One day in the middle of November 2013, Crawford Stanley “Buzz” Holling, an 82-year-old Canadian ecologist 14 years into retirement from the University of Florida, began to feel that he was dead.
Not dying, but dead. Tall, with soft white hair and wiry gray eyebrows, Holling, famous for his theories of resilience in nature, was lying in bed in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, in a house perched on the high bluffs above Departure Bay. Surrounded by his own artwork, paintings of birds and smooth sculptures carved from butternut and balsa wood, he explained to his wife, Ilse Holling, that he no longer existed. And not just him. The whole world was dead. It always had been.
“Everything,” he told her, “is immaterial. People, animals, things.” Distressed and confused, Ilse brought him some papaya, normally a favorite, which he refused. No need to eat when you are dead.
Holling had been behaving strangely for several months. In September, over dinner with his daughter Nancy, Holling burst into giggles discussing the recent, unexpected death of Ilse’s mother. Ilse, too, had noticed that he had been forgetting things. “I just thought it was absent-minded-professor syndrome,” she told me.
Holling had been showing some common symptoms of dementia: He slept all day, and he was awake throughout the night. He stopped shaving and failed to get dressed. Over time, though, he started acting in a way that was abnormal even for a dementia patient. Ilse began recording what he said in a diary. Without evidence, she felt, nobody would believe her.
“Life is an illusion,” Holling announced to Ilse from bed. Soon after, he stopped eating. The scientist of resilience spent days staring into space, insisting he was a corpse. He became unresponsive. “Talk to me,” said Ilse. “I can’t,” Holling replied. He told Ilse not to worry, to be at peace. “I am dead. The world is dead.” His family was disturbed, but Holling’s experience of death appeared serene. He had slipped into a new kind of self — a self to which, it seemed, he was able to adapt with ease. “He wasn’t upset about it at all,” his son, Christopher, told me. “He said everything is peaceful. Everything is one.”
“Resilience” is the capacity to adapt to change and to benefit from adversity, and it is now a buzzword — due, in large part, to Holling’s work. Fifty years ago, the word was scarce. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, use of the term has increased by 1,400 percent since 1970. Today, resilience is everywhere: in reference to financial institutions, the environment, Beyoncé's song “Spirit,” democracy in America, Tom Brady, crops, cruise ships, semiconductor supply chains. Over the past couple of decades, the word has turned up in government documents on everything from security and humanitarian policy to infrastructure, counter-extremism, and pandemic preparedness.
Boston has a “resilience strategy” to help the city “plan for and deal with catastrophes and slow-moving disasters, like persistent racial and economic inequality.” In planning the development of East Boston’s waterfront, resilience — to future sea-level rise, to coastal storms — is a guiding principle.
Resilience strategies are widespread in education, management, and psychology. Mental health is increasingly seen as the ability to rebound from shocks, and resilience has become a key concept in the workplace. Good employees are resilient: they roll with the punches; they bounce back. How did resilience end up seeping into almost every field, shaping how we think about the things that matter to us the most: the planet, our communities, our bodies, our minds?
The story begins with a dirty-brown moth. In the 1970s, forests stretching from Ontario to Newfoundland and deep into Maine were being decimated by the spruce budworm, a moth that feasts upon spruce and balsam fir, a handsome conifer felled for pulp, cough syrup, and Christmas trees. Most of the time, spruce budworm numbers remain low, and they do little damage. From time to time, though, the population erupts, triggering a plague that consumes the forest like a slow-burning fire.
In the early 1970s, the epidemic was accelerating dramatically. “To me, if I remember right, it seemed like the end of the world, the end of our industry,” Doug Denico, a Maine forester who worked at the height of the outbreak, recalled in a video interview with the Maine Forest Products Council. (Denico died in 2021.) The moths were munching through hundreds of millions of hectares of forest, defoliating and eventually killing the trees in their path.
The usual strategy of forest managers was grimly straightforward: Have converted World War II bombers shower pesticides over millions of acres. While these sorties killed tremendous numbers of budworms, they seemed, strangely, to be making the problem worse. In Maine by the middle of the decade, the budworm had advanced to conquer the entire northern half of the state.
Viewed from the cockpit of a converted Grumman Avenger, the once lush forest had become a scorched expanse of grays and browns. It was costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars, and scientists were baffled. What caused this usually rare species to ravage whole landscapes? And why did drenching the forest with insecticide not seem to work? Buzz Holling, then an ecologist at the Canadian Department of Forestry, could see that the mystery was throwing into doubt a deeply rooted idea about the mechanics of nature.
