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Resilience or sustainability? Really?

It’s a nice simple idea: rather than engage with the complexities of say, changing energy systems, we focus on surviving climate changes and their consequences, because doing so is easier to contemplate.

This is the argument that will be increasingly used in the years to come by those who prefer not to change complex embedded systems. (consumption economies, energy generation, transportation infrastructure, etc)

The problem with adopting “resilience” as an overly dominant paradigm is that doing so excuses us from fundamental reform of systems which were not designed for stopping climate change, supporting nine billion people or dealing with input (resource) constraints.

So while I’ve bought the eBook by the author of this recent New York Times piece “Learning to Bounce Back” it’s clear we are not facing the question of “sustainability or resilience?”, we face both.

I was intrigued by the set up though, even though it’s a fairly common ploy when promoting a book.

When selling a book based around a term that has some relationship to sustainability, authors will often bash the term to get publicity. I admit it worked on me, dammit. The word resilience is a really powerful one.

We’ve seen this happen with the term corporate social responsibility too, by lots of vendors selling services, and also by Michael Porter, with his “shared value” concept.

Porter’s idea articulated a version of CSR that no-one sensible recognised, and is essentially a pitch for client work, similar to the other attempts to capture the term.

I re-tweeted the NY times Op Ed above, and was pleased to see these responses from some sustainability stalwarts:

Brendan May @bmay:
@tobiaswebb76 @MarcGunther @andrew_zolli Surely the former results in the latter? Don’t see them as one or the other. #sustainability

 Koann @Koann: Hmm, #susty requires resilience, but latter may not be
enough in itself, no? “@bmay @tobiaswebb76 @MarcGunther @andrew_zolli

Mike Barry @planamikebarry:
@bmay @tobiaswebb76 @MarcGunther @TonyJuniper sustainability is destination, resilience is flexibility/strength to navigate the rocky road

Well said Mike.

Here’s some further reading on how the two areas inter-link.

1 Comment

  1. Nicola Robins, Incite Sustainability (SA),

    I agree with Mike too.

    The question is how to make the useful stuff resilient. There is no denying that resilience is a property of some things we would not wish to promote. Robert Mugabe is a remarkably resilient president; so was Franco the Spanish dictator who ruled the country for nearly 40 years. Highly contaminated ecosystems are also pretty resilient – it's hard to move them out of that state.

    There is one sure way to make intelligent product and process designs resilient. That is to shift the way we understand value. If companies were valued on their ability to innovate for social good – and on their ability to create viable business models around these innovations – we'd be in with a fighting chance.

    That's why integrated reporting, for all its teething problems, is a step in the right direction.