Beyond sustainability and resilience

Sustainability is here to stay, or we may not be.

Niall Ferguson

As a few of you know, Jennifer Adams and I are writing a book (working title: The Connected Community) on systems thinking for community practitioners. The premise of the book is that systems thinking provides community practitioners – emergency managers, economic developers, city planners – with a rich set of tools to strengthen their communities.

Recently I was asked how sustainability and resilience fit into this. My initial knee-jerk answer was “Ultimately I want people to use these tools to make their communities more resilient.” Then I thought a bit, and said, “Well, actually, maybe more sustainable too.” Not satisfied with that answer, I finally said, “Really, it’s both and neither. What I really hope happens as a result of the book is that communities become more future-fit.” In the next few posts, I’m going to take a deep dive into both sustainability and resilience, and compare and contrast them. I’ll close the series with what I mean by a “future-fit” community and why the distinction is so important.

Fear of the apocalypse seems to be driving much of what’s being done in the names of both sustainability and resilience, as the quote above exemplifies. Fear of a future climate catastrophe seems to be the basis for much of what is called sustainability today. The Transition Town movement and several similar resilience initiatives are based on a presumed death of globalization, and a tumbling down Peak Oil to a valley of unknown depth.  Those John-the-Baptists who are proclaiming the coming apocalypse – whichever it might be – go on to preach from the Book of Sustainability as the Path to Resilience in the face of what’s coming. Thus, much of what is called sustainability or resilience are founded on a profound sense of despair.  

I won’t assess any of the actions suggested by the Prophets of Doom – many I find useful, some I find silly, and some are likely counterproductive – but I do want to examine the relationship between resilience and sustainability.  Is a sustainable community resilient?  Is a resilient community sustainable?  Are resilience and sustainability at opposite ends of a continuum, or at right angles to each other?

Right away, we’re confronted by a huge difficulty – both “sustainability” and “resilience” have become fads; both words have become very imprecise concepts.  The dictionary definitions of sustainability are about maintaining a certain level, or, as Wikipedia says, the capacity to endure.  In essence, this means a type of persistence.  However, if we look at the UN’s Brundtland Commission definition, then sustainability is all about balancing use of resources for current needs vs the resources needed in the future.  In what follows, I’m going consider community sustainability as meaning a wise use of resources,

  • Discriminating between wants and needs so that needs are met first, and
  • Using resources efficiently – the least necessary to meet the maximal amount of needs.

Resilience has been tortured nearly as badly.  To some it’s a process, to some an attribute; to some, it means resisting change, to some reverting to normal after a crisis.  However, resilience has one advantage in that almost all of the faddish definitions have this kernel of bouncing back after an external stress is applied.  In what follows, I’m going to consider community resilience as a community’s ability to

  • Anticipate crises,
  • Take action to reduce their impacts,
  • Respond effectively to them, and
  • Recover rapidly.

If we compare these two, we can begin to see a contrast.  In thermodynamic terms, sustainability is about trying to maintain equilibrium while resilience is a kinetic property.  In philosophic terms, sustainability is ontological, resilience is phenomenological.  Or in my terms, resilience is about time and sustainability is timeless. Resilience is aimed at minimizing the time to recovery from an upset; sustainability is focused on the resources the community uses over its lifetime. Thus, to echo those nasty questions I used to hate on the SAT, resilience is to sustainability as weather is to climate.

In the next post, I’ll use the definition of community to further illuminate the sustainability-resilience relationship.

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