It was long thought that life, left to its own devices, would tend toward equilibrium. “Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline and proportion,” wrote the American scholar George Perkins Marsh in 1864′s Man and Nature, one of the founding texts of modern conservationism. It was thought that ecosystems were predictable machines. When disturbed, they would reverted back to balance.
Holling was trained in this idea, but he noticed that the forest was not obeying these principles.
With a detailed model of the forest ecosystem that he programmed into a 1970s computer, Holling solved the mystery. Suppressing the budworm was leading to more trees. At first sight, this was good — but he saw that it soon led to disaster. In denser forest, birds were having trouble spying budworms, which caused an explosion in budworm numbers. More trees, Holling noticed, also meant that the slightest mistake — any minor inconsistency in spraying — ignited devastating budworm outbreaks, far larger than if no spraying had occurred.
The idea that ecosystems were naturally balanced and stable was wrong, Holling realized. A forest is a complex system, and budworm outbreaks were triggered by chance events — weather patterns, or the arrival of moths from other areas. But these surprise outbreaks were important. They controlled the size of the forest. The boom-and-bust budworm cycle was central to the life of the forest. Healthy ecosystems, Holling showed, work with, not against, the erratic nature of the world.
Holling called the capacity of an ecosystem to adapt to this surprise its “resilience.” The discovery helped persuade forest managers to reduce spraying, but it also transformed how ecologists understand nature. Holling’s resilience theory “is probably one of the few examples that you could really call a paradigm shift in ecology,” says Randall Peterman, a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
Instability and unpredictability were not just temporary effects following disturbances, Holling showed, but were knitted into the fabric of life. “Mother Nature is not basically in a state of delicate balance,” Holling wrote. “If she were, the world would indeed have collapsed long ago.”
He noticed examples everywhere. Suppressing forest fires, he saw, reduces resilience by causing fuel to build up, which risks more catastrophic blazes. Indigenous people have been guided by this knowledge for millennia: The Yurok Tribe in Northern California, for instance, regularly burns areas of the forest to reduce the chance of larger fires. “Man has always lived in a sea of unknowing and yet has prospered,” Holling wrote. Rather than attempting to produce stability and satisfy predictions, ecosystems should be managed in a way that allows them to be flexible enough to adapt to the unknown.
In 1992, Holling founded the Resilience Project, which became the Resilience Alliance, and gathered scholars from many different disciplines. This helped seed resilience far beyond ecology, and it spread through academia like budworm. Resilience quickly became a way of thinking about how to live with change in general.
Holling would insist that his work applied to all systems, and he understood his own life, too, in terms of resilience. Easily bored by stability, he would feel an intense need for change every 10 years or so. He called this pattern his “adaptive cycle” — borrowing a term from his resilience theory, which describes how resilient ecosystems move cyclically: They go from growth, to innovation, to conservation, to creative destruction, and then back to renewal.
Holling retired in 1999, and in 2008, he was awarded the Volvo Environment Prize for his work on resilience. A year earlier, members of the Resilience Alliance set up the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a research institute with a staff of over 100. The center uses Holling’s resilience theory to attack socio-ecological problems across the world. Scientists at the center were behind the concept of “planetary boundaries,” which was adopted by the United Nations, and indicates the thresholds that humanity must not cross to avoid tipping the earth system into irreversible collapse.
It also became a popular concept in business consulting, with companies like McKinsey & Co. using resilience to explain why some businesses failed while others succeeded. And, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the concept took on an individualistic sensibility through the work of self-help writers like Al Siebert. These books encouraged people to refocus their anger away from the external causes of their problems, and toward themselves.
“Blaming others for ruining the life you had will block you from bouncing back,” wrote Siebert, a psychologist and the director of the Al Siebert Resiliency Center in Portland, Oregon, in 2005. “Blaming an organization’s executives, ‘the government,’ self-serving politicians, administrators who lack emotional intelligence, cheap foreign labor, stock market managers, taxpayers, or any person or group for ruining your life keeps you in a non-resilient victim state in which you do not take resiliency actions.”
Today, Amazon lists thousands of self-help books with resilience in the title. The message of many of these books appears to be that the key to overcoming adversity lies in boosting personal stamina and strength.
