Disruption and Resilience: Lessons from Nature


In our 23July2020 post Nature is Normal, I shared the Visions for Change program that the Amani Institute has been offering this summer, for free. My small contribution to this program was an online Skill Pills workshop exploring how biomimicry can help us design better services, products, and organizations for the ‘new normal’. You can watch a clipped recording of that workshop here.

Given the massive disruptions we are all currently facing, we focused that workshop on how Nature deals with disruption (though the first, and perhaps most important, point we explored is that the ‘old normal’ is not normal.)

The COVID-19 pandemic reflects the biggest global disruption that any of us alive today has probably ever experienced, yet each of us face disruptions of all types and levels of impact all the time. The same is true for Nature; from droughts to floods, fires to hurricanes, volcanic eruptions to ice ages. Yet with all of these disruptions, large and small, Nature has always managed to rebound so that life has continued to exist on Earth for billions of years.

So how does Nature deal with disruption?  By designing for resilience.  

You can see Nature’s strategies for resilience reflected in Nature’s Unifying Principles and Life’s Principles; however, you can also see them with your own eyes if you take a walk outside.

When I went for a hike in a nearby forest that had experienced a forest fire a few years back, I saw Nature’s strategies for resilience everywhere. Here are some things I noticed (and found out later while consulting my forest/soil ecologist husband).

When the old trees burned, they released resources that had been locked up for decades. After the fire, these resources, along with sunlight, became available to the organisms that had been dormant in the shadows on the forest floor. Beneath and between the charred trunks there were not only numerous young trees, but all kinds of new and emerging life.

Many of the burned trees were reaching the end of their normal lifespan — in this case 100 to 150 years. The fire came at its normal interval of 100 to 150 years. The forest, as a system, has adapted and evolved to fit the normal fire interval for that area.  

We might think of a burnt tree as dead; however, the remnants of the old trees and stumps become host to the opportunistic and resourceful organisms that live on dead matter. These organisms consume the dead materials that others cannot, and then make nutrients available to others in the ecosystem. Life goes on.

The forest is not uniform. Some parts are south facing, some parts are rocky, some parts are wet (and that day, snowy). The distribution and diversity of organisms across the landscape means that there is always something that can grow, whatever the conditions. I saw tiny white fungi filling the cracks in a burnt trunk. I saw colorful fungi covering the end of a fallen log (pictured here). I saw lichens and mosses, ferns and grasses, berry bushes and baby trees. 

When I first got to the trailhead, my eyes saw a ghost of a forest. When I began to look beyond the charred trees, the forest slowly revealed itself to be abundant with life — designed for resilience.

In this time of massive disruption, or any time of disruption, what lessons can you learn from Nature’s strategies for resilience?

Denise DeLuca / Former Director

Denise DeLuca is the Director of MCAD’s Sustainable Design program. She was co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry Creative for Innovation, a network of creative professional change agents driving ecological thinking for radical transformation. Denise is author of the book Re-Aligning with Nature: Ecological Thinking for Radical Transformation, which was illustrated by MASD alum Stephanie Koehler. She also teaches with the Amani Institute.

Denise’s previous roles include Education Director for the International Living Future Institute, Project Manager for Swedish Biomimetics 3000, and Outreach Director for The Biomimicry Institute. Denise is a licensed civil engineer (PE) and holds a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on modeling landscape-scale surface and groundwater interactions.  In addition, Denise is a Biomimicry Fellow and a member of the Advisory Council of The Biomimicry InstituteBoard Member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), on the editorial board of the Journal of Bionic Engineering, and an Expert with Katerva. Denise is based in Oregon.

contact:  [email protected]