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What’s next after sustainability? December 6, 2010

The question has emerged at conferences, talks and sessions that I have participated in recently. Environmental sustainability is recognized to be important and necessary. Sustainability refers to surviving in the current state of the world, and neutralizing our impact on the planet. But, once we have managed to do this (and we have a long ways to go, so I am not suggesting this has already happened), the question is – how do we not only survive but thrive? This is where the concept of resilience comes into play. Resilience is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as ‘the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress’. Depending on whom you ask, resilience is a key component of sustainability or it is the next step after the sustainability. It refers to adaptability, ingenuity,flexibility – a certain ruggedness that will enable us to thrive in changing circumstances. I believe it is a necessary next step after sustainability, and that we should look to it even as we are aiming to achieve environmental sustainability.

The concept of resilience in the environmental arena is not new. It was discussed in the 1970s in the context of ecosystem dynamics.  It has recently re-emerged as a topic of discussion as some ecologists and economists have focused on it, looking at it from an economic, social and environmental perspective. It has been a theme at past conferences, such as the ICLEI conference in Korea in October, and will be the main theme of a conference in early 2011.

Resilience is evident in the natural world, where evolution has favored those who can adapt to new circumstances. It has also been adapted by the business world, where companies must respond to changing market demand, new competitors, and new technology. Systems that are not designed to adapt quickly will fail (some examples that come to mind are our banking system and energy infrastructure). The question is whether they will be able to learn from their failures and rebound. Resilience has also been adapted by communities, as can be seen in the example of Transition Towns, which have been in existence for many years overseas and in the United States.

There are increasingly more books written on the topic. To learn more, take a look at some of these:


One Response to “What’s next after sustainability?”

  1. Andrew Spencer Says:

    That’s an interesting idea. To me it seems that Sustainabilty is the ‘end’ and Resilience and Adaptability are the ‘means’ to achieving that end. Would you agree?

    Buidling resilience into natural and social systems is essential if we are to adapt to an ever-changing world, where the speed of the feedback systems are reaching unprecidented levels. To me, this means developing local solutions to problems is as important as seekiing global solutions. While we can’t loose sight of macro management of global threats by seeking political cooperation as the largest scale, we also need to develop micro managment of issues at the grass roots level. Therefore localised, fleixble solutions created by the individuals and business and political institutions in a particular area or region will become ever more important, and I believe this is true for social, economic and environmental systems.

    I’m very interested to know if you have any examples where the concept of Resilience has been integrated into planning and descision making processes, and whether there have been any success storys we can learn from.

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