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Resilience: Music To Our Ears

Resilience is a big word for a familiar quality we all recognize: ‘bouncing back’.  As Chumbawamba put it: “I get knocked down but I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down.” Have a listen.

“Pick yourself up…take a deep breath…dust yourself off and start all over again” sang Ella Fitgerald, lyrics by Dorothy Field and music by Jerome Kern.  

Whether you sing about it or not, resilience gets more interesting the more you look into it. What’s more, it may be life’s most essential quality, the only thing that gets us through difficulties. 

We hope you enjoy this brief introduction to resilience, starting at high altitude with the role of social and ecological resilience at the global level and its role in the Ocean Health Index. Following that, if you are still aboard, we’ll investigate resilience evolved. 

Resilience Defined

Lots of words and concepts converge to make resilience.

Resilience has been defined in many ways. Here are useful definitions that apply at any scale.


  • the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe.  Stockholm Resilience Center the capacity of a system to continually change and adapt yet remain within critical thresholds. Stockholm Resilience Center
  • the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress. Stockholm Resilience Center
  • the capacity of a system – be it a landscape, a coastal area or a city – to deal with change and continue to develop. This means the capacity to withstand shocks and disturbances such as a financial crisis or use such an event to catalyse renewal and innovation.  Stockholm Resilience Center
  • the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks. Resilience Alliance
  • Community resilience is the capability to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change. http://www.resilientus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/definitions-of-community-resilience.pdf
Unfortunately, measuring resilience is harder than defining it!

Resilience in the
Ocean Health Index

The Ocean Health Index uses ‘resilience’ for factors that reduce the intensity of the ‘pressures’---those things that will make conditions worse in the future. Resilience improves the ability of the Index’s 10 goals (Figure 1) to sustainably deliver their ocean benefits to people  (Halpern et al. 2012).

The Index recognizes three kinds of resilience: ecological, social and institutional. Ecological resilience exists in natural communities and ecosystems, but is often not sufficient to withstand pressures caused by human activities.  So ecosystem health also depends on the social resilience and institutional resilience demonstrated to varying degrees in human societies. 

How The Ocean Health Index Scores Resilience

The amount of each benefit gained is compared with a sustainable reference point. The score is the average of present Status (the most recent value) and Likely Future Status (the probable change in Status during the next 5 years) as shown below. Likely Future Status depends on the trend of Status during the previous 5 years and the balance between Pressures and Resilience (Figure 2).

Each goal scores from 0 to 100.

A score of 100 means that the evaluated system achieved its defined target (reference point) for that goal, is sustainably delivering all of the specified benefits and is likely to continue doing so in the near future. A score of 0 means that global data were available, but that the country either did not achieve any of the available benefits or that the benefits it did obtain were gained in an unsustainable manner. 

For each goal the Index measures several aspects of resilience: (1) ecological integrity is evaluated as the relative condition of assessed species in a given location and goal-specific regulations including laws and other institutional measures  that address ecological pressures. (2) Social integrity describes the internal processes of a community that affect its resilience. 

Social integrity differs among nations. A nation’s successes or deficiencies affect both its own population and those of other nations, so projects have evolved to evaluate social aspects of resilience. The Ocean Health Index assesses social integrity with information from the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI). WGI evaluates how well governments exercise powers to benefit citizens and, indirectly environmental quality by assessing freedom of expression and citizens’ ability to select their government; political stability; absence of violence and terrorism; government effectiveness; quality of regulations; extent to which the rule of law prevails; and extent of corruption.

A WGI score of 1 means that social integrity is the best it can be; and a score of 0 means that governance is completely ineffective, so that the country has no social Resilience. The full composite score for all six WGI indicators is used to evaluate social resilience for all of the Ocean Health Index goals except for Livelihoods; the Livelihoods goal only uses the WGI’s Regulatory Quality data layer, because it also uses the Global Competitiveness Index, which duplicates, but improves, the remaining WGI layers for this purpose.

The Index also uses other composite measures of resilience for particular goals, including the Travel and Tourism Competitive Index and the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) that evaluates a country’s competitiveness in achieving sustained economic prosperity.

