“Sustainability” and “resilience” have become by-words for today’s ecological movement. But these two concepts can be at odds with one another. Here’s a look at what the two concepts really mean, and how they can work together.
In 2012, the United Nations issued The Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Plan on Global Sustainability, entitled “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing.” The report emphasizes the concept of “sustainable development” to ensure a prosperous future for the planet. In a nutshell, the thought behind sustainable development is that with the proper engineering, knowledge, and organization, we can continue to grow the world’s economies using strategies that protect the environment.
But as Robert Daniels writes in a 2012 paper presented at the at the European Association of Social Anthropologists in 2008 (and revised in 2010), “until we stop pumping oil, mining coal, cutting down forests, paving roads, and generating radioactive waste, the concept strikes me as a dangerously delusional fantasy.”
Sustainable development vs. sustainable “degrowth”
A newer train of thought gaining credence among experts and activists is the idea of “degrowth” (roughly – and somewhat problematically – translated from the French decroissance). For those advocating sustainable degrowth, our current technological and economic systems are built on growth that never ceases, never levels off… and that kind of growth can never be sustained indefinitely. Our “infinite growth” industries are built on finite resources, and even alternative or renewable energy sources can’t keep up with our current pace of growth forever. Or even for very long.
Instead, advocates of degrowth suggest that we acknowledge the reality of a time in the near future when we cannot support even our current level of international “development” with the natural resources our planet has to offer. Instead of pushing to create an energy infrastructure that can somehow sustain the unsustainable, “rather it is how we deal with the consequences of not having the energy and other resources to maintain those same systems” (according to David Korowicz in a 2010 paper, “Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production – An Outline Review”).
Resilience and sustainability
This is a bit of a simplification, but in general, both camps – those who advocate for sustainable growth and those who believe policy and R & E funds should be going toward sustainable degrowth options – emphasize the concept of “resilience” as a key to finding sustainable, long-term solutions to our major social, political, economic, and ecological problems.
A resilient system is able to bounce back from adversity, partially through fail-safe mechanisms that create ways to manage crisis situations. A sustainable system, as it’s currently cast, is an increasingly efficient system that saves energy and thus money while protecting the environment – almost as a byproduct. (For a nice treatment, check out David Biello’s October 2012 article in Slate magazine.)
The means to make a system more resilient aren’t always sustainable. Biello uses the example of cities that build in diesel generators as backup in cases of power failure. More resilient, yes – but that diesel isn’t exactly the sustainable energy of the future.
There are ways to yoke sustainability and resilience to the same cart. And doing so may be the key to capturing the public imagination – and the political legs to make it real. In another Slate article, Tori Bosch wrote, “Resilience requires seemingly disparate fields – fiscal policy, national security, environmental protection, infrastructure – to work together to create robust systems.” It’s up to this generation to build systems that are both sustainable and resilient, within this planet’s means.
As Gandhi once said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
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