Sandra Massey, Research Program Coordinator

Living Heritage: our values, beliefs and ways of living should be understood as a complex, social-ecological system; in other words, Living Heritage informs not only how individuals and groups relate to each other, but also how we relate to the natural world, to the earth herself. My first introduction to systems thinking was a book by Fritjof Capra entitled The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, originally published in 1996. More recently, systems thinking has been applied to the concept of sustainable development.  In his 2012 article, Resilience and Sustainable Development: Theory of resilience, systems thinking and adaptive governance, Umberto Pisano outlines the basic ideas in layman’s terms and provides diagrams that illustrate the concepts presented. The economy is just one example of a complex adaptive system used to explain the processes involved. Pisano tells us, complex social ecological systems (SES) are characterised by three attributes: resilience, adaptability and transformability. He defines these terms as follows:

Resilience . . . is the capacity of a SES to continually change and adapt yet remain within critical thresholds;

Adaptability is part of resilience. It represents the capacity to adjust repsonses to changing external drivers and internal processes, and thereby allow for development along the current trajectory (stability domain);

              Transformability is the capacity to cross thresholds into new development trajectories.

Ecologists like Brian Walker and his colleagues, in their article, Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social-ecological Systems expand these definitions and explain four attributes of resilience and four options available to individuals and groups to manage change / adapt the system.  

              Resilience - latitude, resistence, precariousness and panarchy

Adaptability - move the threshold, move the current state, make threshold more difficult or easier to reach, and manage cross-scale interactions to avoid or generate loss of resilience to change

Moreover, they explain how complex social-ecological systems are subject to self-organization without intent, which means that although dominated by individuals and groups that operate with intent, the system as a whole is unpredictable and difficult to manage.  This is not surprising; considering the economy as an example of an SES, we know that it is influenced by a number of external elements including cultural, social, and environmental systems that not only impact the economy but that are themselves complex adaptable systems. When one element within a system is changed, an adaptive cycle begins and moves through four stages, usually in this sequence: rapid growth / exploitation, conservation, collapse and release, and finally reorganization / renewal. The final stage is where innovation and opportunities are generated.  Walker and his colleagues provide a few examples of large scale changes that have occurred in the past including the industrial revolution, the agrarian revolution, and the emergence of cities.

Scholars agree, we cannot understand the whole by breaking it down into its constituent parts; that will allow us to understand how a particular part works but will not enlighten us on how the whole system works. It is no longer reasonable to insist on separating the parts from the whole, focussing on the economy for example and marginalizing the social and cultural aspects of daily life, since we know that like any system, all the parts work together, when one part is affected by change so too are all the other parts. Understanding Living Heritage as a complex social ecological system provides a framework for negotiating a shared future in a pluralistic world. Moreover, ecologists like Jules Pretty, have evidence to suggest that communities with significant levels of cultural diversity also exhibit significant biodiversity; it seems they are intrinsically linked which is nature’s way to ensure survival. The joint UNESCO- SCBD Programme on Links between Biological and Cultural Diversity has found that,

. . . areas of high cultural diversity are often areas of high biological diversity. The convergence between biological and cultural diversity extends far beyond the “hotspot” areas. Ensembles of biodiversity are developed, maintained and managed by cultural groups. Diversity of cultural practices depends upon specific elements of biodiversity for their existence and expression.”

Evidently, biological diversity and cultural diversity are interdependent; you can’t have one without the other. Likewise, Living Heritage: the values, beliefs and ways of living that individuals and groups use to create meaning in their lives and build a strong sense of identity, belonging and place is inseparable from the natural world. The environment shapes human experience and human activities shape the environment. Therefore what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.


Pisano, Umberto, Resilience and Sustainable Development: Theory of resilience, systems thinking and adaptive governance, in ESDN Quarterly Report 26, September 2012, downloaded 04/08/2016.

Pretty, Jules, Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. London: Earthscan Publications Limited, 2003.

UNESCO web site,

Walker, Brian, and C. S. Holling, Stephen R. Carpenter, and Ann Kinzig, Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social-ecological Systems, in Ecology and Society, 9 (2): 5. Downloaded 03 August 2016 from