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Sustainability vs. Resilience

July 17, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

This is a response to the article The End of Sustainability. William E. Rees is the co-creator of the Eco-Footprint concept and a Post Carbon Fellow. He authored the The Human Nature of Unsustainability, and Thinking Resilience chapters of the Post Carbon Reader [2010].


In my opinion this article [The End of Sustainability] is poorly reasoned, and mis-represents (misunderstands?) both sustainability and resilience.

Two sample quotes to illustrate (ignoring for a moment that the authors use a questionable definition/understanding of sustainability):

1) “Policy discussions remain framed by the goal of sustainability, ignoring the fact that the concept has failed to meaningfully change human behavior.”

So, the failure of corporate and government elites to operate in the broader long-term public interest is reason to abandon sustainability?  This is analogous (well, almost) to giving up laws on drug trafficking because they don’t meaningfully change the behaviour of the criminally inclined.

2) “….resilience and sustainability are not the same. The pursuit of sustainability assumes that we a) know what can be sustained and b) have the capacity to maintain stationarity (i.e., keep the system operating within an unchanging envelope of variability). In contrast, resilience thinking acknowledges disequilibrium and nonlinear, continual change ¬ often as a result of crossing a “tipping point” or threshold ¬ and offers a tool for assessing the dynamic relationships between systems,…”

There are at least two problems here.

i) Since when has sustainability been associated with “stationarity” even if the latter is defined (contradictorily?)  as “…operating within an unchanging envelope of variability”?  A sustainable system (e.g., your body, a natural ecosystem) can be as dynamic overall as any other system, even while key variables—body temperature, for example—operate within a relatively narrow “envelop of variability”.  A steady-state economy could theoretically be both sustainable and dynamic, constantly evolving and improving technologically and socially, hardly the image called up by “stationarity”.

ii) It is true that resilience “acknowledges disequilibrium and nonlinear, continual change ¬ often as a result of crossing a ‘tipping point’ or threshold”.  However, the point is to recognize that the behavioural domain on the other side of the tipping point is an “unknown unknown”. This is previously unexplored territory that may not be compatible with human needs or even continued human existence.

Consider the collapse of North Atlantic cod stocks. The latter were fished past a tipping point from which they have yet to return (The fishery was suspended in 1992). Had cod-dependent Newfoundland fishing communities not been bailed out by the Canadian federal government, they too would have collapsed.  In short, resilience theory tells us that complex systems have many possible ‘domains of stability’ (or ‘strange attractors’) in addition to those to which human societies have historically adapted. The North Atlantic cod ecosystem occupied one such stability domain for centuries and tolerated ever-increasing fishing pressure by the fleets of many nations. The introduction of modern high-capacity factory-freezer trawlers seems to have been a critical step, one that pushed the exploited ecosystem across the threshold into a different structural configuration. This famous case shows that crossing a tipping point poses unknown hazards that may prove costly or even fatal to the human component of the combined socioeconomic system (SES). The overall system may be complex and adaptive—the cod are not extinct—but the newly-configured post-threshold system’s structure may not include H. sapiens (and returning to accustomed ‘norms’ may not be possible).

Image Removed
IgorGolovniov / Shutterstock.com. Reproduced at postcarbon.org with permission.

These realities suggest that wise managers will try to avoid crossing tipping points whenever possible; they should attempt to maintain the system within a familiar range of variability but be ready for drastic adaptation if excess human exploitation drives the system beyond some threshold or the system’s natural developmental cycle takes it there. From this perspective, sustainability implies avoiding critical boundaries and maintaining the combined SES within its historically viable stability domain, i.e., an operating range compatible with reasonable human demands.

Resilience then becomes a theoretical construct for sustainability that: a) guides against breaching unknown systems boundaries; b) suggests that continuous changes in certain driving variables is inherently dangerous (e.g., continuously increasing fishing pressure, escalating GHG emissions, or constant material growth) and; c) warns that surviving the breach of a major tipping point,whether human induced or natural, will require unprecedented levels of investment, cooperation and other forms of institutional and societal adaptation. Human-induced climate change will almost certainly validate all these assertions.

In short, resilience thinking is a complement to sustainability, not a substitute.