Interaction between humans and their environment is unavoidable. Every decision and action taken has an environmental consequence. Outcomes range in spatial and temporal significance and can be beyond our immediate environment.

Humanity places an arbitrary value on this environmental change. Outcomes are deemed to be advantageous and ‘good’ or detrimental and ‘bad’. Often the outcomes are only judged in reference to the impact they have on society and the economy, which can be quantified. Any reference to the physical environment is generally superficial and limited only to the effects this may have for society and the economy (Berkes et al., 2000).

We have sought to change undesirable attributes into, and promote existing, positive ones in many aspects of the environment such as turning floodplains into farmland, and lakes into zones of aquaculture. Altering the environment to further an agenda has endured throughout history (Walker & Salt, 2006). Society has progressed from the relatively localised effect of cultivation to increasing larger scale environmental modifications. These alterations are always double-edged swords and with an ever interconnected world, unintended and unforeseeable consequences are occurring at all scales, from within and outside of the system.

The environment is multifaceted in time and space. The connectedness between individual aspects is non-linear and the system as a whole is complex. Societies attempt to rationalise and simplify the system to individual components and relationships (Figure 1). It is thought that by manipulating a handful of components, the environmental system can be altered in a way as to maximise a particular benefit or supress a negative aspect. This view makes fatal assumptions about systems. The collective knowledge of humanity has never been greater but yet we still understand a limited amount about any given environmental system (Inkpen, 2005). Natural systems are more complex than can currently be appreciated and yet a simple linear relationship approach still dominates environmental management.

Figure 1: Organisational levels in a complex system (Parrott, 2002)

Literature and shared knowledge of environmental management is abundant and yet there is increasing environmental degradation as a result of the failure to address the nonlinearity of systems. In 1973 a new concept termed ‘resilience’ was proposed by C.S. Holling. In his paper the ‘resilience and stability of ecological systems’, Holling identified a need to view the system at a regional level rather than a local one and that systems have to be viewed beyond the simple one-on-one relationships between individual components (Holling, 1973). A resilience approach would, as Holling suggests, recognise the collective ignorance of managers and not assume that there was sufficient knowledge about any given system.

Resilience practices seek to preserve the function and structure of a system to potential perturbations (Walker & Salt, 2006). Maximising any particular benefits or optimising the functioning of an environmental system governs current approaches. Change is recognised and unpredictability accepted as a definite. In doing so it is believed that systems can be adapted in order to be sustained.

Port Phillip Bay is a region in the state of Victoria, Australia. It is an extremely shallow body of water 41km by 58km. It has a catchment of 9,790km2 (Harris et al., 1996) and has seen the urban population grow from 75,000 in 1850 to 3.7m today (DEWHA, 2006). The region is a major source of activity, from agriculture to shipping and tourism. Society and the economy, both locally and regionally is connected to the resources the system provides.

The region has remained in considerably good condition despite pressures that have been exerted on it (Harris et al., 1996). There are signs that this is changing however and with an increasing population and the potential impacts of climate change, there is always the risk of systemic failure which the consequences of can only be theorised. More importantly however is the system’s ability to sustain itself in the face of unforeseen events. The resilience of Port Phillip Bay has never been assessed and thus makes an excellent case study.

Next: Systems Theory


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