IN MEMORIAM: British Columbia’s Buzz Holling (1930-2019) – a true scientific giant in ecology and adaptive management

Note to Reader:

This issue launches another year of weekly e-newsletters, published by the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia on Tuesdays from January through June, and from September through November.  Our readers can anticipate more stories about champions who are leading change, with a shared goal of improving where we live.

In this issue, we pay tribute to Dr. Crawford “Buzz” Holling (1930-2019), recognized as one of the world’s leading ecologists. His work is frequently cited in the fields of ecology, environmental management, ecological economics and the human dimensions of global change.

In the weeks to follow, our readers will be learning about the following and much, much more: (1) the asset management precedent established by the City of Courtenay; (2) Comox Valley 2020, third in the Vancouver Island Symposia Series on Water Stewardship in a Changing Climate; and, (3) the implementation program for mainstreaming the Ecological Accounting Process (EAP).

Crawford ”Buzz” Holling, influential ecologist and the father of the resilience theory

“The only way to approach such a period — where uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds – is not to predict, but to act inventively and exuberantly in diverse, adventures in living and experiment,” said Buzz Holling

Buzz Holling obtained his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 1957. He returned in 1967 as a professor of zoology and was the first Director of the Institute of Resource Ecology. Addressing a variety of resource management problems, he and his colleagues developed a worldwide reputation for incisive and perceptive analysis and their advocacy of ‘adaptive management policies’.

His ground-breaking book, Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management, was published in 1978. It illustrated how systems thinking must take uncertainty into account, rather than eliminate it. In the early 1980s, Buzz Holling moved to the University of Florida where his contributions to Everglades Restoration are legendary. After retirement he returned to British Columbia and lived in the Hammond Bay area of Nanaimo. 

Buzz Holling had profound and far-reaching influence during his lifetime, having made major contributions to the theory of predation, the concept of ecological resilience, the concept of panarchy, and adaptive management. He trained many scientists who went on to make major impacts in behavioural ecology, forest management, fisheries, ecology, and sustainability science.

Of particular relevance to the local government and stewardship sectors in British Columbia, Buzz Holling was a source of inspiration for the whole-system, water balance approach that is the technical foundation for the precedent-setting Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia. The approach underpins everything that the Partnership for Water Sustainability does.

Pioneering the ‘Science of Surprise’

Pioneers break new ground and leave an empty space when they move on. Buzz Holling is considered the father of resilience research, which he called the ‘science of surprise’. In the 1960s and 1970s, he applied the systems approach to understand diverse types of interactions among people and nature.

He collaborated with experts outside of universities and research labs to understand land development, forest management, and pest management. It was from these experiences that he first began to formulate his ideas about resilience.

Buzz Holling highlighted the importance of considering surprise, system reorganization, and learning when trying to understand social-ecological dynamics. These efforts led to new ideas about the dynamic nature of resilience. His contributions include Adaptive Management and the Adaptive Cycle.

Resilience Alliance and the Study of Social-Ecological Systems

One of the talents of Buzz Holling was his ability to bring people together to understand, assess and act on new solutions to complex problems of people and nature. The Resilience Alliance, an international research organization founded in 1999, was one of his ‘experiments’.

The Resilience Alliance was set up as a flexible, nimble institution that would bring scientists, academics and practitioners together as a crucible for creating novel solutions that would contribute to sustainable futures for people and the planet. A number of influential papers and books published in the 2000s explored the dynamics of resilience and transformation, as well as the concept of social-ecological systems. This helped to mainstream resilience and social-ecological systems as central concepts in sustainability science.

Quotable Quote #1

Andrew Nikiforuk wrote Empire of the Beetle, a startling look at pine beetles and the world’s most powerful landscape changer. It was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Non-Fiction in 2011. He interviewed Buzz Holling extensively while writing the book. In a tribute published by The Tyee, he wrote that:

“Scientists tend to fall into one of three camps.They consolidate knowledge, perform great technical feats, or explore a new vision with the boldness of a Basquiat. Crawford Stanley ‘Buzz’ Holling, one of the world’s great ecologists, did all three. Every Canadian should know something about Holling, because his revolutionary work explains why ecosystems and civilizations collapse, and why our time is marked by increasing turbulence.”

Quotable Quote #2

Lance Gunderson’s interests are in the human and institutional dimensions to resource ecology. He and Buzz Holling co-authored two books. The following quote is extracted from Gunderson’s tribute titled Remembering Buzz Holling. and published by Ecology and Society Journal:

“(He) saw the value in applying historical information to recognize and explain patterns of change. Buzz embraced the uncertainty of the future, as indicated by his recognition of inherent complexity and unpredictability of the future, now manifest in the manifold resilience programs and the adoption of adaptive management throughout the world. As we are now in the second or third generation of resilience scientists and practitioners, this provides us with the hope that his intellectual legacy will survive for years to come. One of Buzz’s legacies is his adaptive cycle. Buzz’s life was indeed a series of adaptive cycles.”

How Buzz Holling Influenced British Columbia’s Stormwater Guidebook

“My first contact with Buzz Holling was in 1999,” recalled Kim Stephens, Executive Director, Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia.

“An assignment for King County allowed me to delve into the origins of adaptive management, and research experience around the world. Specifically, we were looking for a local government precedent, and there was none. This led me to phone Buzz. A decade later, in 2010, it was an inspirational experience when we met and had a reflective conversation at a UBC symposium on resilience planning.”

How will communities ‘get it right’ as land develops and redevelops?  

“In 1999, my Aha Moment was realizing that our cross-border response to the ‘salmon crisis’ in the Pacific Northwest paralleled the efforts of Buzz Holling and Lance Gunderson related to Florida Everglades Restoration,” continued Kim Stephens.

“They were great communicators, they used imagery to translate the science so that folks could understand it, and they undertook a workshop program that informed, educated and inspired government action.

“In the late 1990s, Bill Derry (founding Chair, Washington State Stormwater Managers Committee) and I led a workshop program for B.C. local government, and provided cross-border sharing of the latest Puget Sound research. Early access to the research findings allowed us to create what became known as the ‘fish pictures’.”

‘Reconnect hydrology and ecology’ and improve where we live:

“The workshop program led to the SmartStorm Forum Series during the period 1999-2001. In turn, the series provided the impetus and springboard for Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia.

“Inspired by Buzz Holling, the Guidebook established an international precedent for application of an adaptive management approach in the local government setting. The Guidebook developed the ADAPT guiding principles for reconnecting hydrology and ecology through use of Water Balance performance targets.”

Water Sustainability Action Plan for British Columbia

“We are building on the successful precedent that the former Ministry of Water, Land & Air Protection established in 2002 when the Ministry published Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia. The Guidebook set in motion a chain of outcomes that has resulted in British Columbia being recognized internationally as a leader in implementing a natural systems approach to rainwater management in the urban environment,” stated Erik Karlsen in a magazine article published in 2006.

“The Convening for Action initiative creates an opportunity to move beyond rainwater management to embrace all components of the water cycle through integrated water management. It will turn ideas into action.”