Sustainability is a contested term with no set definition. Many define sustainability as allocating resources in a way that meets the needs of the present while maintaining them for future generations. Others think about sustainability through the framework of the “triple bottom line”–that is, simultaneously accounting for the repercussions of a policy or practice on people, the planet, and profit.
In either case, though, “sustainability” as it is regularly conceptualized falls short in that it assumes we're living on a planet that behaves the same way as the planet on which human civilization has grown. The latest reports from the IPCC verify that that planet is no more. Of course, sustainability is an important concept and one that should receive attention; however, in light of what we know is coming in terms of global climate change and the impending energy transition away from fossil fuels, I believe it prescient to look beyond sustainability towards the idea of resilience.
Resilience refers to the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance while still continuing to function. In the context of communities, resilience refers to the community's ability to respond with adaptability to disturbance, be it related to climate change or disruptions to the chains of supply to food, water, or energy.
A forest can only tolerate a drought for so long or endure so many fires before it no longer serves the role of “forest” for those that depend on it (human and non-human alike). Likewise, how many disturbances — lack of access to fresh water, rising sea levels, food supply disruption, the transition to new sources of energy, damaging weather events, heat waves, etc.– can our towns and cities withstand before they collapse?*
Whereas sustainability may attend to the social, ecological, and financial aspects of society for the planet as our ancestors knew it, resilience focuses on helping strengthen communities for planet that we now inhabit. As Transition Town movement founder Rob Hopkins explains in the Transition Handbook:
A community might, for example, campaign for plastics recycling, where all of its industrial and domestic plastic waste is collected for recycling. While almost certainly better for the environment as a whole, it adds nearly no resilience to the community. Perhaps a better solution (alongside the obvious one of producing less plastic waste), would be to develop other uses for waste plastics requiring minimal processing, such as tightly compressed building blocks or an insulating product for local use. Simply collecting it and sending it away doesn't leave the community in a stronger position, nor is the community more able to respond creatively to change and shock.
It's important to note that Hopkins isn't calling for an end to sustainability work. Rather, he's proposing a companion to sustainability that takes into account where experts in climate science predict we're heading. It's not sustainability or resilience. It's sustainability and resilience.
Whether we're in denial or simply unaware, the reality is that the places we live in and love will look different in the years to come due in large part because of the scope and rate of global climate change. This is true no matter how sustainably we live from this point forward. But this needn't be a losing proposition. Forethought, education, and a re-envisioning of the status quo could take us a long way in building our capacity for resilience while simulataneously building a more just society for all.
*I think one could make a solid argument that for some, particularly the poor and non-white, our towns and cities have already collapsed.