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Why nurture resilience and whole-systems health?

Daniel Christian Wahl


Oh, what a catastrophe for man when he cut himself off from the rhythm of the year, from his unison with the sun and the earth. Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox! That is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots […]

— D.H. Lawrence (1930)

The constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) defines the concept of health as “a state of complete, physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. In 1986, the WHO’s ‘Ottawa Charter’ listed a series of conditions and prerequisites for health. These included: “peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, social justice and equity.” The 1991 Sundsvall Statement emphasized that the “way forward lies in making the environment — the physical environment, the social and economic environment, and the political environment — supportive to health rather than damaging to it” (Waltner-Toews, 2004).

The WHO’s recommendations imply a salutogenic design approach that promotes individual, community, societal and ecosystems health as a scale-linking pattern. Design for human and planetary health aims to (re)integrate humanity into the health-maintaining and life-supporting processes of the biosphere (see Wahl, 2006). The WHO Commission on Health and Environment emphasized:

There is a powerful synergy between health, environmental protection, and sustainable resource use. Individuals and societies who share the responsibility for achieving a healthy environment and managing their resources sustainably become partners in ensuring that global cycles and systems remain unimpaired.

— World Health Organization (1992: xxx)

Complexity theory, a systemic understanding of health, transformative resilience, symbiosis, synergy and integrative salutogenic design are related scale-linking concepts and frameworks that can help us to structure an integrated strategy to maintain human and planetary health and create regenerative cultures.

In this context, sustainability gets redefined from referring to the ‘neutral’ — do-no-more-harm — to a systemic understanding of the relationship between human, ecosystems and planetary health:

Sustainability is a relationship between dynamic human economic systems and larger, dynamic, but normally slower-changing ecological systems, such that human life can continue indefinitely, human individuals can flourish, and human cultures can develop — but also a relationship in which the effects of human activities remain within bounds so as not to destroy the health and integrity of self-organizing systems that provide the environmental context for these activities.

— Brian G. Norton (1992)

Maintaining and restoring a healthy and resilient environment — at the community, ecosystem and the planetary scale — are inextricably linked. Ecological and societal health, as a system-wide emergent property, enables and supports healthy human development, and enables diverse cultural expressions of regional identity.

Systemic health as an emergent property of regenerative cultures emerges as locally and regionally adapted communities learn to thrive within the ‘enabling constraints’ and opportunities set by the ecological, social and cultural conditions of their local bioregion within a globally collaborative context. In a continuously changing, complex system, the promotion of health and sustainability requires constant learning in order to adapt appropriately to change. ‘Living the Questions Together’ and regionally focused design-based conversations about how to nurture systemic health can promote this constant learning.

Robert Costanza (1992: 239) reviewed a number of conceptual definitions of ‘ecosystem health’ based on health as: homeostasis, absence of disease, diversity or complexity, stability or resilience, vigour or scope of growth, and as balance between systems components. All of these perspectives on health are useful and also have their limitations.

Costanza calls them “pieces of the puzzle”. He proposes that ecosystem health should be understood “as a comprehensive, multi-scale, dynamic, hierarchical measure of system resilience, organization and vigor”, and argues, “these concepts are embodied in the term ‘sustainability’, which implies the system’s ability to maintain its structure (organization) and function (vigor) over time in the face of external stresses (resilience)”. He emphasizes the important scale-linking aspect of health: “A healthy system must also be defined in the light of both its context (the larger system of which it is part) and its components (the smaller systems that make it up)” (p.240).

Similarly, David Brunckhorst (2002), the director of the UNESCO Institute for Bioregional Resource Management, emphasizes that “resilience, like sustainability, has multi-faceted elements affecting it through scales of space and time — it does not simply occur at a local or global scale.” He explains: “To sustain and restore resilience in ecological and social systems for long term sustainability, we must begin to integrate our planning and operate our management across multiple scales […]” and we will best be able to do so by “nesting functional requirements of ecological systems and social systems for an enduring future” (p.16).

This nested or scale-linking perspective is very important, as it invites us to ask questions about the synergistic integration of local, regional and global solutions, and reminds us to pay attention to how short-, mid- and long-term processes and cycles are interconnected.

Systemic health (as a scale-linking emergent property) enables regenerative systems to respond to disruption with resilience. Linking global, regional and local efforts to collaborate in designing resilience into the system at and across scales is an important aspect of creating a regenerative culture. We do have to pay attention, though, to what kind of resilience we nurture.

Sometimes the ability to persist and bounce back to ‘business as usual’ is hindering rather than helping the transformation to a regenerative culture. Resilience is a multifaceted capacity closely linked to systemic health and vitality. In particular, a regenerative culture will depend on ‘transformative resilience’.

Let’s take a closer look at the different aspects of resilience and why they are so important to our common future. At points the theoretical framework can seem a little dense, but resilience thinking is a profoundly practical way to face an unpredictable future by nurturing our ability to respond wisely and work with the disruptions that will challenge us.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

See also:

From Dr. Sally Goerner, Regenerative Development: The Art and Science of Creating Durably Vibrant Human Networks, The Capital Institute, September 1, 2015



Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures