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Resilience and Sustainability

February 11, 2013

As I reported in last week's blog, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, in their timely book, Resilience – Why Things Bounce Back, argue that the concept of sustainability has served us well for four decades, but now it's time to replace it with the idea of resilience.

To refresh your memory, Zolli and Healy argue that sustainability – the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet – needs to be replaced with resilience – how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. In other words, where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

The current emphasis on sustainability -- suggest Zolli and Healy -- pits one camp against another. In one camp -- what they call the Icarus camp – are those who tell us that we need to prune humanity's footprint, slow down, simplify and think local. In the other camp – what they call the Manifest Destiny camp – are those who argue that it's impossible to turn back, and that we will have to engineer our way out of inevitable problems. For good or ill, the Manifest Destiny camp argues, "we humans run the planet; with billions of wealthy, wasteful people walking the earth, billions of poor people striving for the opportunity to join them, and billions more as yet unborn about to swell humanity's ranks, the exploitation of resources is unpreventable."

The tipping point between risk mitigation (often the right and proper thing to do and advocate at a point in time) and risk adaptation (the right and proper thing to do when risk mitigation fails to prevent the catastrophe) – or between those who want to prepare for the danger and those who want to prepare for its aftermath – is happening now – according to the authors:

  • Rightly speaking, the contemporary sustainability movement has been (rightfully) preoccupied with risk mitigation for some time. Yet as irrevocable global changes of all sorts edge closer, a shift toward adaptation – and with it, an increasing focus on resilience – is underway. And not just in sustainability, but in many areas of significant future risk – from global economics to public health, poverty alleviation to corporate strategy.

In his recent Opinion piece in The New York Times [Learning to Bounce Back, November 2, 2012], Zolli uses Hurricane Sandy and Lower Manhattan as an example of what he means. One of the hardest hit areas by the storm, Lower Manhattan, was the most recently developed and should have been the least vulnerable part of the city. But, as Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer notes, it was meant to be sustainable, not resilient.

Zolli and Healy are careful to note that this doesn't mean that it's time to throw in the towel on global problems and accept that every disaster is inevitable. Rather, they see sustainability and resilience not in opposition, but as complementary to each other. We do, of course, need both approaches.

So, perhaps what we're witnessing is not a competition between the forces of sustainability and resilience, but an alliance of sorts. Of course, it's not as simple as all that, and Zolli and Healy explore these concepts in much greater detail than I'm capable of here. But, I recommend their book, Resilience – Why Things Bounce Back, as thoughtful and provocative reading. It may just start a movement.

What do you think? If you have a question or comment, please share it here. Or, alternatively, follow me on Twitter @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there.

P.S. Did you know that the United States Geological Survey—in addition to its work in warning people about earthquakes—is testing a system that ties its seismographs to Twitter: when the system detects an earthquake, it automatically begins scanning social media outlets for posts from the affected area about fires and damage to help individuals and communities cope with the aftermath?


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