1.3 Linking the Past to Present – Historical Timeline

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Managing resilience requires understanding how historical system dynamics have shaped the current system.

Example: History of Everglades Water Management: Crises and Reconfiguration.Social-ecological systems are dynamic and the changes they undergo are sometimes slow and predictable and other times fast and unforeseen. Having a broad overview of system change through time can reveal system drivers, the effects of interventions, past disturbances and responses.

Key Messages

• Social-ecological systems undergo change over time. Those changes can be slow and predictable, or they may be fast and unforeseen. These changes can result from external sources of variation interacting with internal vulnerabilities.

• Environmental crises can signal or accompany the loss of ecological resilience. They can also serve as windows of opportunity for change.

• Historical profiles can reveal how human interventions and management actions can lead to the loss of resilience.

• Historical assessments indicate how understanding, values, perceptions and priorities of the system have changed over time. These factors can also lead to regime shifts- in the ecological, social and/or economic components.

Resilience Assessment

Create an historical profile of the focal system: The development of an historical profile or timeline helps to reveal the longer-term dynamics of the system. It can help reveal the main social or ecological drivers in the system, and how change has occurred (such as episodic change through perturbations, or slow linear changes). It can also help identify the types of disturbances or shocks that have occurred, and the social and ecological responses to those shocks.

One method to creating an historical profile is to use three long pieces of paper (or a blackboard with three rows), labeling one row the focal scale, one the coarser scale, and one the finer scale. Establish the length of the history that you wish to describe (100 years, 1000 years, etc.) and appropriate unit of resolution (such as 5 or 10 years). Sketch a line on each sheet of paper that represents this time period, with appropriate subdivisions for the resolution. Mark events that are of significance to your system (e.g., social, ecological, and economic events) and put them on the appropriate scale. You can either mark on the paper directly or place post-it notes (which are easier to move around and change). At this stage it is more important to identify big events and or events that changed the management of the system.

Draw connections between related events. For instance, was a shift in agricultural production at the focal scale caused by an earlier economic shock at a larger scale? If so, indicate the reason for the connection.

For each of the events you identified above, determine if the event caused a dramatic change in the characteristics of the system. How would you characterize the system before the transition? How would you characterize the system after the transition? Give each era a name (try to identify 3-6 eras).

For each era summarize the event that led to a change in era (the ‘triggering event’), and list the attributes you believe made the system vulnerable to change. This can be done by following the format provided in the table below (add rows as necessary).

Look for any patterns in the picture you have created. How often do ‘triggering events’ come from the coarser scale(s)? How often from the finer scale(s)? How often from the economic domain? The social? The ecological? In other words, what are the critical domains in your system, and is there a pattern of cross-scale interactions?

Keep a record of the timeline you have created. Devise a plan for how you will record, archive, and disseminate the results of this assessment, and make a record of any action items.

Table 1.3.1 Summary of historical profile of focal system


1.1 Bounding the System: Describing the Present

1.2 Expanding the System: Multiple Scales

1.3 Linking the Past to Present – Historical Timeline

1.4 Resilience to What? – Disturbances

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