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Testing Mother Earth's Resilience

(Courtesy of Reinette Biggs)

Growing up in the Kruger National Park in South Africa as apartheid came to an end, Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs was confronted with a pressing question: Could her country's natural resources give people a chance to shake off poverty without undermining the resource base for future generations? Today, Biggs is working on that issue, as a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, which gathers ecologists, economists, and political scientists in an effort to figure out how to boost the resilience of the environmental systems people depend on.

"The framework we're using assumes the planet, and human societies that live upon it, are complex and constantly evolving, so we need to continually learn about and adapt to these ongoing changes." -- Reinette Biggs

A natural context

Born to a pair of veterinarians in Windhoek, Namibia, Biggs never expected to work overseas. "I thought it's only rich people or clever people that go to study or live overseas, but people like me would just stay in South Africa," she says. But her parents -- big thinkers, with interesting minds -- set her on her way. They found veterinary medicine "a bit boring, so they started doing some research on the side," Biggs says. The family spent most weekends camping and studying local birds and their migrations, using radiotracking. When her father got a job at the Kruger National Park, a major hub for savannah research, the family went to live in the Skukuza Restcamp. The move meant "more exposure to wild things and lots of researchers," she says. She was 11 years old.

When the time came to go to college, her parents suggested she stay at home and enroll at the University of South Africa, a distance-learning institution. The arrangement allowed her to pursue a B.Sc. degree in geography while gaining work experience she wouldn't be able to get on a university campus.

She did two minors, in statistics and applied mathematics, and took courses offered by visiting and resident scientists at Skukuza on modeling, geographical information systems (GIS), and database design and manipulation. She worked part-time for the South African National Parks' Scientific Services, helping master's degree and Ph.D. students in ecology with statistical analysis. She worked as a GIS technician, helping the Mpumalanga Parks Board develop a wetlands database and mapping system -- in the process gaining exposure to the distinct worldviews and concerns of government officials and farmers. She co-authored five research papers, two in collaboration with her father.

While she was still in her first year, Biggs was invited by visiting researcher Chris Margules to work with him at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Canberra. There, Biggs witnessed discussions on how to make areas outside the Australian agricultural lands friendlier to native species. The experience diverted her interest from big parks like Kruger toward the majority of land that lies outside of parks and reserves. She wanted to know how this land could be managed more sustainably.

A new, rare opportunity arose near the end of Biggs's last year, when South African ecologist Bob Scholes of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research(CSIR) in Pretoria, gave a talk in Skukuza about the Third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report, of which he was a lead author. Scholes, who knew Biggs since she was a high school student, invited her to Pretoria to do an internship. So in 2001 Biggs started a second, honors B.Sc. degree, in applied environmental science, at the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), with Scholes as her adviser.

At about that time, Scholes became involved in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an international effort to assess changes in the world's ecosystems, likely consequences for human well-being, and policy options for sustainable use. Biggs, too, joined the project, collating data and doing analytical GIS modeling on the provision of food, clean water, and fuel wood by southern African ecosystems and their contribution to the well-being of the region's people. "She became the main workhorse of the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which made several innovative contributions," Scholes writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.

One such innovation was the Biodiversity Intactness Index, which Biggs developed at CSIR as part of a M.Sc. degree in environmental science she started a year later at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The work was published in Nature in March 2005. "Her main strength is her intelligence and phenomenal work capacity," Scholes says. One particular challenge was "the balance between the sometimes vague and qualitative aspects of resilience work, and the very quantitative, mathematical aspects of system theory. She has been able to grasp both ends of the spectrum and forge a sensible middle ground."

Working on the Millennium Assessment taught Biggs many things: to synthesize data from a wide range of disciplines; to look for areas of consensus, important uncertainties, scientific controversies, and policy relevance; to work in large teams; to be comfortable with fundamental disagreement. It was, she says, "an interesting exercise which is quite different from standard science."

(Courtesy of Reinette Biggs)
Reinette Biggs on a field trip during a Millennium Assessment Meeting in Egypt, March 2003.

Though Biggs was not completely spared headaches inflicted by the visa bureaucracy on many scientists from the developing world, she managed to travel widely, meeting top scientists from many fields. During a meeting in Trieste, Italy, Biggs struck up a conversation about her future with Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the United States; Carpenter invited her to join him for a Ph.D. In 2005, Biggs won a Fulbrightscholarship and started pursuing a thesis studying limnology, complex systems, and uncertainty.

Biggs spent 2.5 years analyzing why scientific controversies arise over the causes of environmental decline. She started by assuming that a single correct answer exists; if researchers have contradictory findings, she surmised, it's because at least some of them are wrong.

