Adaptive Law and Resilience

37 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2013 Last revised: 27 Jan 2014

See all articles by Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold

Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold

University of Louisville - Brandeis School of Law

Lance Gunderson

Emory University - Department of Environmental Studies

Date Written: February 27, 2013


Environmental law is under dynamic and relentless pressure to develop a framework that is adaptive. Resilience theory -- based on considerable scientific data and examples -- aims to explain ecological and social systems that are dynamic, complex, and subject to abrupt and unpredictable change. In contrast, the foundations of environmental law assume that nature is relatively stable, changing primarily in linear patterns within a range of predictable conditions. Moreover, the U.S. legal system in general aims to create certainty and security in the distribution of resources among humans in society. The law tends to favor monocentric and unimodal methods (top-down "panacea" or "optimal instrument" solutions to problems) and linear processes. These features of U.S. environmental law are maladaptive and make it ill-suited for emerging environmental challenges. Improving the adaptive capacity of the U.S. legal system will require not merely the occasional use of specific adaptive techniques or tools but the development of over-arching systemic principles that maintain the resilience and adaptive capacity of ecological and social systems.

In this article, law-and-institutions scholar Tony Arnold and resilience-and-panarchy scientist Lance Gunderson propose a new adaptive law framework based on 4 features: 1) adaptive goals that aim for multiple forms of resilience; 2) adaptive system structure that is polycentric, multimodal, and multiscalar; 3) methods of adaptation and context-regarding flexibility; and 4) iterative processes with both feedback loops and accountability mechanisms for conservation. The inadequacies of existing generations of environmental law may be contributing to changes in environmental law to move towards an adaptive regime. The scientific theories of panarchy -- how structure emerges out of nested cycles of adaptation and change -- may aid in studying how environmental law is changing and should change to increase its adaptive capacity.

Keywords: resilience, panarchy, adaptation, adaptive law, environmental law, change, dynamic systems, ecosystems, ecology, complexity, sustainability, discretion, evolution, iterative processes, public trust, ecosystem services, conservation, natural resources, endangered species, wetlands, watersheds

Suggested Citation

Arnold, Craig (Tony) Anthony and Gunderson, Lance, Adaptive Law and Resilience (February 27, 2013). Environmental Law Reporter, Vol. 43, pp. 10426-10443, May 2013, University of Louisville School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 2014-04, Available at SSRN:

Craig (Tony) Anthony Arnold (Contact Author)

University of Louisville - Brandeis School of Law ( email )

Wilson W. Wyatt Hall
Louisville, KY 40292
United States
502-852-6388 (Phone)
502-852-0862 (Fax)


Lance Gunderson

Emory University - Department of Environmental Studies ( email )

Mathematics Center
400 Dowman Drive
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-2429 (Phone)

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