What comes after Sustainability? Resilience?

According to Rob Hopkins of the Transition Movement, and following David Holmgren, the co-creator of the permaculture concept, sustainability is not enough and we need to move beyond it. But what comes after sustainability? The answer, it seems, is: resilience.

How successful has the paradigm of sustainability been at achieving its aims? It makes an interesting thought experiment to try to assess what your corner of the world would be like today were it not for all the many initiatives that have taken place over the last twenty or so years under the rubric of ‘sustainability’ and its older sibling ‘sustainable development’.

In spite of some clear differences springing to mind (I’m thinking especially of waste recycling, and maybe the end of lead in motor fuel, and some notable biodiversity/conservation gains to set against all the losses – in fact this deserves an article in its own right…), on the whole it surely wouldn’t be all that different, would it?

  • Travelling everywhere by car unless a plane will get you there quicker? Check!
  • Buying huge amounts of stuff then throwing it away? Check!

So much of what we do now, we were going to do anyway, and the concept of sustainability has not been a particularly effective tool at getting us to change direction, or even to slow down.

But is there any alternative? Here is a quote from a relevant article:

‘”Sustainability,” Hopkins recently told me, “is about reducing the impacts of what comes out of the tailpipe of industrial society.” But that assumes our industrial society will keep running. By contrast, Hopkins said, Transition is about “building resiliency” – putting new systems in place to make a given community as self-sufficient as possible, bracing it to withstand the shocks that will come as oil grows astronomically expensive, climate change intensifies and, maybe sooner than we think, industrial society frays or collapses entirely.’

What are the key differences between sustainability and resilience?

  1. Whereas sustainability implies a ‘steady state’ conception of the world, living within our means indefinitely, resilience recognises dynamism and volatility. Change, for resilience science, is of the essence. Resilience is not about halting change, but about maintaining those things that really matter to us in the midst of great change.
  2. Sustainability has ostensibly reasonable – but in practice vastly ambitious – aims ‘to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ and it is unclear that this is achievable at any scale on which it has been attempted. In contrast, resilience has more modest aims and can be defined as ‘the capacity of a system to undergo disturbance and maintain its functions and controls, and may be measured by the magnitude of disturbance the system can tolerate and still persist’ (Wallington, Hobbes and Moore, 200:4)
  3. Sustainability has a somewhat integrated concept of the way the world works. The three pillars of sustainable development are widely understood to be the social, the ecological and the economic and it is the interactions between these that drive the system. Without denying this, resilience is more integrated because it sees, and tries to study, only one system, the social-ecological, which operates at many different levels of scale so that it makes sense to conceptualise ‘social-ecological systems’. However it does not make sense to split off the social from the ecological. This interaction is the sine qua non of the resilience approach.
  4. From the outset, sustainability was a social-political concept in search of scientific confirmation. It has achieved confirmation spectacularly successfully with the scientific models of anthropogenic climate change, ‘the biggest example of market failure in history’, as Nicholas Stern put it. In contrast, resilience is a scientific approach, specifically an ecological approach, based on the work of ecologists such as Buzz Holling and Lance Gunderson, in search of social-political applications. These distinctions are of course hardly cast in stone, since no science is ‘value neutral’ and ecology certainly isn’t. But resilience arguably carries greater scientific precision that sustainability.
  5. There is a key difference of focus – broad versus narrow – between the two concepts. If you want to improve sustainability there is an almost endless list of actions you could carry out. All of them could be said to make the world more sustainable (since ‘social’, ecological’ and ‘economic’ covers just about anything). Resilience is more narrow. It proposes that a sustainable social-ecological system is simply one that is more resilient rather than less resilient. So by focusing on the resilience of system components rather than other features, the long list of actions that could take priority is somewhat reduced.

There are differences between sustainability and resilience, but is it really as simple as seeing the one replaced by the other? Bossel (1998) sees resilience as only one important aspect of sustainable ecosystems.

I can’t help thinking that the replacement of one worthy concept by another equally worthy concept is a distraction from the main event, which is ongoing, accelerating destruction in the name of progress or of profit. To take just one example of many, I would like to live in a world where koalas weren’t threatened with extinction, but even such a modest aspiration is made to appear unreasonably ambitious. I don’t think either sustainability or resilience will get me there.

What would it be called, then, this deep desire to live with other species without eliminating them? Living within our means? Not exactly. I think part of the problem is that my culture doesn’t really even have the words, much less the possibility of co-habitation in its repertoire.

Sustainability. Resilience.

We’re clutching at straws.

More on resilience:

A Month of Resilience

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