the anthropocene index



Resilience and the Anthropocene. Interview with Michael Jones.


Aleksandra Jach: Scientists tell us that we are living in the Anthropocene, even though the geological community has not officially accepted this term. Earlier, we were confronted with various holistic concepts which aimed at describing how the Earth works as a system. I think in recent decades the Gaia hypothesis, introduced in 1972 by James Lovelock, has gained great popularity. Can you explain how you understand the role of such new terms? Do you think that they just popularize some ideas among a wider audience or do they also have the power to transform the scientific community?


Michael Jones: The idea of the Anthropocene is interesting to science and to society. Kate Raworth´s extension of the idea to a develop a safe and just operating space for humanity is even more interesting ( They both draw attention to the fact that earth represents a limited resources for life, including human life, and that we need to think seriously about how human society is going to live in harmony with nature instead of attempting to dominate nature with technology. “The Limits to Growth” book, published in 1972, expressed similar ideas using complexity models to develop scenarios describing what might happen if…. The Gaia theory is also holistic in outlook and is based on complexity thinking. It includes the idea that physical parts of the earth behave in life-like ways (orogeny, erosion cycles, plate tectonics, etc.) which is controversial but still useful in helping us understand the dynamics of the planet and life on the planet. The Anthropocene, Gaia theory and “Limits to growth” - all have a certain emotive content which will catch peoples’ attention. Science is a conservative business, so the words themselves are less likely to sway scientific attention than evidence to support the theories and models. The words will have more popular appeal, but I am not sure that it is enough to have a transformative impact on society as a whole. I think that there is something a little scary about the Anthropocene and “Limits to Growth” which will drive some people to denial, others to anxiety and yet others to take action.

Aleksandra Jach: These new words are “products” of Western thinking and they are markers of specific moments of globalization. For example “Limits of growth” and Gaia theory appeared in the same period in which the “energy crisis” happened. How would you see these relations between globalism and ecological thinking? French philosopher Bruno Latour claims that ecologism is an important part of globalization.

Michael Jones: “Limits to growth” is based on complex systems models that were developed to explore possible future scenarios. 40 years later, some of those scenarios have turned out to be quite accurate descriptions of the current state of affairs. I think this is a reflection of the modeller’s ability to capture in their models some of the key things that they expected to change over time. Gaia theory is a set of ideas that attempt to explain global change in a way that includes the physical environment (land, sea, continents, mountains, building, erosion, rivers, etc.) together with the biological environment to present an overarching theory of organization on earth. The Anthropocene perspective came from resilience science and the idea of thresholds that exist between different systems states. (This is another aspect of complexity science). The Anthropocene paper was published in 2009 to draw attention to the extent to which human activity (especially since industrialization about 200 years ago) had altered the planet.

There have been at least two energy crises since 1970 but these were largely due to the effects of political economy. The debate about whether we now face dwindling fossil fuel supplies with rising production costs and increasing demand is still unresolved. My view is that we reached “peak oil” in about 2008 at about the same as the banks collapsed. The actual state of fossil fuel energy supplies in relation to demand and extraction costs is still masked by political economy effects and uncertainties about what exploitable reserves exist in the earth. I think the co-occurrence of energy crises, “Limits to growth” and the Anthropocene are coincidental. There is no causality in the relationship.

I have not read Latour but the description of his book suggests that he sees human and nature as being one and the same and that is impossible to have an objective view of nature. Are you suggesting with your question that human thought and perspectives of nature, shape the future relationship between the human and nature: that the Anthropocene is a product of human imagination? If so, that is an interesting idea which may well be true but I don’t think it is a product of thoughts about “Limits to Growth”, Gaia theory and Anthropocene. They are attempts to understand what is happening rather than attempts to define what humans want.

Thoughts about what humans want and how they use nature to achieve that are better understood through economics and Adam Smith´s “Invisible Hand”.


Aleksandra Jach: Can you tell me how you understand the sociological and political context of introducing the idea of sustainable development? Why and how did it happen that “resilience thinking” is more “fashionable” – or is it just used more often? (I don't know if it's true, but for an amateur like me, who just tries to listen carefully, observes the discussion about environment is changing, this is what it seems...)


Michael Jones: Sustainable development is one of those warm and fuzzy expressions that are intended to reassure that everything will be OK. Politicians, development bankers, aid organizations, etc., use it to confer legitimacy on some planned course of action. Resilience is a little different. It has become fashionable and is being used in the same warm and fuzzy way as sustainable development and it can also be used in ways that give it a specific and focused meaning in a particular social and ecological context. In the sense of focused meaning, resilience thinking and resilience assessment has the potential to become a means of learning about how an environment is changing and giving the people who live in that environment some ideas how they can adapt themselves and/or influence the way that their environment changes. This approach increases the likelihood that a given livelihood strategy would be sustainable in the long term, but it does not provide any assurances about the unknown surprises that occur in life.


