Resiliency, but not at the expense of sustainability

November 26, 2012 by Matt Polsky

Andrew Zolli, in his op-ed in The New York Times called “Learning to Bounce Back,” says that it's time to talk about resiliency.  He’s right, but unfortunately he uses sustainability as a straw man to get there.  He makes a number of unnecessary criticisms of the term “sustainability,” reminding me how many people have yet to appreciate its purpose and benefits.

In his article, Zolli defines resilience as “how to help vulnerable people, organizations, and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions.”  I see resilience as a part of the much larger field of sustainability.  Jonathan Cloud, in a forthcoming article called “The Wake-up Call,” calls it “an aspect of sustainability.”  If we can agree that sustainability and resiliency actually fulfill different, and in some cases the very same, aspects of a solution, then why disown the term?

A number of things Zolli says about sustainability are actually rare and unrepresentative.  He states that sustainability:

  • calls for "a balance," a "perfect, statis-under-glass equilibrium"
  • aims to "try to stop the ocean," and
  • "proponents" "ignore" "human inhabitants."

He points to the failure of “sustainability-promoted” green buildings to stand up to flood waters in lower Manhattan as a problem for the concept.  However, if anyone thought just doing LEED buildings was enough for sustainability, they misunderstood the concept or were guilty of over-promising.

However, Zolli does make many positive points about resiliency, citing:

  • its emphasis on disequilibrium
  • how it uses “nature itself as a form of soft infrastructure"
  • the importance of humility
  • the need to get on with adaptation--as long as mitigation is not neglected; and
  • the importance of resilience at the level of human coping mechanisms, and that we should take innovation lessons from poor areas more used to large disruptions.

But all this could have been said without trashing the parent concept.

He offers another interesting thought that resiliency approaches “offer diverse tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation, and creativity before, during and after a crisis” "in lieu of (my emphasis) master plans."  While I wouldn't say "in lieu," I've never found a planner or planning advocate open to accepting any limits or need for modifications to their field.  This is a barrier to multidisciplinary work, as both are needed.

As a sustainability proponent, it’s perpetually frustrating that sustainability is rarely discussed in mainstream circles.  Frankly, it has been difficult to break through.  (See my piece in GreenBiz.com, "Where is Sustainability in The New York Times?") When I first drafted a response to Zolli’s article a couple of weeks ago, I wrote, “I don't see any great groundswell of discussion about resilience at this point,” so from that key perspective, no advantage over sustainability.

However, I must admit that as of this writing, I’m seeing a welcome abundance (almost said “flood”) of articles about resilience, including those raising connect-the-dots big questions to which society is ordinarily so resistant, such as where, how, and even whether to rebuild.  While unfortunately reinforcing the old chestnut that “It takes a crisis,” people can overcome denial, accept that they’re still subject to the power of nature, realize they’ll have to do some things differently, and consider making some difficult choices. So, in that respect, resilience has helped us to break through.

In a different article in The Atlantic Cities, Zolli and Jonathan Rose are interviewed, stressing these points about resilience:

  • Different fields use the term to mean slightly different things, so it can feel frustratingly slippery to define
  • It contains paradoxes, nuances, complexity, trade-offs, and hybrid systems
  • In emergencies, practitioners need a wide range of cognitive skills
  • We need systems that are integrated across scales, but also separable across scales.

Very similar to sustainability!  But how likely will this work in an elevator pitch (speaking in the non-emergency, metaphoric sense)?  Despite the current wave of popularity for the “resilience” term - brought on suddenly as people struggle through a huge, frightening problem - its long-term prospects for use in the media and everyday discussion do not seem any better that those of sustainability.  Furthermore, as I’ll be arguing in my upcoming GreenBiz.com series, resilience, as well as other substitute terms that have been raised, does not address the many themes which sustainability does.  So the question becomes: what do you lose by dropping sustainability?  Besides the lost benefits, perspectives, and meaning, the resiliency concept may also have to prove it can withstand the same level of criticisms that the sustainability concept has absorbed.

There are some welcome efforts to overcome problems with communicating the sustainability concept.  I hope my upcoming series creates a nice discussion and some level of convergence between proponents and critics.  Fortunately, the International Society of Sustainability Professionals’ (ISSPs’) Lexicon Project, run by Ira Feldman, aims to improve the level of consistency of the terms used by sustainability professionals.  That should help a great deal.

Resiliency, at least in concept, may finally be here.  That’s good, as it says much that we need to hear about avoiding repeated crises.  But so does its parent concept: sustainability. If the momentum and substance shown by the resiliency concept gets us further into taking sustainability mainstream, so much the better. I hope now that we can stop arguing about sustainability and calling for its deletion, and just focus on achieving it.

About the Author - Matt Polsky

Matt Polsky is a sustainability consultant and Senior Fellow for Sustainability Innovation & Multidisciplinary Thought with the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE) at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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