Why did resilience take off in recent decades? One answer is that life feels increasingly unstable. Climate change is causing disasters linked to extreme weather to become more frequent. Globalization has interlaced the world’s economy and its people. The COVID-19 pandemic showed how vulnerable society is to shocks. Collins Dictionary’s 2022 word of the year was “permacrisis,” which it describes as “an extended period of instability and insecurity” caused by a knot of intractable, interlocking geopolitical, environmental, and economic crises.
Resilience has become the reassuring human face of the permacrisis; the term encapsulates a hope that we might draw some opportunity from all this affliction. Resilience provides “a more positive perspective about how we transform in the face of all these uncertainties,” Line Gordon, the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, tells me.
The explosion of resilience, though, has a troubling dimension. “Of course, life is dangerous,” says Julian Reid, the coauthor of Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. At the same time, he says, resilience is often used in a sinister way, to instruct people that they should “learn to embrace suffering as a source of development. That they should be grateful for that suffering.”
It was a short hop from that attitude to the belief that the economy is so complex and dynamic that it is futile for governments to try to shape it for the benefit of the planet, and for the benefit of people. “The story about resilience,” Australian sociologist Jeremy Walker says, “is that ordinary people have to adapt their personal lives to rapid changes in the economy.” Resilience has become popular, Walker and his colleague Melinda Cooper argue, because it appeals to those who feel that learning to endure misery is better than trying to rid the world of it.
This “endurance” version of resilience, though, is strikingly different from Holling’s use of the term, which emphasizes transformation. “Resilience is not about bouncing back,” says Brian Walker, an ecologist and founding member of Holling’s Resilience Alliance. “It’s about change. If you just bounce back to exactly like you were before, you’ve learned nothing. Resilience is all about learning.”
Holling’s notion of resilience is that it can help encourage systematic approaches to problems that cannot be reduced to the level of the individual. Boston’s resilience approach to racial equity is a case in point. It conceives of racism as intertwined with problems from poverty and mental illness, to environmental crisis and the lack of access to infrastructure.
In other words, instead of asking people to simply endure racism, stoically bouncing back from it, systems can be built to minimize how racism shapes lives.
Resilience, for Holling, was a useful concept for helping shift human and natural systems into more sustainable states. Can resilience be rescued from its buzzword status; from the libertarian overtones it has accumulated over time? If so, that may require going back to its origins in Holling’s work.
By the end of November 2013, Holling had lost weight, and he was alarmingly frail. He believed that he could not eat because his throat was not connected to his stomach. If he kept starving himself, Ilse told him, he would have to be hospitalized. Holling explained that this could never happen. “One, because the hospital is closed. And two, because I am dead.”
Ilse eventually called 911, and Holling was diagnosed with an exceedingly rare, poorly understood condition called Cotard’s syndrome. A person with Cotard can believe that they are a corpse so intensely that any ability to feel, see, move, or talk, cannot overcome it. The most effective known treatment for Cotard’s is electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, and Holling was scheduled for a course of five rounds.
After his ECT, Holling no longer believed he was dead. He had little memory of the month and a half when he was convinced he was a corpse. Holling returned home in December and celebrated a joyful Christmas with his family. That January, he wrote an e-mail to his friends: “from dementia, to Cotard’s, to health!” he declared in the subject line. “I am now truly back to being the old Buzz,” he wrote, “or at least to the beginning of the old Buzz. I even see hints of resilience in my story!” In May 2014, he attended a resilience conference in France, where he was worshipped as the father of resilience, an attendee told me.
The shocks to Holling’s brain triggered a disturbance that seemed to tip his mind across the threshold from one stable state to another, from death, or a kind of half-death, to life. “It is a story of resilience with many elements,” wrote one of Holling’s friends in a message Holling quoted in his memoirs, deploying terms from resilience theory. “Ilse’s patience and wisdom, the Holling stability landscape of friends and family, and just the right shock at the right time to escape the trap and slide back into the good stability basin.”
But Holling, who died in August 2019, did not bounce back, exactly. He managed to finish writing his memoirs, which include a section on the period he believed he was dead, but he never reverted to the person he had been before. Resilience, for Holling, was always about transformation, never about returning to the past, and the Cotard’s-induced delusion, it turned out, marked the beginning of a new adaptive cycle — his last great change.
Tomas Weber is a freelance writer in London. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.