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By Thea Williams 11 October 2018 5 min read

All smiles at the Blue Planet Prize 2018 ceremony in Tokyo with chairman of the Asahi Glass Foundation Mr Kazuhiko Ishimura and CSIRO researcher Dr Brian Walker.

AUSTRALIAN researcher, Dr Brian Walker, has been recognised internationally for his work in resilience science, awarded Japan’s prestigious Blue Planet Prize.

The Blue Planet Prize goes to outstanding individuals or organisations whose work contributes significantly to the improvement of the global environment. It was founded following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Dr Brian Walker is an ecologist at the forefront of the inter-disciplinary area of resilience in complex adaptive systems. He’s a CSIRO Honorary Research Fellow, having spent 15 years as head of the then Division of Wildlife and Ecology, and an Honorary Professor at the Australian National University.

He is also a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Center and is joined in the award this year by colleague Professor Malin Falkenmark, a professor of Hydrology and also a senior researcher at the Center.

Dr Walker is the second only Australian to be acknowledged in the Blue Planet Prize, following Lord Robert May in 2001.

Born in Zimbabwe, Walker started with a Bachelor of Science in agriculture and a Ph.D. in ecology. He worked initially as a tribal lands development officer before entering academic research in Zimbabwe and South Africa and then coming to Australia.

Chairman of the Asahi Glass Foundation Mr Kazuhiko Ishimura presenting the Blue Planet award to Dr Brian Walker.

Resilience science

Last night’s recognition comes at a time when the word ‘resilience’ is invoked in headlines to rolling coverage of natural disasters: drought in Australia, typhoons in Japan and earthquakes and a tsunami in Indonesia.

But as scientific theory, it has its roots in the 1970s. Walker was a pioneer of ‘resilience science’ in social-ecological systems. It has since become a fundamental concept in areas such as environmental conservation, economics, sustainable development and disaster prevention policy.

That work has led to more than 160 scientific publications and a number of books including two books he co-authored– “Resilience Thinking” and “Resilience Practice”.

The award mentions his major contributions including “pioneering studies of the functional significance of biodiversity, understanding the dynamics of ecosystems that exhibit alternate stable states, and his novel insights into the resilience of linked social-ecological systems”.

From early beginnings

“My mentor was Professor Buzz Holling. He wrote the seminal paper in 1973 on resilience and among scientists that’s when people took note of non-linearities that induce sudden changes. I met him in 1974 in The Hague at the first international conference on ecology. I then did a year’s sabbatical with him in 1978-79,” says Walker.

“He formed an interdisciplinary group called the Resilience Network in the 80s. I joined it and we worked to make it a small international organization called the Resilience Alliance.”

In the book “Resilience Thinking” he describes resilience as: “the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure”.

Core elements to the theory of resilience include response diversity. For example, where an ecosystem might have several species which perform the same function but respond differently to environmental shocks and share the responsibility as a kind of insurance should one species disappear. But this kind of diversity might come at a cost in an economic system which favours short term efficiency.

Researchers began to focus on applying the theory and in the early 2000s Walker found himself running workshops in Australian catchments.

“I find it really easy to get the idea across to farmers, who deal with change and uncertainty all the time. It’s really hard to get across to bureaucrats because they want a strict five-year plan,” he says.

“One of my themes is to embrace uncertainty. It’s much easier to deal with people who are dealing with change on the ground. That’s beginning to change with governments, boards and, particularly, the insurance industry.”

He thinks there is gradual acceptance of the need to adapt.

“The people who do worry about it are the insurance industry, especially the reinsurance industry who insure the insurers. They have to take this into account.

“The really good economists, the Nobel prize winners, all of them understand this. It’s about making the economic system resilient, and that doesn’t mean you go for growth, growth, growth.

“The success is when industry leaders join the discussion.”

Increasing rate of change

What he hopes is that the concept and practice of ‘resilience’ isn’t diluted by overuse of the word as a response to the increasing rate of change, particularly with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme events worldwide.

Walker is also chairman of the advisory board of Australia’s Coral Reef Centre of Excellence. The Great Barrier Reef is a case in point and might test whether there’s a limit to resilience.

“The indications are that what’s happening on the Great Barrier Reef is beyond the resilience of the reef to retain its identity. It will have a different identity in the future because of coral bleaching.

“Identity doesn’t stay fixed, there’s an evolution of identity but if the rate of change has been too fast, identity collapses.

“There is an increasing frequency and severity of extreme events worldwide, the world is teetering with this massive problem. But there are attributes we know instil resilience. About ten have been identified - two examples are diversity, especially the response diversity I mentioned earlier, and modularity. Systems that are fully connected, or too sparsely connected, are less resilient to disturbances.”

He has written another book, to be published in 2019, on “Finding Resilience: Change and uncertainty in nature and society”. It follows his own trajectory since his first experiences in Zimbabwe’s shifting agricultural lands and his graduate studies in Canada. It includes many of his students and expert colleagues in multiple disciplines who incorporate different aspects of resilience in their work.

He started the book about 10 years ago.

“The first three quarters of my career was all to do with theory dynamics and complex systems which was essential to understand the issue but, having got that, the next thing was how to apply it, how do you get it into practice. What I found was that working out what needs to be done in the ecological and environmental part, as complex as that is, is the easy part. What is really difficult, and really important, is to understand the social part and to know what kinds of interventions and changes are needed, and how to get them in to effect, to achieve a sustainable trajectory.”

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