Adaptive Capacity

Adaptive capacity in ecological systems is related to genetic diversity, biological diversity, and the heterogeneity of landscape mosaics (Carpenter et al. 2001a, Peterson et al. 1998, Bengtsson et al. 2002).

In social systems, the existence of institutions and networks that learn and store knowledge and experience, create flexibility in problem solving and balance power among interest groups play an important role in adaptive capacity (Scheffer et al. 2000, Berkes et al. 2002).

Systems with high adaptive capacity are able to re-configure themselves without significant declines in crucial functions in relation to primary productivity, hydrological cycles, social relations and economic prosperity. A consequence of a loss of resilience, and therefore of adaptive capacity, is loss of opportunity, constrained options during periods of re-organisation and renewal, an inability of the system to do different things. And the effect of this is for the social-ecological system to emerge from such a period along an undesirable trajectory.

Resilience is key to enhancing adaptive capacity.

Are there elements that sustain adaptive capacity of social-ecological systems in a world that is constantly changing? Addressing how people respond to periods of change, how society reorganizes following change, is the most neglected and the least understood aspect in conventional resource management and science (Gunderson and Holling 2002). Folke et al. (2002) identify and expand on four critical factors that interact across temporal and spatial scales and that seem to be required for dealing with natural resource dynamics during periods of change and reorganization:

  • learning to live with change and uncertainty;
  • nurturing diversity for resilience;
  • combining different types of knowledge for learning; and
  • creating opportunity for self-organization towards social-ecological sustainability.


Folke C., J. Colding, and F. Berkes, 2002. Building resilience for adaptive capacity in social-ecological systems. In: Berkes F., J. Colding, and C. Folke (eds). Navigating Social-Ecological Systems:
Building Resilience for Complexity and Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

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