Dr Nick Abel



Ph. D., M.Sc., B.Sc.(Hons.)


Nick is an interdisciplinary scientist who employs participative research and resilience thinking while working with stakeholders and policy makers on the dynamics of social-ecological systems. His recent work is on adaptive pathways and transformation for social-ecological systems impacted by globalisation and climate change. He is learning how Australia’s coastal societies could adapt to rising sea levels, and how systems in the Murray Darling Basin and rural Africa could cope with economic, climatic and other trends and shocks. This research continues work that began with studies of human-wildlife- ecosystem interactions in Africa, followed by research on African communal agro-pastoral and agroforestry systems. Curiosity about the motivations of land users led to research on the mental models of land users, researchers and extension officers in Australia. The theory developed there was used to try and understand the mental models of stakeholders during an attempt to transform land use in Western New South Wales by securing changes in land tenure, resource use and conservation policies. He and his team engaged with pastoralists, Indigenous people, conservationists, the mining and tourism industries and policy-makers in the development of land use options and supporting policies. Though transformation has yet to occur, much was learned that still contributes to his work on adaptive pathways, and the project did catalyse significant reforms.

Nick was born in Zimbabwe, raised in Kenya, and has worked in Ethiopia, Botswana, Somalia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe as well as Australia. Past employers are the CSIRO, the Universities of Canberra and East Anglia (UK), the International Livestock Centre for Africa, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Zambian National Parks and Wildlife Service, and British Voluntary Service Overseas.


Research interests

Suppose the members of a regional social-ecological system agreed that their current resource-use system could not be sustained through looming climatic and socio-economic shocks. Would they be able to agree upon and navigate a major and planned shift to a new and potentially sustainable resource-use system? I draw on political economy, institutional economics, social psychology, ecology and history as I try to explain what socio-political processes and conditions might be prerequisites for a successful shift. The research is also informed by concepts of resilience, path dependency, collapse, recovery, adaptation, transition and transformation. Initial attempts to answer the question have been located in coastal Queensland, the Murray Darling Basin and sub-Saharan Africa. Results show that much still needs to be done.


Journal Papers

Abel, N., R. M. Wise, M. J. Colloff, B. H. Walker, J. R. A. Butler, P. Ryan, C. Norman, A. Langston, J. M. Anderies, R. Gorddard, M. Dunlop, and D. O’Connell. 2016. Building resilient pathways to transformation when “no one is in charge”: insights from Australia's Murray-Darling Basin. Ecology and Society 21(2):23. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-08422-210223

Hill, R., C. Grant, M. George, C. Robinson, S. Jackson, and N. Abel. 2012. A typology of indigenous engagement in Australian environmental management: implications for knowledge integration and social-ecological system sustainability. Ecology and Society 17(1): 23. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-04587-170123

Abel, N., Gorddard, R., Harman, B., Leitch, A., Langridge, J., Ryan, A., and Heyenga, S., 2011. Sea level rise, coastal development and planned retreat: analytical framework, governance principles and an Australian case study. Environmental Science and Policy.

Biggs, D., Nick Abel, Andrew T. Knight, Anne Leitch, Art Langston, and Natalie C. Ban, 2011. The implementation crisis in conservation planning: could “mental models” help? Conservation Letters 00 1–15

Chapin F. S., Stephen Carpenter, Gary Kofinas, Carl Folke, Nick Abel, Per Olsson, M. Stafford Smith, Brian Walker, Oran Young, Fikret Berkes, Reinette Biggs, Morgan Grove, Rosamond Naylor, Evelyn Pinkerton, Will Steffen, Frederick Swanson, 2010. Resilience-Based Ecosystem Stewardship: Sustainability Strategies for a Rapidly Changing Planet . Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25, 4, 199-260

Walker, B. H., N. Abel, J. M. Anderies, and P. Ryan. 2009. Resilience, adaptability, and transformability in the Goulburn-Broken Catchment, Australia. Ecology and Society 14(1): 12. [online] URL: http://www. ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss1/art12/

Abel, N., D. H. M. Cumming, and J. M. Anderies. 2006. Collapse and reorganization in social-ecological systems: questions, some ideas, and policy implications. Ecology and Society 11(1): 17.

McAllister, Ryan R J, Nick Abel, Chris J. Stokes, and Iain J. Gordon, 2006. Australian Pastoralists in Time and Space: The Evolution of a Complex Adaptive System. Ecology and Society Volume 11, No. 2.

McAllister, RRJ, Gordon, IJ, Janssen, MA, Abel, N. 2006. Pastoralists' responses to variation of rangeland resources in time and space. Ecological Applications 16(2), 572-583.

Gross, JE, McAllister, RRJ, Abel, N, Stafford Smith, DM, Maru, Y. 2006. Australian rangelands as complex adaptive systems: A conceptual model and preliminary results. Environmental Modelling and Software, 21(9), 1264-1272.

Book chapters

Stafford Smith, D.M., Abel, N, Walker, B.H., 2009. Drylands: Coping with Uncertainty, Thresholds, and Changes in State. Pages 171-196 in Chapin, F.S., Kofinas, G.P., and Folke, C (eds). Principles of Ecosystem Stewardship: Resilience-based Natural Resource Management in a Changing World. Springer, New York.

Chapin F. S., Gary Kofinas, Carl Folke, Stephen Carpenter, Per Olsson, Nick Abel, Reinette Biggs, Rosamond Naylor, Evelyn Pinkerton, D.M. Stafford Smith, Will Steffen, Brian Walker, Oran Young, 2009. Resilience-based Stewardship: Strategies for Navigating Sustainable Pathways in a Changing World. Pages 319-338 in Chapin, F.S., Kofinas, G.P., and Folke, C (eds). Principles of Ecosystem Stewardship: Resilience-based Natural Resource Management in a Changing World. Springer, New York.


Deborah O’Connell, Brian Walker, Nick Abel, Nicky Grigg, 2015. The Resilience, Adaptation and Transformation Assessment Framework: from theory to application Discussion paper for the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility

Nicky Grigg, Nick Abel, Deborah O’Connell, Brian Walker, 2015. Resilience assessment desktop case studies in Thailand and Niger Authors: Case studies to accompany a discussion paper for the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility

Deborah O’Connell, Nick Abel, Nicky Grigg, Yiheyis Maru, James Butler, Annette Cowie, Samantha Stone-Jovicich, Brian Walker, Russ Wise, Alice Ruhweza, Leonie Pearson, Paul Ryan, Mark Stafford Smith, 2016. Embedding resilience, adaptation and transformation into project design: Interim Guidelines. UN Environmental Program/ Global

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