Time to shift from sustainability to resilience

In my previous post I mentioned my stance of climate change being a predicament rather than a problem. That’s just one of the challenges that are moving from the problem-space into the predicament-space. As that happens, we will need to shift our thinking more from the now-futile prevention of these developments to coping strategies, i.e. resilience. I recently started reading a great book by A. Zolli, Resilience, that puts this shift into an enlightening context by the means of a clever analogy:

As volatility continues to hold sway, resilience-thinking may soon come to augment or supplant the sustainability regime altogether.

To see why, consider a thought experiment:

Imagine we gather all of the people who are concerned about a major global disruption – irrevocable climate change, for example, though it could be any major future crisis – and place them, metaphorically, in a single car. Now let’s send that car accelerating toward a cliff – a climatological point of no return.

At the beginning of the car’s journey, one group in the car will hold moral authority: those who align themselves with risk mitigation. ‘Turn back!’ they shout. ‘Hit the brakes! Or at the very least take your foot off the accelerator!’ At this point in the car’s journey, this is precisely the moral and proper thing to do.

However, as their calls go unheeded, and the car approaches a point where, even if the brakes were hit, the car would still likely skid over the edge, another group will come to occupy the moral high ground: those who align themselves with risk adaptation. ‘We had better build some air bags and a parachute,’ they say, ‘since we could go over whether we like it or not.’ As above, at this point in the car’s journey, this is a moral and proper thing to advocate.

In between those two points, there is usually a transition – sometimes generational – between those who believe the best path is to avoid the danger and those who want to prepare for its aftermath. Early on, mitigationists accuse the adaptationists of throwing in the towel and conceding defeat too early; later, the adaptationists accuse the mitigationists of wasting time and diverting resources trying to stop the inevitable.

Broadly 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 under way. And not just in sustainability, but in many areas of significant future risk – from global economics to public health, poverty alleviation to corporate strategy.

This is not to say that we must abandon hope and accept every calamity as inevitable. Rather, the resilience frame suggests a different, complementary effort to mitigation: to redesign our institutions, embolden our communities, encourage innovation and experimentation, and support our people in ways that will help them be prepared and cope with surprises and disruptions, even as we work to fend them off.

‘Sustainability’ has become a household name used and over-used for pretty much everything and anything, having in the process lost much of its meaning; very few things billed as sustainable nowadays truly are. Given that additional context, maybe shifting the emphasis away from sustainability and more into resilience isn’t a bad thing at all – and with the speed of change upon us, it can’t happen soon enough.

For many, the mere shift in thinking is going to be hard to swallow. It can easily sound like giving up, even though it isn’t.

But it is, as put by Zolli above, the moral and proper thing to do.

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