Is efficiency the contrary of resilience?

When I started growing my own vegetables, I also started learning more about how nature works. I got familiar with several teachings including permaculture and natural farming. Both of these approaches work with rather than against natural tendencies. One of the things that I learnt was that

the most resilient ecosystems are the ones that are most diverse.

Diversity would mean many different types of flora and fauna and possibly different types of mini-ecosystems (for example, dry and hot, humid and mild), different types of soil, etc.

In these diverse systems, there are many different actors who contribute in very similar ways to the system. For example, nitrogen (which is a core component of plants) can be made available in the soil through annuals like peas, shrubs like sea buckthorns, or even trees like acacias.

The same is true for many other processes. If you will, there is a sense of redundancy: even without the peas, nitrogen will still be made available by sea buckthorns and acacias.

Efficiency is about reducing everything that is redundant. It is about streamlining and speed. An efficient system would then only have one nitrogen fixer, namely the one that puts most nitrogen in the soil. The others are removed.

Efficiency is decreasing redundancies.

But decreasing redundancies is decreasing resilience!

Why? Because if the system experiences stress, different parts of it will be affected to different degrees. Let’s imagine the peas were selected as most efficient nitrogen fixers. Possibly, a short dry period will kill all of them!

Then, we wouldn’t have any nitrogen fixer anymore and the whole system is slowed down. Not just that! Because other plants don’t get the nitrogen they need, they become more susceptible to diseases and pests.

If, however, we had kept the sea buckthorns and acacias, who are more drought-resistant, we wouldn’t have such a lack of nitrogen and healthier plants.

These three exemplary nitrogen fixers have very different characteristics and therefore respond differently to different stressors. Some are more resistant to drought, others are more resistant to low levels of light, etc.

Any ecosystem stands a much better chance at overcoming stress if it is diverse.

This applies to us humans!

Think of the investor who distributes her investments across sectors — the rationale is that the diversity reduces the risk. Or think of the teacher who knows 100 different ways of explaining what he’s teaching — he’ll sure be able to make more students understand the subject. Or think of the doctor who knows that apart from surgery also things like a better nutrition, physical activity, etc. can lead to healthy patients.

In all of these cases diversity increases the chance of success.

Apart from individuals, we can apply this also to human collectives. Think of a business where instead of just one, several people can perform the same actions or have access to the same information. If a person get’s sick or leaves the company, it’s easy to continue operations.

In this last example, we could even say that diversity and, perhaps, redundancy increases efficiency in case one person isn’t available momentarily.

Despite the title I chose for this article, I think efficiency doesn’t have to be the contrary of resilience:

If we think long-term, efficiency goes hand in hand with resilience.

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Passionate to help people develop through coaching and personal development. I write articles around these topics and personal stories.