and even irrational to continue to separate ecological and social systems.
"Social change is essential for social-ecological resilience. That is why we incorporate adaptability and the more radical concept of transformability as key ingredients of resilience thinking. It broadens the description of resilience beyond its meaning as a buffer for conserving what you have and recovering to what you were", says co-author Brian Walker.
Why transformation is important
Where adaptability captures the capacity of a system to learn, combine and adjust, transformability involves more deep-rooted changes in what might originally be a stable system. It means introducing new variables and losing others, just like a household adopts a new way of making a living. The house stands but the money to sustain it comes from a new source.
The same can be said about much-needed transformational changes to the way we live. It involves shifts in perception and meaning, social network configurations, cultural development and institutional restructuring.

It started with a farmer...
From a resilience perspective, changes come about through the facilitation of small-scale experiments which allow learning across disciplines and new initiatives to emerge. An example is what prompted farmers in Latin America to react when declining agricultural productivity due to land degradation hit their countries in the 1970s.

The farmers started experimenting with unconventional methods for land management, in particular low-till alternatives to plowing that enhanced soil organic matter and fertility.

What started as a successful experiment among individual farmers in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina eventually led to transformations of the entire farming system in Latin America, worthy of an agrarian revolution or social-ecological transformation. It resulted in major changes in land management practices, such as weed management, mulch farming and green manuring techniques.

“Society must seriously consider ways to foster resilience of smaller more manageable social-ecological systems that contribute to a more global resilience and transform systems that threaten this resilience. It involves breaking down the resilience of old, undesirable systems and habits, and replacing it with the resilience of new, sustainable ones", Carl Folke concludes.

Want to learn more?
See video seminar with Buzz Holling on resilience dynamics:

Loading the player ...
Source: Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20. [online] URL:


Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70

Organisation number: 202100-3062
VAT No: SE202100306201