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Resiliency and a Thriving Ecosystem

“Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.”  ~ Jamais Cascio, author and futurist

When teaching about sustainability, a topic that cannot be overlooked is resiliency; the ability of a system to adapt to change while continuing to function and develop.

Though this term is often used to describe people or communities that are able to “bounce back” after negative disturbances or disasters, the term can also be used to describe ecosystems.

A well-functioning ecosystem contains a feedback loop; where a change in one part of the system feeds back to effect the entire system as a whole, overall shifting the nature of the system as new changes are introduced to the system.

For example, if the number of carnivorous animals in an ecosystem decreases, then the animals who were once the carnivorous animal’s prey reproduce more rapidly and consume more resources than before.

According to Carl Folke, an environmental scientist and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, resilience as a concept in relation to the environment was proposed in 1973 by C.S. Holling, Emeritus Eminent Scholar and professor in ecological sciences at the University of Florida, as a way to understand the capacity of ecosystems to continue developing in their original state subject to disturbances and changing conditions in the environment.

Since then, the topic has been researched by professors and experts in the field of environmental studies. They work to identify trends to help determine how resilient ecosystems will be to potential environmental changes that might occur in the future. Their findings help to ensure that threats to ecosystems are identified and ultimately protected. 

Protection of ecosystems is not simple because ecosystems are threatened by climate change and pollution, two issues that require global collaboration to manage and stop.  

It would be easy to protect ecosystems if everyone simply practiced sustainability, but, because this is extremely difficult to ensure, individually we can try to reduce our impact on the environment by using sustainable technologies to eliminate the catalysts causing ecosystem change.

As educators, we have the power to help students better understand the potential impact of sustainable technologies, resources and practices. Furthermore, simply discussing climate change might not mean that students comprehend the inner-workings of ecosystems threatened by climate change. Therefore, we need to do our best to ensure students understand their impact on the environment all the way down to how an action they make can affect an entire ecosystem. 

In order to teach this subject matter effectively, below are examples of how sustainability impacts specific ecosystems. Using a causal loop diagram to depict the ecosystem could demonstrate to students how a life-changing issue such as climate change can adversely affect an ecosystem.

1) You can illustrate how opting into a sustainable energy program can decrease the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Because sustainable energy does not have as bad of an impact on the environment like natural gas or coal does, you can model how it helps reduce the effects of climate change. Then, using the causal loop, you can explain how, because of this reduction in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, over time, freshwater ecosystems would remain at the temperatures they are supposed to remain at, resulting in the fish and other life dependent on that water stay healthy and alive. 

2) You can explain how a decrease in the overall use of plastic can significantly help marine ecosystems. In illustrating the journey of a singular piece of plastic from manufacturing to the ocean, you can teach students that reducing their use of plastic can significantly reduce the amount of discarded plastics in the oceans which means less animals dying from eating or getting poisoned by the chemicals in the plastic. 

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