Holding the line

December 6 2018

What do the French Revolution and dryland salinity have in common? For Dr Brian Walker, it’s a matter of resilience.


Dr Walker is a global pioneer of resilience science, the ability of a system to absorb disturbances and keep functioning. But systems – both environmental and social – can only endure so much before they break down.

For instance, salt brought to the surface by a rising water table can build up until particles of clay in the soil disperse and rain can no longer soak in.

“And that’s the end of agriculture there, unless some massive interventions are made, but it won’t come back on its own,” said Dr Walker, who is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

When the people of 18th century France could no longer endure hardship from decades of poor harvests, heavy taxes and a widening disparity between the rich and poor, it led to revolution – an example of a society that reached massive inequality leading to transformational change.

“In systems of people and nature there’s this tight connection back and forth between the social system and the ecological system,” Dr Walker said.

“You cannot really look at either one alone when you’re trying to think of global problems because it affects both in a linked social-ecological system.”

Dr Walker, who headed CSIRO’s Division of Wildlife and Ecology for 15 years, has been at the forefront of resilience science, blending social and ecological systems.

His world-leading expertise on the subject was forged from the ideas of Canadian ecologist Professor Buzz Holling, the “godfather” of resilience science, in the early 1970s.

You cannot really look at either one alone when you’re trying to think of global problems because it affects both in a linked social-ecological system.

“I’d been doing some research and bumped into this problem of not being able to fathom why things changed so suddenly and irreversibly. Then I came across the ideas about non-linear change put forward by Professor Holling.”

In 1999, he helped launch the Resilience Alliance, an international, multidisciplinary research organisation exploring the dynamics of social-ecological systems.

And he has authored a cache of scientific publications, edited and co-edited 10 books and written three books on resilience – one of which, Finding Resilience, will be released in March.

“I still hadn’t got across to people who aren’t scientists, and so I had this archetypal reader in mind, which is a member of a book club. My wife belongs to a book club, and I keep imagining them; would they be interested in this?”

He said one of his hopes is that the word “resilience” doesn’t become diminished by overuse and misuse.

“Resilience is the capacity to keep functioning in the same kind of way and absorbing all sorts of changes, both externally and internally driven.. It’s important to recognise that resilience is neither good nor bad. Salinised landscapes are very resilient, but bad. Evil dictatorships are very resilient, but they’re not good either.”

One of the proudest aspects of his career, he said, is the people he has influenced and worked with.

“If I look at all the graduate and postgraduate students and scientists that I’ve worked with and helped, that has always given me great satisfaction.”