How do living systems ‘prepare, leverage and bounce back’ from times of crisis?

Rachel Hahs posted some amazing biomimetic analogies and questions for understanding how we respond to our current time of crisis and transformation through a contemplation of how nature expresses resilience after catastrophes like fire — such nutritious food for thought in this solstice season!

…[H]ow do the prairie grasses, giant sequoias and aspens of the world actually do it – what is the nitty gritty of the biology? And then what are the very specific and clear parallel and divergent metaphors we can draw from these examples? What is our fire, sunlight and ash? What parts of our community do we protect above all else? What are our necessary resources, signals for exchange, sacrificial parts, triggers for growth? What packets of information do we disseminate far and wide in the hopes that we can take advantage of this disruption and the disruptions to come, and how do we learn from our natural models on how methods for improving our chances?


Here are some preliminary responses I had to her article:Seedlings and old cone after fire, Yellowstone NP, USA; Wikimedia Commons

For the weedy, pioneer species strategy, I suspect that one of the most important things to think about as ‘seeds’ are small packets of information that are inexpensive and easy to broadcast (e.g. blogs and other social media). The trick is to produce seeds/memes that can easily reach and germinate in the disturbed ground, then grow and reproduce successfully from there. If the disturbed ground in question is the disrupted and uncomfortable mental spaces that many of us find ourselves in, we need to consider what structure is most likely to reach such a target. What resources are likely to be available when the seed reaches that ground, to nourish and support its growth and reproduction?

Espengruppe (Populus tremula) in der Nähe der Lahnquelle, Gemeinde Netphen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Deutschland; Wikimedia Commons - selbst fotografiert von Nikanos CC BY-SA 2.5In terms of the prairie’s and aspen’s strategies, thinking deeply (pun mostly intended) about what safe, underground networks we already have in place is an important strategy.
We can be grounded (ooh, there’s another) in the community connections we already have; strengthening this existing network, sharing resources, signaling one another about dangers and opportunities we have detected, we do the same work as the rhizosphere in many thriving ecosystems to preserve the resilience and diversity of the community. The idea that this rhizosphere must be protected from the devastating changes at the surface might be an argument in favor of finding ‘underground’ ways to keep these communities strong (be they old-fashioned face-to-face meetings or A. One end of a trench used in excavating root systems. B. Distichlis spicata, showing the long rhizomes and shallow roots. J. Weaver (1919) The ecological relations of roots.conscientious privacy measures and enhanced encryption of key electronic communications for more extended communities). I also really appreciate Rachel’s question about ‘sacrificial parts’ – what can we safely give up to survive the time of crisis, without risking the roots? My inclination here is to think about the parts of our lives that we have normalized, but that on deeper consideration we could get by without (perhaps even do better without).

There is much deeper that this biomimicry work can go, seeking even more analogies based on the biology of resilient species and ecosystems. What ideas arise for you? What ways for responding to catastrophe can we learn by engaging nature as model, measure and mentor?


  1. More responses/ideas from this:
    I expect the key resource/fertilizer would be work (time, creativity, energy) from people who are unemployed/underemployed in the present system as it is unraveling. I see these currently in two major classes: the overeducated (there is a remarkable overproduction of PhDs in academia relative to jobs available, at least in North America and Europe – perhaps I overestimate this because I’m in this dilemma personally, but see Peter Turchin on “elite overproduction” and the disenfranchised (those who worked in industries that have relocated or declined, such as manufacturing and mining; those millennials and post-millenials who have never had sufficient employment; those who have been through the prison/industrial complex). A third class may join us as the disruption spreads: those whose work depends on an affluent middle- and upper-middle class (many arts, non-profits, advertising, consulting, some legal professionals and some finance). If I tried to map these onto a metaphoric tree that represents the current culture, the overeducated are the flowers and seeds: their production was focused on the reproduction of the culture itself. The previously-employed disenfranchised are mostly the leaves: they were the closest to directly converting energy into the materials of the culture itself.The never-adequately-employed and/or formerly/currently-incarcerated are buds: their potential productivity has yet to be fully realized. The third group that depends on (and supports) the systems productivity and complexity… perhaps these are the living sap, redistributing the productivity of the leaves. In my metaphor, I think that the culture’s infrastructure includes both the functional-but-non-living durable structures of the tree’s woody parts (buildings, roads), and the living transportation network of xylem and phloem (communications channels, supply chains and transportation, markets and exchanges).
    How much effort by ‘decomposers’ would be needed for these different resources to break down and be available as nutrients to a new system? Leaves, buds and flowers are relatively easy to break down. That which is embodied in the woody parts of the tree would require much more specialized effort and energy to break down. Seeds in particular are designed to resist decomposition.
    I’m intrigued by Rachel Hahs’ line of thinking about “elements of communities that are ‘offline'” (comment at – the first thing this made me think of was the idea of carbon and other nutrients that wait in soils for long stretches before being cycled back into the above-ground ecosystem (I’m afraid I don’t know all that much about soil ecosystems, however, so possibly even these are not so much ‘offline,’ as they are being actively swapped by microbial soil life).
    I’m looking forward to more development on these ideas – this is definitely part of the “Great Work” ahead.


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