Introduction

Resilience is the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about the capacity to use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking. Resilience thinking embraces learning, diversity and above all the belief that humans and nature are strongly coupled to the point that they should be conceived as one social ecological system.

There is no doubt humans have been successful in modifying the planet to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population. But the gains achieved by this spectacular re-engineering have come at a price. It is now widely apparent (and acknowledged) that humanity’s use of the biosphere, that sphere that embraces all air, water and land on the planet in which all life is found, is not sustainable.

To continue to live and operate safely, humanity has to stay away from critical ‘hard-wired’ thresholds in the Earth’s environment and respect the planet’s climatic, geophysical, atmospheric and ecological processes. Resilience thinking is about generating increased knowledge of how we can strengthen the capacity to deal with the stresses caused by climate change and other aspects of global change. It is about finding ways to deal with unexpected events and crises and identifying sustainable ways for humans to live within the Earth’s boundaries.

This publication presents three major strands within resilience thinking and social-ecological research. It describes the profound imprint we humans have had on nature and ideas on how to deal with the resulting challenges. Based on the research conducted at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the three chapters illustrate how we can use the growing insights into the many challenges we are facing by starting to work with the processes of the biosphere instead of against them.

Chapter One of this publication describes in detail the complex interdependencies between people and ecosystems. It highlights the fact that there are virtually no ecosystems that are not shaped by people and no people without the need for ecosystems and the services they provide. Too many of us seem to have disconnected ourselves from nature. A shift in thinking will create exciting opportunities for us to continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.

Chapter Two takes us through the tremendous acceleration of human enterprise, especially since World War II. This acceleration is pushing the Earth dangerously close to its boundaries, to the extent that abrupt environmental change cannot be excluded. Furthermore, it has led scientists to argue that the current geological period should be labeled the ‘Anthropocene’ – the Age of Humans.

Chapter Three highlights the fascinating paradox that the innovative capacity that has put us in the current environmental predicament can also be used to push us out of it. It introduces the term social-ecological innovation, which essentially strives to find innovative ways to reconnect with the biosphere and stay within planetary boundaries.