Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Sustainability and Community Resilience: I. The Importance of Time

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, fear of the apocalypse seems to be driving some of what’s being done in the name of resilience. The Transition Town movement and John Robb’s Resilient Community blog are both based on a presumed death of globalization, and a tumbling down Peak Oil to a valley of unknown depth. Those John-the-Baptists who are proclaiming the coming apocalypse go on to preach from the Book of Sustainability as the Path to Resilience in the face of what’s coming.

I won’t assess any of their suggested actions – many I find useful, some I find silly, and some are likely counterproductive – but I do want to examine the relationship between resilience and sustainability. Is a sustainable community resilient? Is a resilient community sustainable? Are resilience and sustainability at opposite ends of a continuum, or at right angles to each other?

Right away, we’re confronted by a huge difficulty – both sustainability and resilience have become fads, so both words have become very imprecise concepts. The dictionary definitions of sustainability are about maintaining something at a constant level, or, as Wikipedia says, the capacity to endure. In essence, this means a type of persistence. However, if we look at the definition implied by the World Commission on Environment and Development, then sustainability is all about the balance between using resources for current needs vs saving them for use in the future. In what follows, I’m going consider sustainability as meaning a wise use of resources,
• Discriminating between wants and needs so that needs are met first, and
• Using resources efficiently – the least necessary to meet the maximal amount of needs.

Resilience has been tortured nearly as badly as sustainability. To some it’s a process, to some an attribute; to some, it means resisting change, to some reverting to normal after a crisis. However, resilience has one advantage in that almost all of the faddish definitions have this kernel of bouncing back after an external stress is applied. In what follows, I’m going to consider community resilience as a community’s ability to
• Anticipate crises,
• Take action to reduce their impacts,
• Respond effectively to them, and
• Recover rapidly.

If we compare these two, we can begin to see a contrast. In thermodynamic terms, sustainability is about trying to maintain equilibrium while resilience is a kinetic property – what happens when far from equilibrium. In philosophic terms, sustainability is ontological, resilience is phenomenological. Or, in my terms, resilience is all about time, and sustainability is timeless.

In the next in this series, I’ll look a bit at how the concept of community illuminates the relationship between these two.