Indra podcast episode 6: The resilience of nature. Quote by Aldo Leopold: “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Episode 6: The resilience of nature

Ryan D Thompson Ecology, Modern, Resilience, Skills

Key ideas

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
~ Aldo Leopold

  • Humans can show a remarkable capacity to bounce back from adversity, but as we see in neuroscience, we have our limits. Likewise, nature can withstand tremendous shocks, such as fires, floods, droughts, and storms. But just as humans have limits, so does nature. 
  • Ecological resilience refers to the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. These disturbances can take many forms, including natural impacts and those caused by humans, such as pollution, deforestation, or overconsumption.
  • At least two factors contribute to the adaptive capacity of an ecosystem: high genetic diversity of species and greater numbers of different kinds of species within an ecosystem. Both of these can provide a cushion against stressors. 
  • Ecological resilience matters because, of course, humans need nature to survive. Another way to define ecological resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to continue delivering services to us humans, such as clean water and healthy soil.


I remember hearing about the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl when I was a young lad. I had no idea what a nuclear meltdown was. But I do clearly remember it being a pretty big deal since basically, an entire region had to evacuate their homes. And perhaps never return. Especially since this was the era of the Cold War, the constant fear of “nuclear winter” (whatever that meant) was a pretty scary thought to me as a boy.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened 35 years ago. Humans still don’t live there in the cities and towns near the nuclear plant. However, animals and plants have come to thrive in the homes and buildings abandoned all those years ago. The transformation from thriving human populations to ghost towns to wild ecosystems is both eerie and fascinating.

This episode is the sixth in a series on resilience. The past five episodes have looked at resilience from the perspective of us humans and our ability to bounce back from adversity. This episode will zoom out and look at this idea from a bird’s eye view — the resilience of nature. 

In the last episode, the resilient brain, we looked at a common definition of resilience from the perspective of neuroscience. In that view, resilience is the ability to achieve a successful outcome in the face of adversity. Looking at this through the lens of ecology, it’s not that different. Ecological resilience refers to the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly

These disturbances can take many forms. Some are natural, such as fires, flooding, hurricanes, tornados, landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, insect population explosions. The biblical plague of locusts. Other disturbances are caused by humans, including agriculture, deforestation, human-caused fires, climate change, overfishing, and pollution (of many sorts, including toxic chemicals in water, oil spills, pesticides, and herbicides). 

Just as people vary in their ability to bounce back from adversity, so do ecosystems. For people, certain things like having a long history of exposure to abuse can reduce resilience. But, likewise, an ecosystem can only take so much abuse.

When I was in grad school studying environmental conservation, we visited Aldo Leopold’s shack — a famous site in some circles of conservationists. Leopold is regarded as a founder of the science of restoration ecology. One day in the 1930s, he came home and told his family, “I bought us a vacation home.” His family traveled with him to see it but then were shocked to see a dilapidated shack on a barren field. While they were initially crestfallen, he soon explained his vision. The land was worn out, the soil useless for crops after decades of poor agricultural practices. Only weeds could grow. But he believed that the land could be revived. Leopold and his family spent year after year treating the land like a workshop — trying to plant trees and other native plants to restore the system’s diversity. Unfortunately, the majority of the trees died in the early years. But he, and the ecosystems, persevered. While he didn’t get to live to see the land in its full glory, decades later, his experiment succeeded. His shack now sits within a thriving oasis.

This story points to two aspects supporting adaptive capacity for an ecosystem.

For one, high genetic diversity of species can provide a cushion against stressors. When species have space to roam in larger, connected natural areas, they can travel more. They can meet new mates from other regions, thus increasing their genetic diversity. Greater genetic diversity increases the chance of each new generation to adapt to changes in the environment.

And then, greater numbers of different kinds of species within an ecosystem also supports resilience. When there are more types of animals and plants native to a given ecosystem that can thrive, each species serves a role in creating a healthy system — the circle of life. Low levels of biodiversity reduce the available food supplies for species within the system. When food is scarce, resilience decreases. Animal and plant populations are less able to withstand shocks like fires, floods, or invasive species.

When Aldo Leopold bought this farmland, it was on the far end of both of those scales. Former monoculture farms that have gone barren are the least biodiverse places imaginable. Poor land management — planting for maximum yield for short-term gains — ultimately wiped the land out.

Why does ecological resilience matter? Another way of looking at ecological resilience uses a more human-centered lens — as we humans often tend to prefer. We can look at resilience as the capacity of an ecosystem to continue delivering services to us humans, even in the face of impacts caused by humans or natural events. In other words, how well can ecosystems continue to keep us fed, breathing, and alive, despite the damages we might inflict on them as we extract what we need?

How do we help support the resilience of the ecosystems around us? Unfortunately, there aren’t any silver bullets. However, Aldo Leopold’s approach offers a promising solution. He systematically learned how to restore and protect the land around him in the ways that worked in that area. And another solution involves moving away from the idea of nature as a bottomless bank account and moving towards sustainable natural resources management. 

Our bodies have limits, just as nature has limits. We need to take care of ourselves, cultivate our capacity to bounce back through adopting particular mindsets, training the mind, or fortifying our sense of purpose. Likewise, we need to take care of the natural world around us. Considering our very existence relies on that natural world, we have a strong incentive to do so. 

I’m a believer, however naive it may be, that we can have thriving human communities surrounded by thriving nature. Scenes of animals running wild in free in city streets during the Covid lockdowns are a good reminder of how close we are to the natural world. But how easy it is to forget the other life we share this space with!

Future episodes of this podcast will continue to explore this idea and the close connections between our capacities and needs as individuals, as communities, and with the natural world that is our home. Until the next time, be well!

Further reading

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License