Aleksandra Jach: Can you explain the idea of resilience on some example?


Michael Jones: One way of thinking about resilience is the ability to survive bad times or bad places. Attached are a couple of photographs to illustrate the point.

Another way to represent resilience is the mythology of the Phoenix:

The adaptive cycle (a figure 8 on its side) is the symbol of eternity: things changes but remain more or less the same. Think of the asteroid that hit earth at the end of the Jurassic period and created a global change in light and temperature that wiped out the dinosaurs but paved the way for the emergence of mammals. That was a period of large scale, widespread change, but earth is still here and animals are still here – they are just different kinds of animals.

The history of the Maya people of Central America is another example. The Mayan civilization collapsed but the Mayan people are still there farming in the jungle is the same way they have for centuries, but without all the physical infrastructure that were part of the Mayan State. Have a look at: for more about this story and other tales of collapse and renewal that have occurred during human history.

Another way is to think of resilience as health – a healthy person is a resilient person who recovers from diseases and accidents and is just the same as before. Or they may experience a major accident or illness that leads to some disability, so they reinvent themselves as a different kind of person with different skills and capabilities.

Aleksandra Jach: You are working for IUCN which is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. I'm curious if you see any space for artists or experts trained in humanities in developing environmental policy?

Michael Jones: I think that there is need for artists and people trained in the humanities to be a part of the policy development process. Complexity and complex situations are difficult to communicate in terms that people can understand. Stories and art may convey the essence of complex issues more clearly and with more emotive content than dry “policy briefs” from scientists. I don’t know whether that opinion is shared by colleagues in IUCN. Some of the scientists at Stockholm resilience centre are using art which is a good start.

Aleksandra Jach: How do you define the role of an ethic in the process of ecosystem management? Do you think that we need a specific perspective as it's provided by ecocentrism or biocentrism?

Michael Jones: I use Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” (published in “A Sand County Almanac” and widely available) as my moral compass on these matters. In essence, Leopold says that we are all (humans, plants and animals) members of the land community and that if we treat our fellow members with love and respect then all will be well. Being a fallible human, I don’t always get it right. Aldo Leopold was an excellent resilience thinker in a time before complexity science and resilience were invented.


Aleksandra Jach: Wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe and natural resource management in Sweden – just these two areas of your professional experience show how rich it is. How did knowledge and skills which you used in Zimbabwe help you to understand this new context?

Michael Jones: As I changed from being a park ecologist in Zimbabwe focused on the interaction between geology, soils, plants and animals to being a park management planner, I became aware of the dominant influence of people on the ecology of the park and the complexity of managing a park with so many different external and internal human influences. I became acquainted with Holling’s groundbreaking work on adaptive management as a way of dealing with complexity. I was a management practitioner and did not do much reading related to the science of adaptive management but slowly become more aware to the point where I accepted that the resilience framework was a great tool for understanding complex interactions between people and nature. After four years hanging out the Stockholm Resilience Centre, I now spend a lot of time learning about and teaching the resilience framework. Resilience is one of those things that is always changing, and therefore always interesting.


Aleksandra Jach: Can you tell me how such “adaptive management” works on a specific example? How do you indicate the difference between “adaptive management” and “resilience framework”?


Michael Jones: In its simplest form adaptive management is about trial and error. Try something, see what it does, if the outcome is good, do it again, if the outcome is not good, try something different. Lots of people, government agencies, development agencies talk about adaptive management but don’t actually do it. They believe that they know what will happen and when things go wrong, don’t want to admit their mistakes, so the errors are not used as a way of learning how to do things better next time.

Organizations like military forces and emergency services pay much more attention to trial and error because mistakes cost lives.

In Zimbabwe and elsewhere I wrote management plans for protected areas in which I identified things that should not be allowed to change beyond a certain limit because it would have an undesirable impact on the plants and animals in the park. For example, the frequency with which forest fires were permitted to occur within an area. Some fire is necessary to maintain the ecology of a savannah landscape but too much fire can have serious consequences for plants and animals. If the number of fires was close to the limit, then more attention was given to firebreaks and fire-fighting. If the number of fires was well below the limit, then management could decide to let a fire run its course.

Adaptive management recognizes that things change all the time and enables managers to adapt to those changes. Resilience assessment is a way of understanding change and making a model of change to guide management. Adaptive management is about managing the difference between the desired future state of a system and what actually happens over time as the managers attempt to influence the system to move to that desired future state.



The interview was realized thanks to the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.


Michael Jones