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The Resilient World

Environmental architect William McDonough is said to have asked, "If a person described her relationship with her spouse as merely 'sustainable' wouldn’t you feel sorry for both of them?"

The word "sustainability" has come to dominate environmental discourse, employed to mean a condition in which we take no more from our environment than the environment is able to restore. It's a reasonably goal, but a limited one. Sustainability is a static concept: it says nothing about change, or improvement. McDonough's point is that "sustainable" is hardly a condition worth celebrating; at best, it's the maintenance of the status quo.

It seems to me that what we should be striving for is an environment -- and a civilization -- able to handle dynamic, unexpected changes without threatening to collapse. This is more than simply sustainable, it's regenerative and diverse, relying on both a capacity to absorb shocks and to co-evolve with them. In a word, it's resilient.

If we're to survive the 21st century, we need to be striving for environmental and civilizational resiliency.

In a "sustainable" environment, we live in constant fear of greed, accident or malice tipping the balance away from sustainability, returning us to the spiral of over-consumption and environmental depletion. Ironically, the goal of environmental sustainability is highly likely to put us on the path of ongoing environmental management. To an extent, this is already true -- ecologist Daniel Janzen argues that we're better off thinking of the environment as a garden to be tended than as wilds to be preserved -- but sustainability as a goal means constant vigilance. It's not simply that the environment can no longer be considered "wild;" in the sustainability paradigm, the environment can only be considered a subject. A sustainable world is one that manages to avoid imminent disaster, but remains perpetually on the precipice.

The underlying problem with the concept of "sustainability" is that it's inherently static. It presumes that there's a special point at which we can maintain ourselves and maintain the world, and once we find the right combination of behavior and technology that allows us to reduce our environmental footprint to a "one planet" world, we should stay there. For some sustainability advocates, this can include limiting ourselves technologically, as suggested by the frequency with which such advocates dismiss "techno-fixes" as simply allowing us to continue to behave badly. More broadly, as a strategic goal, sustainability pushes us towards striving to achieve success within boundaries; the primary emphasis of the concept is on stability.

"Resiliency," conversely, admits that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, so the environment -- and our relationship with it -- needs to be able to withstand unexpected shocks. Greed, accident or malice may have harmful results, but (barring something likely to lead to a Class 2 or Class 3 Apocalypse), such results can be absorbed without threat to the overall health of the planet's ecosystem. If we talk about "environmental resiliency," then, we mean a goal of supporting the planet's ability to withstand and regenerate in the event of local or even widespread disruption.

Like sustainability, resiliency is a strategic concept, intended to guide how choices are made. But resiliency doesn't presuppose limitations; rather, it encourages the diversification of capacities, in order to be responsive to uncertain future problems. We can think of this as "strategic flexibility" or "maintaining our options," but it comes down to avoiding being trapped on a losing path.

When applied directly to environmental strategies, resiliency may appear similar to sustainability in superficial ways. Both sustainability and resilience would encourage aggressive moves to greater energy efficiency, for example. The similarity of tactics belies a divergence of intent, however; for sustainability the purpose is to reduce our impact to below a certain threshold, while for resilience, it's to increase the resources available to meet future problems. We see overlap like this because resiliency embraces the near-term goal of sustainability, inasmuch as resiliency recognizes that the depletion of planetary resources and ecosystem diversity is a self-destructive process.

For me, environmental resilience is a much more satisfying philosophy than environmental sustainability because of its emphasis on increasing our (our planet's) ability to withstand crises. Sustainability is a brittle state: unexpected changes (natural or otherwise) can easily cause its collapse. Resilience is all about being able to handle the unexpected. It does not ignore the need to be "sustainable" in the most general sense, but does not see that as a goal or end-point in and of itself. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.


How about that.

A piece on resilience this morning.


I like restorative myself.

This has always been a problem going back to the alternative, renewable, appropriate, soft, sustainable technology days of thirty years ago. We still haven't found the right adjective and probably never will.

Resilience is good; so is restorative. So is sane.

This is an interesting idea. Certainly the strategic framework selected to move forward with addressing global problems is significant.

I don't really accept the argument that sustainability is necessarily more fragile than achieving resiliency.

Cuba went through a stage of enforced sustainability. Having achieved this, (basically, farming and transportation without free oil from USSR,) one could also label them resilient.

Never mind cuba - not holding them up as "the way" - we can't consume earth services faster than they can be replenished.

we are. in a big way.

it's go to stop.

That's my sustainability metric. I happily accept further refinenments and I think the concept of resiliency is a good one.

Resilience and restorative also have the advantage of fitting into a realistic civil defense context.

That's one reason why I say
Solar IS Civil Defense.

Exactly, gmoke -- I see resilience as a larger strategy for handling the big challenges of the century beyond global climate disruption.

My colleagues and I in the Resilience Alliance (resalliance.org), an international network of scientists and practioners, have been working to develop a resilience based approach to society and nature.

Our website has quite a bit of information, but we have also published a few books.

The less technical and shorter

Brian Walker & David Salt's 2006 Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World

or the more technical, longer, editted book

Gunderson and Holling 2002 Panarchy: understanding transformation in social and natural systems.

We also publish: Ecology and Society (www.ecologyandsociety.org). An open access, on-line journal of "integrative science for resilience and sustainability"


Hello Jamais,

Great post, sincerely. Which opens the door for lot more questions about our (i.e. Humanity) future. Like this one : how about George Lucas being right about * The Force * ? Something in the Universe that bring us, all atom-made stuff, all together ? In this case, perhaps the resilience concept concerns every single specie on Earth ? AND the planet herself. In other words : maybe we should start thinking about our future with ourselves Human Beings as being ONLY a small portion of the entire world. We shall keep in mind that the number of living insects on Earth today outspace the number of humans who ever lived on it ;-)

To survive, to thrive, and to be free?

How might resiliency connect with democracy?

Will actions toward resiliency promote "fairer distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of concrete technodevelopmental outcomes" [Dale Carrico]?

From what kinds of injustice, if any, might people get emancipated in a resilient world?

"For me, environmental resilience is a much more satisfying philosophy than environmental sustainability because of its emphasis on increasing our (our planet's) ability to withstand crises."

Don't skimp on backups or fire extinguishers

really enjoyed this post jamais.

Interesting! To me, "sustainable" sounds dynamic and adaptive, while "resilient" sounds stable. Resilience (to me) is about not being affected by what's going on around us. Actually, both ideas seem relevant and important: We want to be affected by the world enough to be responsive and connected, but at the same time able to hold our center amidst changing circumstances.

I would suspect we need many words so people can choose the ones most meaningful to them, or to the situation at hand. Thanks for highlighting the importance of resilience.

This is an excellent post, thanks Jamais. Resilience (to me) sends a much stronger positive message than sustainability; the ability to adapt and overcome versus the ability to just keep afloat.

Path versus destination? Maybe we need to be resilient (surviving all sorts of ugly stuff that we've created) so that we may reach sustainability (some sort of hopefully-less-ugly promissed land)? You need to survive in order to keep on working towards sustainability.

I also tend to think of it in terms not of "we're into sustainable developement" but rather "we are developing [verb] sustainability". So "resilience" is this intermediate path we need to focus on because it's both important and urgent.

Ah, words. :-)

Current forms of aspirational development on the Western model are destroying resilience, replacing native agricultural knowledge with monopolised oil dependant monoculture for example.

We need to abandon the concepts of developed/developing world and replace them resilient/non-resilient world. Then we will see who has the true wealth.


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