Although resilience really should be judged by the effectiveness of its outcome, this is not possible at the global level. Therefore nations are given advanced credit for signing treaties, e.g. for conserving biodiversity or eliminating trade in endangered species, and for measures of social integrity. The assumption is that results from those beneficial actions and conditions will become visible in following years as increased scores for goal status and trend

Investment Strengthens Resilience

The scores for 212 countries and territories assessed by the Ocean Health Index in 2013 were positively correlated with scores published by the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite measure of how well citizens achieve a long and healthy life (life expectancy), satisfactory education (years of schooling) and adequate standard of living (gross national income per capita). Human development doesn’t just happen by accident. It requires consistent investments in people throughout the life cycle. The likely results of such investments are a healthier, more educated citizenry better equipped to support themselves, participate in civic life and make more informed decisions, including conserving the natural environments that support their well-being.   

Food For Thought: Where Does Resilience Come From?

Resilience exists everywhere

Resilience simply is---everywhere!  Even atoms and subatomic particles have it. They retain fundamental properties even when disturbed, only changing when they collide at the extreme temperature and pressure found in stars, nuclear reactors or particle accelerators. When that happens they reach a critical ‘tipping point’ and don’t bounce back:  they are irreversibly transformed into other particles or waves. 

Materials too have resilience. Bonds between their atoms or molecules help materials like rubber, plastic, concrete and steel bounce back. Stretch them, compress them, douse them with water, drench them with salt spray or subject them to harsh sunlight and each responds differently, maintaining its shape, strength and function---up to a point.  Push one too far and it reaches a tipping point, breaking and losing its original functions.   

Resilient cells

Resilience may not need life, but life needs resilience. From cells to civilizations, resilience is the key to survival. Even the simplest forms of life, bacteria, blue-green algae and other single-celled organisms are laboratories of resilience. Each cell’s genome produces the structures and enzymes it needs to survive. Natural selection insures that the population always includes cells most tolerant of current environmental conditions, but waiting in the wings are others that may be more resilient when the next change comes. ‘Fitness’ is an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in a given environment; Resilience is its ability to adapt to environmental changes. Since change is intrinsic to most environments, organisms cannot remain fit for long unless they are resilient.

An important lesson about resilience comes from a bacterium common on human skin and in our respiratory tract, Staphylococcus aureus. S. aureus is often harmless, but can take advantage of opportunities, including weakness of our own resilience, to multiply, spread and cause infections ranging from minor skin irritations to life-threatening or fatal infections of the brain, heart or other organs. Under the right conditions, the bacteria produce enzymes that clot blood, break down tissue, and prevent white blood cells from destroying them. Overuse of antibiotics in medicine and in the poultry and meat industries has selected for S. aureus individuals immune to penicillin and other commonly used antibiotics, giving rise to methicillin resistant Staphyloccocus aureus (MRSA) strains that produce potentially deadly infections. 

Figure 5. Scanning electron micrograph of methycillin resistant Staphyloccocus aureus (MRSA) bacteria ona dead neutrophil (white blood cell). 

Staphylococcus aureus teaches us that resilience itself is amoral. It benefits the individual or group possessing it, but is not necessarily good or bad in any larger context.   

Cooperating cells build resilience

Single-celled organisms have all their resilience in their genes, including the potential for environmental factors to modify gene expression (‘epigenetics’). In contrast, the tissues and organs present in multi-celled organisms bring new layers of resilience, including enhanced abilities to sense the environment, make decisions, resist pathogens, crawl or swim away from danger and many others. Individuals whose internal systems are coordinated most effectively are more likely to survive environmental challenges and leave the most offspring. 

Another important lesson emerges. In addition to the intra-organism cooperation that builds resilience in multi-celled organisms, there may also conflict. The same genes that build an individual’s reservoir of resilience can proclaim their own resilience even at the expense of their host. A gene mutation that promotes cancer multiplies rapidly to form a tumor, demonstrating its own resilience while harming the rest of the organism. The tumor’s ability to become resistant to chemotherapy also demonstrates selfish resilience. Resilience at each level of a system---gene, cell, organism, group, society, nation and beyond--- may or may not be in conflict with the interests of other levels.

Figure 6.  Green sea turtle in Hawaii with large benign fibropapillomastosis (FP) tumors caused by a virus. More common in green turtles than in other sea turtles, FP tumors can grow large enough to impede vision and swimming.  

Keller/National Institute of Standards and Measurment (NIST)

Group resilience

The genetic and experiential differences among individuals of a human or wild species form a pool of potential resilience. Pools differ among groups, so some may respond better than others to environmental changes. 