Then one day she had an insight: Contradictions arise because environmental systems and problems are complex, and everyone has only a partial view. People "see certain things and draw conclusions that are actually valid for the data they have. But then somebody else goes to investigate, maybe at a different time or using a bit of a different approach, collects a different set of data, and they get a different answer," she says. Using a Bayesian modeling approach, she showed that "if you put those partial pieces of information together, you can actually get closer to the truth -- and sometimes that means realizing the uncertainties about your knowledge are much larger than you thought."

Biggs also studied innovations in ecosystem management and how transformations in the mindsets of ecosystem managers take place, using an approach drawn from the social sciences. Next, she used a fisheries model to investigate regime shifts, which she defines as "big, abrupt, and persistent changes in ecosystems." Using modeling, she asked whether it's possible to predict regime shifts in time to head them off. Her answer: at least for as long as we're limited to the indicators we currently have, probably not.

Her Ph.D. findings reinforced her conviction, which had begun to crystallize during the Millennium Assessment, that people and ecosystems should be considered together. Once "you engage the people who are managing that system, they can change the way they're thinking about it and actually influence the future, so it's very interactive," she says. The current inability to prevent even foreseen regime shifts also prompted her to conclude that we'd be much better off "thinking about how we can be more resilient and able to adapt and deal with unexpected changes."

Upon finishing her Ph.D. in 2008, Biggs joined the Stockholm Resilience Centre for a postdoc with Science Director Carl Folke and Garry Peterson. The centre takes an approach that's highly compatible with Biggs's convictions, incorporating human interactions as a dynamic component of ecosystems and figuring out how to make such interactive systems resilient -- that is, as defined by the centre, more capable "to both withstand shocks and surprises and to rebuild itself if damaged."

One way of making environmental systems more resilient is to understand better when, how, and why they shift regimes. Using statistics and modeling, Biggs is now assessing reported cases of environmental regime shifts -- for example, when lakes go rapidly from a clear to a turbid, phytoplankton-loaded state. She wants to understand the key drivers in regime shifts, what prevents troubled systems from returning to their former state, the impacts of regime shifts on ecosystem services, and the consequences for human well-being. The idea of regime shifts has long been controversial, but "most people now believe this phenomenon exists." Scientists still disagree, however, about the idea's ability to explain real-world environmental change and its usefulness as an environmental management tool.

Starting with bush encroachment in southern Africa -- a change of land from open savanna to shrub land that represents a major threat to livestock ranching -- Biggs also wants to develop an approach that assesses the probability of a regime shift based on a mechanistic understanding of the underlying processes. Having a map of the world delimiting the different risk zones for specific regime shifts "would be really cool and very useful" to have for the next Millennium Assessment, Biggs says.

Back to her roots

Biggs can now do that from an independent perch; she recently obtained her first independent funding, a Society in Science – Branco Weiss Fellowship, which allowed her to negotiate a formal appointment as researcher at the centre. She expects to spend 5 years more in Sweden, perhaps fewer, before returning to South Africa. "One of the reasons I liked the idea of coming" to Sweden "was that the centre does quite a bit of work in South Africa," she says. She hopes that some day this might provide an opportunity to return home.

(Courtesy of Reinette Biggs)
Reinette Biggs, with Alfons Mosimane, a Ph.D. student from Namibia, at the University of KwaZulu‑Natal in South Africa, at an Akili Initiative Workshop in Saasveld, South Africa, December 2009.

Biggs is also involved in the Akili Complexity and Integration Initiative (ACII), coordinated by the National Research Foundation in South Africa. ACII is raising money to set up research institutes around the country that will apply the concept of complex social-ecological systems to advance economic development and environmental sustainability in southern Africa. "The social-ecological complexity lens is just one extra approach to add to the mix, but it's a bit different from some of the more traditional sustainability approaches which still assume that there is actually some final solution that we can maybe figure out and then we'll be able to manage the Earth in that way forever. The framework we're using assumes the planet, and human societies that live upon it, are complex and constantly evolving, so we need to continually learn about and adapt to these ongoing changes."

Biggs sees real opportunities to bring improvement to her region. "In one way, in Africa, we have an advantage because we're behind everyone else on the development trajectory." Now is the time to "think more cleverly about ... different models for how poorer countries could develop in a completely different way that doesn't have such a high impact on the environment as has happened in most other places," she says. "I think at some point something very nice will emerge," she adds. When it does, "I'll just know it's the right thing and then I'll take it."

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