Sustainability and resilience are compatible concepts, but they’re not the same thing. An ideal community, economy or business will be both sustainable and resilient. However, either can exist without the other. Here’s why:
Sustainability implies continuity, something that is replenishable and that can continue without artificial inputs. Referring to something as sustainable indicates that its resources will never run out, often because these resources are used, broken down and then used again. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines sustainability as:
- Able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed [e.g., raw materials and/or natural resources].
- Involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources [e.g., a project’s systems of operation].
- Able to last or continue for a long time.
These definitions originated from the concepts of balance and continuation in nature. Consider the cycle of a plant in its natural setting: The seed grows, is nurtured by soil and water, matures, dies and breaks down into reusable components that feed the next crop of seedlings. Extra seedlings are produced to compensate for those that do not survive, and the cycle exists in balance with its surroundings.
Contrast this definition with the current use of fossil fuels, which is rapidly depleting our supply of these resources. Considering the many uses of fossil fuels in the Western economy, this could have a widespread, destructive impact. One solution is to become more sustainable in our use of these resources.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back after a disaster, whether natural (such as earthquakes, hurricane and tornadoes) or man-made (such as bombings and chemical spills). It involves anticipating disasters and developing systems to mitigate them.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines resilience as:
- The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.
- The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.
The increase in man-made and extreme weather disasters is provoking a response from the European Union (EU). In 2013, 20 percent of its relief funding went toward disaster risk reduction and two-thirds of its humanitarian projects included activities that served this purpose. In April 2014 this organization hosted the first EU Resilience Forum to “serve as catalyst for the global efforts to support people in areas facing recurrent disasters or conflicts – to prepare for, withstand and recover from stresses and shocks.”
Different Starting Points
Sustainability starts with a functioning system, and then looks at how long that system can operate without wearing down. It also takes into consideration how a system’s component functions can be improved so that the system can run continuously on its own.
Resilience starts with a disaster, and then looks at how to clean up afterward. It then considers how to prevent or minimize a future disaster, or at least minimize the negative effects of the disaster. The end result may or may not be sustainable, although a sustainable outcome is ideal.
Resilience and Sustainability in Action
The concepts of resilience and sustainability can be more easily understood through an example. As NGO Transition Network has discovered, increased resilience against the depletion of fossil fuels ripples out in ways that contribute to economic and social stability. One great example is locally grown food, which demonstrates both sustainability and resilience at work.
Not only is locally grown food often healthier to eat than food produced in other countries, but producing food locally reduces the amount of fuel needed to transport it from the farm to the consumer. Sustainable, local gardening methods also reduce the need for pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, all of which are products of fossil fuels. And, growing food locally can reduce the need for plastic packaging, also produced from fossil fuels.
Growing food locally not only makes a community more resilient against the depletion of fossil fuels; it also decreases food shortages. In areas where food has traditionally been scarce, such as deserts in southern Africa, people are borrowing technologies developed elsewhere (e.g., rain or moisture collection methods) to produce food locally. If local communities worldwide can grow enough food to go around, it could even lead to a decrease in war — one of the biggest hogs of fossil fuels.
The Future of Sustainability and Resilience
Sustainability and resilience can work together in the economy, construction, transportation systems, systems of government and almost other system in existence. Resilience is the ability to recover from a disaster that could have been prevented or mitigated with sustainable practices. Sustainable practices contribute to resilience, and both are the ultimate goals of a healthy society.