For example, every marine species has certain limits of tolerance for temperature, salinity, pressure, light intensity, etc. The sum of those tolerances describes the species’ ecological niche. The individuals comprising each species differ slightly in their own tolerances, but few if any can withstand the entire range of variables known for the species. However, there are nearly always some that can better withstand changes and they will carry the torch into the future as long as conditions do not exceed the boundaries of the species niche. Thus the resilience of each population or species is increased by the range of resilience within its individual members, but constrained by the overall tolerance of the species.  

Resilient ecosystems, small to enormous  

Did you know you that you are a resilient ecosystem? Each of us contains something like 100 trillion microbial cells in our gut, vagina, mouth, nose and on our skin, outnumbering our human cells by a factor of ten. Those microbes keep us healthy by fighting pathogens, helping to regulate our immune system, digest food and produce some vitamins that our tissues cannot. Similar mutualistic relationships probably occur in all animals and plants.    

The greater the number and variety of participants in an ecosystem, the more interesting resilience gets.  In general, systems with more species present gain increased resilience, because if one declines, another may be able to replace some or all of its ecological roles. 

Tropical coral reefs have such high biological diversity and such complex species interactions that they are sometimes described as ‘superorganisms’, and Australia’s 2000 km long Great Barrier Reef has been called our planet’s largest living organism. 

Figure 7. Portion of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef along the Queensland coast at Cape Flattery.  

NASA

Figure 8. A variety of corals form an outcrop on Flynn Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Queensland, Australia, 24 July 2010. 

Photo credit: Toby Hudson. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

All tropical corals depend on symbiotic microalgae that live in their tissues. The algae are very sensitive to elevated temperature and die or abandon the corals when sea temperature rises above their thermal limits, as is happening more frequently owing to global warming. This is called ‘bleaching’ because without their greenish-brown algae, the remaining coral is white. Corals usually recover if high temperature lasts less than a month and algae can recolonize them. If bleaching lasts longer or occurs frequently, seaweeds and other organism settle and may overgrow the reef and prevent larval corals from settling and recolonizing. Healthy populations of grazers, particularly parrotfish, eat the algae, clearing space for coral growth and resettlement. Dozens of such species interactions form the reef’s resilience network.

Figure 9. Bleached branching coral (foreground) and normal branching coral (background). Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef    

Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

In today’s world, all species assemblages, including coral reefs, also includes humans either directly when we are present or indirectly through the lingering effects of our activities. For example,  a  coral reef’s ecology  depends not only on the interactions of its composite species, but also on the very rapid rate of human-caused climate change, direct and indirect effects of fisheries, damage from habitat-destructive fisheries (explosives, cyanide), decreased water quality caused by pollution and sediment runoff from poor forestry practices and others.

Coral reef organisms have very limited resilience to human-caused pressures. Some individuals and species may tolerate environmental insults better than others, but no natural resilience can reduce such pressures. Protective actions taken by people are a reef’s only ultimate source of resilience. Humans don’t usually take such actions just to preserve a reef for its existence value, but also to safeguard the its flow of benefits to people, including food, ornamental fishes for aquariums, medical products, tourism and others. So from the human perspective, preserving coral reefs is an expression of resilience.    

Add brains and stir

Brains help! They accelerate resilience. Humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, some dolphins and whales, wolves and other animals have evolved brains with robust memory and intellectual ability, empathy and strong maternal and social support systems. In such groups, personal experiences, psychological factors, interactions with other individuals, reciprocal altruism, altruism and other high level behaviors supplement genes and physiology to influence how well individuals—and the group itself-- bounce back from a setback.  

Individuals within a group generally help each other in various ways and with well-understood expectations.  

Figure 10. Humpback whalesin Alaska cooperate to catch fish more effectively by coordinating their dives, making bubble nets and carrying out a synchronized attack on the trapped schools.       

Marilyn Dahlheim NOAA/NMFS.  See an extraordinary video of such behavior here

The strong bonds between mothers and their children, nuclear families, extended families and friends support all individuals within a human or animal society, raising their resilience to most challenges, though the form and intensity of that support may differ between groups or cultures.

Figure 11. A group ofchimpanzees in grooming and removing lice from each other at Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, 23 July 2010. 

Different unrelated groups--including humans, animals and sometimes humans and animals-- can also improve resilience by coming together for mutual aid and support or to assist or oppose other groups or causes.

