Uncertainty and trade-offs in resilience assessments

Craig R. Allen, Hannah Birgé, David G. Angeler, Craig Anthony Tony Arnold, Brian C. Chaffin, Daniel DeCaro, Ahjond S. Garmestani, Lance H. Gunderson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Several frameworks have been developed to assess the resilience of social-ecological systems, but most are time consuming and require substantial time and technical expertise. Stakeholders and practitioners often lack the resources for such intensive efforts. Furthermore, most resilience assessments end with problem framing and fail to explicitly address trade-offs and uncertainty inherent in any assessment of resilience. This chapter reports on a rapid assessment of survey responses to compare the relative resilience across four North American social-ecological watershed systems with respect to a number of proposed resilience properties. Responses were compared among four stakeholder categories: (1) government (policy, regulation, management), (2) end users (farmers, ranchers, landowners, industry), (3) agency/public science (research, university, extension), and (4) nongovernmental organizations (environmental, citizen, social justice) in each of the watersheds. Conceptually, social-ecological systems are comprised of components ranging from strictly human to strictly ecological, but that relate directly or indirectly to one another in complex ways. They have soft boundaries and several important dimensions or axes that together describe the nature of social-ecological interactions (e.g., variability, diversity, modularity, slow variables, feedbacks, capital, innovation, redundancy, and ecosystem services). There is no absolute measure of resilience, so our design takes advantage of comparisons across watersheds and therefore focuses on relative resilience. Our approach quantifies and compares the relative resilience across watershed systems and the potential trade-offs among different aspects of the social-ecological system (e.g., among social, economic, and ecological contributions). This approach permits explicit assessment of several types of uncertainty (e.g., self-assigned uncertainty for stakeholders; uncertainty across respondents, watersheds, and subsystems) and subjectivity in perceptions of resilience among key actors and decision-makers and provides an efficient way to develop the mental models that inform stakeholders and stakeholder categories.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPractical Panarchy for Adaptive Water Governance
Subtitle of host publicationLinking Law to Social-Ecological Resilience
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9783319724720
ISBN (Print)9783319724706
StatePublished - Apr 18 2018


  • Coupled human-natural system
  • Resilience assessment
  • Resilience metrics
  • Socialecological system
  • Stressed watersheds


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