Resiliency: The New Sustainability?

Elise Miller, MEd

In response to a recent article in Ode magazine entitled “Beyond Sustainability”, Michael Lerner sent a insightful comment last week to CHE’s Integrative Health Working Group listserv noting how “resiliency” has become more predominately used among thought leaders than the term “sustainability” in recent years. Because this point has become a robust topic of discussion and debate among quite a number of colleagues in a range of fields, I wanted to take a moment to expand on this idea as I think it applies to much of our collective work in CHE and beyond.

First, just a bit of background on sustainability. This term emerged in our common lexicon in the early 1970s propelled by pioneering books such as Limits to Growth, written by Donella Meadows and a team of colleagues at MIT. Over time several sectors have influenced the meaning of this evolving concept, including environmentalists concerned with threats to the Earth’s ecosystems, economists quantifying “growth” in terms of quality of life (rather than as a measure of the amount of goods manufactured and consumed), social advocates focused on equity issues, and ethicists and others underscoring the moral, cognitive and spiritual dimensions of development. Though the nature of sustainability has been debated and revised over the last decades, the most commonly used definition is found in the Brundtland Commission report of 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Multiple initiatives over the last decades have established models and indicators of sustainability on international and community-based levels—some of which have proven effective. For the most part, however, sustainability has become increasingly politicized as “anti-growth” and equated with stagnancy and restricted activity, rather than suggestive of dynamic and creative opportunities.

In the last few years, even the proponents of sustainability have struggled with the term, particularly as clarity regarding climate change’s destructive potential has emerged. Leaders from different fields of expertise are asking what have we really accomplished when we still have increasing health disparities, a widening gap between rich and poor, the dominance of corporate globalization, farm subsidies that promote unhealthy food and wasteful distribution practices, deteriorating public education, and more untested toxic chemicals on the marketplace every year? In fact, some have suggested to me that we no longer have time to work towards sustainability—maybe we did in the 1970s and 1980s, but now we have to figure out how to be resilient and adaptive since the world, even a decade from now, will likely be unimaginably transformed given so many complicated forces at play.

Perhaps collectively we need a new term, like resiliency—one that evokes a sense of possibility and hope. After all, when we look around us or read the headlines, it’s hard to point to much that we actually want to sustain given the systems that currently control much of our lives. What I suspect, however, is resiliency will be just as challenging to cultivate as sustainability. We certainly want to continue to try to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But those needs seem to be changing ever more rapidly and are decidedly different for different populations and geographical regions. In addition, our society has a proclivity towards goal-setting—such as reducing asthma rates by a certain percentage by a certain year—rather than focusing on creating conditions, such as walkable neighborhoods, clean energy, green chemistry, accessible and affordable health care, etc. These kinds of systemic changes would not only inherently reduce asthma rates, but curtail the dramatic rise of  a whole range of chronic diseases and disabilities from diabetes to reproductive health problems to cancer.

Given this, cultivating the conditions that will allow us to become more resilient may hold the greatest promise for us and future generations. What that means for each of us—from taking public transportation to increasing the capacity of our local communities to respond to catastrophic weather events to negotiating international treaties banning persistent organic pollutants—is probably the most important decision we have to make at this juncture in history. 

To support your own decision making that can lead to both sustainability and resiliency, we welcome your participation in our regular conference calls on the emerging evidence-based environmental health research that is shaping our health and future. Our next two calls are Diabetes and Obesity: Evaluating the Science on Chemical Contributors taking place on Thursday May 12th and Science and Decisions: How Can We Advance Risk Assessment scheduled for Tuesday May 24th.


One thought on “Resiliency: The New Sustainability?

  1. I have concerns about shifting from the term sustainability to the term resiliency – resiliency generally refers to the extent to which a system can undergo perturbation and return to its state before the perturbation.

    But this state may not be a preferable state from the viewpoint of public health, conservation of threatened ecosystems, a just food system, etc. – for example, a watershed, forest or other ecosystem may be severely degraded but also be very resilient – that is very hard to change, including hard to improve.

    Sustainability should be seen as a process to reach a certain preferable state which includes consideration of factors that can make the preferred state more resilient to adverse perturbation.

    But one must still grapple with the issue of defining and reaching the preferred state.

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