Here too resilience can reside in aberrant individuals or groups. Criminals, psychopaths, groups motivated by hate or others may be remarkably resilient even though harmful.

The many dimensions of resilience can differ substantially among humans groups. For example, traditional Inuit communities have historically had the knowledge, social systems and physiology that enabled them to survive in the Arctic, one of our planet’s most intensely challenging habitats. But the Inuit had never had contact with Western diseases and had no resistance to them. As happened in other First Nation societies, when whalers from Russia, the U.S. or Europe introduced influenza, tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever and others during the 1700s to 1900s, epidemics spread death, sometimes killing 90% of a village’s population. Conversely, though the westerners had immunity to those diseases, they had much less resilience than the Inuit to Arctic conditions.

Resilient societies.  

As human settlements and societies grew larger, new pressures forced their citizens to develop new forms of resilience that transcended individuals, many groups and even species.

Informal norms like reciprocity (the golden rule) slowly evolved into official codes of conduct, beginning with the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu (about 2050 BC), Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (about 1750 BC) and later including the Principles of Confucius (about 500 BC), Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), Christian Bible (New Testament), Islam’s Quran and many newer documents. 

Figure 12. The first written code of laws, the Code of Ur Nammu from Sumeria, about 2050 BC. Clay tablet in Louvre Museum, Paris, Accession Number 5378.  

WikimediaCreative Commons License.  Translation of the code is found here

Such codes built more cohesive societies by proclaiming shared expectations, minimizing disruptions, encouraging individuals to help each other, establishing penalties for transgressions (murder, adultery, theft, lying, etc.) and encouraging help and charity for the less fortunate. As nation states arose, laws and regulations have steadily evolved to meet their needs.

Physical manifestations of resilience also appeared, such as public works projects for worship, defense, transportation, water, sanitation and many others. 

As is the case for genes, species and individuals, resilience differs among nations and strong social resilience in one nation may hinder or harm others. A nation may show extraordinary social resilience while initiating and conducting wars with horrifying results for other peoples or countries. Similarly, leaders of a nation may use force, corruption, disinformation and other tools to deprive citizens of opportunities and basic rights, all the while displaying strong resilience at staying in power.    

Resilience in no man’s land

What can support resilience in areas beyond any national jurisdiction? Tribal chiefs, princes, kings and presidents have historically signed treaties for waging war or regulating trade or access to resources, but it took the tragedy of World War I to stimulate the first attempt at collaboration among all countries, the League of Nations. Formed in 1920, the League was established to promote disarmament, prevent war, improve collective security and settle disputes by negotiation rather than warfare. World War II demonstrated its failure, but in 1945 the world tried again, forming the United Nations (UN). The UN’s main goal was to prevent another world war, but over time it has become the nucleus for international and planetary resilience through programs in peace and security, development, human rights, humanitarian affairs and international law.

Figure 13. United Nations General Assembly Hall, UN Headquarters, New York.  

Photo credit: Basil D. Soufi. Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 

The UN also organizes treaties such as the  Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and programs such as the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals that aim to end poverty and hunger, build healthy lives and well-being, achieve gender equality and empower women and girls; ensure access to sustainable sources of water, sanitation, energy; reduce inequality; combat climate change; create safe and resilient cities and settlements; and use ocean and land sustainably. Though such engagements are entirely voluntary, most countries participate, and the Ocean Health Index considers such participation in calculating resilience scores.  

The Bottom Line

Resilience is our only safeguard against intolerable change. Our resilience is built from genes, experience, instinct, interactions with others, empathy, intelligence, memory, consciousness, foresight, education, cooperation and good governance. It is the only means we have for creating healthy sustainable societies and supporting the wild partners with whom we share the planet.  

Something To Sing About

Thirty years ago, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote a poignant description of resilience, ‘We Are the World’, recorded in 1985 for the USA for Africa Concert. 

We are the world, we are the children We are the ones who make a brighter day So let’s start giving There's a choice we're making We're saving our own lives Its true we'll make a better day Just you and me

Three years later in Man in the Mirror, Jackson showed that building a better day begins at home:

I'm starting with the man in the mirror I'm asking him to change his ways And no message could have been any clearer If you want to make the world a better place Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.

…You gotta get it right, while you got the time!

Our species capacity for resilience has evolved at an accelerating rate over millions of years, but the images accompanying Man in the Mirror show how much we still lack. Thirty years have passed since that video was recorded.  We should have listened harder and watched more closely then.  Do it now!