THE BLOG
01/22/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Sustainability vs. Resilience: Don't Give Up Yet

"Good bye sustainability, hello resilience," recently wrote Andrew Zolli, co-author with Ann Marie Healy of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.

Resilience, as defined in their book, is "the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances" -- an ideal attribute of any system especially in the face of unexpected events, such as the recent natural disasters, or more subtle disturbances that have systemic consequences. The rising frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters has, in fact, prioritized resilience on the climate change agenda. It's driven by economic incentives, social benefits, and the sentiment that, frankly, we don't seem to have any other choice.

However, with climate change and other environmental issues finally breaking into the headlines of U.S. mainstream media, is it really time for the sustainability advocates, whom Zolli seem to associate with "old-school environmentalist and social activists," to give up?

Resilience, they argue, is a strategy to deal with "unforeseen [disruptions], blooming amid the thicket of overlapping social, political, economic, technological, and environmental systems that govern our lives." Had such a strategy been in place in Mexico City, the sudden spike in corn prices -- "a potential humanitarian and political crisis" as described by the book -- due to the shutting down of 2,900 oil rigs more than 500 miles away two years prior, wouldn't have had the reverberating effects that escalated into a food crisis.

Sustainability on the other hand, according to Zolli, is "the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another." Comparing the two, "where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage an imbalanced world."

However, talk to any business that has successfully incorporated sustainability into their core practices, and they will use the terms interchangeably. (A thought experiment: listen to any of theCEO interviews from Corp2020, a network of corporations leading the vision for a green economy, and you can easily replace the word "sustainability" with "resilience.") Leaders in this field tackle sustainability challenges through responsible procurement and supply chain management, risk management, responsible investing, just to name a few, not only because it is better for the planet, but in order to "future-proof" their organizations.

So how can the two terms be used so interchangeably? The heart of sustainability is about systems. In E.F. Schumacher's seminal book, Small is Beautiful, he explains that the problem in our society is that "the modern industrial system, with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected." To use the language of systems, he explains a critical flaw in the boundaries and assumptions made. Along this line of a systems view emerged the concept of resilience, which "arguably, the sustainability of living systems -- including humans -- within the changing Earth system will depend on," according to Professor Joseph Fiksel who directs the Center for Resilience at Ohio State University. In the end, isn't learning how to manage an imbalanced world the first step towards equilibrium? Sustainable development in this unprecedented, more complex and uncertain world will "require resilience at many levels, including human communities and economic enterprises."

The recent revival of resilience due to black swans, natural disasters, and other unexpected events, does bring into light weaknesses in today's sustainability regime. Sustainability has become a political notion of tradeoffs among environmental, social and economic systems, with questioning of the term itself, and urban planners criticizing "sustainable" and LEED-certified buildings of Lower Manhattan for not being able to weather Superstorm Sandy.

Most critically, it brings into light that sustainability today has evolved to focus on "loadings," instead of consequences on the system. Many companies today are lauded for being zero-waste, carbon-neutral, and energy efficient. But efficiency and emissions, which are the main focii of most industrial ecology tools today, give rise to problems like Jevon's Paradox, a mismatch in awareness of true systemic effects and the individual user's false concept of environmental-friendliness. Today's concept of sustainability and the "green" practices that it has given rise to, have "focused mainly on reducing unsustainability rather than strengthening sustainability's systemic underpinnings."

In addition, resilience is a desirable characteristic of any system whether you are a sustainability advocate or not. Next week at Davos, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting will convene over 2,000 business and world leaders under the theme "Resilient Dynamism." Resilience has become synonymous with responsible leadership and foresight, and the discussion that this theme has generated in a wide variety of sectors already shows that it reaches beyond the typical sustainability audience.

Thus, resilience forces us to look back at our system ("it exists in a constant disequilibrium -- trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles"), and like some of the sustainability leaders in business (and some policymakers, too), it puts us back on the path that we started from, by tackling issues in a systems approach.

So, Mr. Zolli, don't forget about sustainability yet, we are adapting, too.

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