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Are Sustainability And Resilience At Odds?

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In recent years the terms sustainability and resilience have been compared, differentiated, and used interchangeably by a variety of different writers and scientists. The lack of a proper understanding behind both concepts causes confusion and debate about whether or not they are the same term, similar terms, or completely different terms. Before the topic of sustainability and resilience being in variance of one another or not is discussed, it is important to understand the ideas behind both terms. Then we can look at both sides of the argument involving sustainability and resilience. Are they working together in unison to create a designed future, or are they contrasting ideas with varying approaches to the creation of our future?

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The widely accepted explanation of sustainable development is the process of strategically managing our resources while guaranteeing the welfare and promoting the equity of current and future generations. The concept of sustainability is comprised of three main elements: the economy, environment, and society. The well-beings of these three elements are vital toward a sustainable future. Resilience is an idea that focuses on how well individuals or communities bounce back from a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, and also incorporates how well those individuals and communities are able to adapt after the disaster.

Sustainability and resilience must work in unison, and in fact, have much to do with the implementation of each other. Becoming more sustainable, in turn makes one more resilient and less dependent, while becoming more resilient aides in the ability to become sustainable. The best examples of this have to do with the most important resources, that we can easily understand the importance of. Look no further than our food. In the last decade or so, there has been massive attention to the benefits of locally grown and sourced food. This fundamental change in the way we get our food has branches that grow deep into both sustainment and resilience camps. A community based improvement organization called the NGO Transition Network (TransitionNetwork.org) has shown, “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.” In this most basic method of being ‘sustainable’ the communities involved in increasing local food production are actively strengthening their resilience to worldwide food issues as well as the need for the fossil fuels and other sources which are required to provide non-local options.

When a society takes an active approach to becoming more sustainable, they are also making themselves more resilient to outside forces. Some believe resilience can often only be described as the ability to rebound from a trial or hardship. By being sustainable, we also unlock the alternate and often more effective and forgotten side of resilience, which is the prevention of these hardships from occuring in the first place. This is a approach best demonstrated by increasing clean energy sources and its beneficial effect on our temperatures. For the past 50 years, our temperatures on earth have increased faster than any other time in recorded history. This is shocking although it is not surprising. This temperature boom does happen to coincide with the largest consumption period the world has ever seen as well. The issue with this specific type of consumption is that it is heavily reliant on non-renewable resources like coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels. These types of energy all require some sort of chemical combustion which releases many greenhouse gases, the most potent and destructive being carbon dioxide. This is an unsettling fact when “According to the AGGI, [carbon dioxide] contributes 66% of the human-caused greenhouse effect and is the only greenhouse gas whose contribution is rising rapidly.” In other words, it’s not slowing down and our ability to be resilient to the aftermath is also decreasing. By increasing our production and utilization of clean energy like nuclear and solar, we can prepare ourselves against any future detrimental impacts, thus using resilience to deter negativity as opposed to waiting back and hoping to be alright afterwards.

Resilience and sustainability are not at odds, as a matter of fact, they are more dependant on each other now, than ever before. We must embrace both terms to create a future we can survive and thrive in.

In a 2012 article from the New York Times, Andrew Zolli differentiates our terms of interest when he explains, “where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world”. Sustainable development is concerned with how long a functioning system can last before wearing down and how to maximize the functioning parts, while resilience deals with the chaos of natural disasters after they happen and how to avoid and lessen the negative outcomes of future and expected similar disasters. We must first explore an example of their contradiction in order to see how the terms are at odds. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction in most recently redeveloped Lower Manhattan, there was much debate about large-scale infrastructure solutions for handling future storm surge and coastal flooding events. One such hypothetical solution, closeable sea gates at the narrow section of the entrance to New York harbor, would have forced the city to deal with unsustainable long-term costs related to energy, operation and maintenance, materials and resources. It is clear to see that this expensive fix to the lack of resilience in New York City would at the same time decrease the sustainability of the city, thus creating a negative correlation between the two in certain undesirable situations. The negative correlation is seen most in high-density urban areas where things like energy distribution and waste collection are very efficient, making the areas more sustainable. This same advantage, however, contributes to the vulnerability of that same densely populated area when you consider that they are much more prone to disease outbreak, political chaos, and economic downfalls. They also usually lack the proper amount of greenery to deal with coastal flooding and the necessary backup facilities in case of any natural disaster. What makes a high-density urban area more efficient and sustainable is what makes that area less redundant and resilient.

The increasing frequency of natural disasters, or environmental change in general, is alarming for sustainability advocates. The rise of resilience is evident, with over 900 attendees to Resilience 2014, a conference held in Montpellier, France. The pandemonium behind this buzzword takes away from the sustainable development agenda. While sustainability searches for a balance in the world that is as stable as possible, it is widely accepted that this is extremely difficult and if not, impossible. This “wishful thinking” has ecologists, social scientists, governments, architects, and engineers turning their heads to the concept of resilience in order to manage in this imbalanced world. Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer, was quoted saying, “…Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEED-certified, green buildings in the world, but that was answering only part of the problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment.” While ultimately the focus of the scientific community has shifted toward an integration of the two concepts, they must both be fully understood in order to avoid undesirable outcomes.

When speaking from a large-scale perspective it is safe to conclude that sustainability and resilience are ideas that work for each other more than they work against each other. Ideally we want our society, environment, and economy to be both sustainable and resilient. By being more sustainable we systematically reduce future detrimental impacts, making us more resilient. It is from a local-scale perspective where the two terms must be discussed with clarity and their objectives clearly understood in order to achieve a healthy relationship between the terms on a larger scale and to avoid unwanted and negative outcomes. Resilience and sustainability are not at odds, as a matter of fact, they are more dependant on each other now, than ever before. We must embrace both terms to create a future we can survive and thrive in.

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