Associate Professor Nick Abel

Honorary Associate Professor
Fenner School of Environment & Society


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


Nick is an interdisciplinary scientist who works with stakeholders and policy makers on ways to understand and influence the direction and pace of change in social-ecological systems. His recent work is on systems impacted by economic and climatic change on Australia’s coast, in the Murray Darling Basin and Africa. It continues work that began with studies of human-wildlife-ecosystem interactions in Africa and Scotland, followed by research on the dynamics of African and Australian pastoral systems. He integrates theories and methods from ecology, political economy, psychology and behavioural and institutional economics within a resilience framework as he seeks practical measures to promote and guide regional scale adaptations, transitions and transformations. Potential measures include social networks, institutional change, information flows, leadership, lobbying, negotiation, conflict resolution and learning-by-doing. His understanding of social-ecological change and inertia have been deepened by long term political activism and observation of social change in southern Africa, the UK and Australia.

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. He has received awards for leadership from CSIRO, and innovative teaching from the University of Canberra, and is a founder member and fellow of the Resilience Alliance.

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.

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.

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:

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