Resilience: Sustainability's Multidimensional Complement

Is "resilience" just "sustainability" rebranded? A sexier version of the environmental movement's decades-old aspiration? Or, is it a useful word that asks us to address new and important questions? Although many have grown cynical of the word in light of its increasingly prevalent usage, I think it constitutes more than a superficial injection into the environmental lexicon.

At the High Meadows Fund, as a rural, place-based environmental funder in Vermont, we have come to think of resilience in a two-pronged way: as a matter of both climate change mitigation and adaptation. To explain, extreme weather events like Tropical Storm Irene, which ravaged Vermont’s communities and environment, will become more frequent if we don’t take steps to mitigate factors contributing to the changing climate. At the same time, however, if we don’t adapt to the risks and vulnerabilities brought about by more extreme weather events and other impacts of a changing climate, we’ll find ourselves rebuilding systems destined to crumble in our hands. “Resilience,” then, often described as “A system’s ability to bounce back,” might be better defined as “A system’s ability to bounce better.”

With this more nuanced definition in mind, I have to remind myself that thinking about resilience as a matter of mitigation and adaptation in the context of little-old Vermont is only so productive. In the grand scheme of things, a state with only 600,000 people (roughly equal to the population of Hartford, Connecticut) faces obvious limitations in its ability to incite sweeping, far-reaching change. 

This point was recently reinforced for me at the national gathering of The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. One of the sessions I attended was titled “Building Resilience in Diverse Regions: Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.” It featured a panel of three funders who think about resilience in very different contexts and scales.

Gaye Symington, High Meadows’ president, spoke about resilience in a rural context, highlighting the aforementioned dichotomy between mitigation and adaptation as it applies to farmers, mobile home residents, and other rural populations. She preempted the notion of a “resilient city” by noting an urban area cannot be resilient if the surrounding rural areas, on which it depends for food, clean water and other environmental services, are not themselves resilient. Despite waning attention in light of global urbanization trends, Gaye made a compelling case for the inclusion of rural communities in broader environmental conversations.

Lois DeBacker of the Kresge Foundation approached resilience from the perspective of social and environmental justice, stressing decision makers need to think about resilience with low-income and vulnerable populations in mind. This approach served as a useful bridge between rural and urban resilience, as poverty, food insecurity, and other social issues are salient in both contexts.

Last to speak was Andrew Salkin of the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation. Andrew was decidedly agnostic about the meaning of “resilience.” In his engagement with cities around the world, he has encountered a multitude of interpretations of the word, many of which are not explicitly environmental in nature. Poverty, access to affordable housing, and hazard mitigation are just a few examples of issues being addressed to make urban areas more resilient.

At first I found the fickleness of resilience as it was represented by this panel to be frustrating at best and paralyzing at worst. How can anyone be expected to act on something if no one can agree on a common definition? I soon realized, however, the incidental brilliance of the concept’s inherent variability. The fact that it is so widely interpretable is a testament to – bear with me here – resilience’s resilience. Or, short of that, its flexibility.

I say this not as a defense or endorsement of the idea’s utility, but as a way of explaining  that any initiative, project, or idea presuming to fall under resilience’s auspices should be as multifaceted, nimble, and versatile as the concept itself. I verge on groaning as I write that, not only because I’ve likely over-intellectualized an idea that doesn’t require further complication, but because the notion of thinking “resiliently” as I’ve described it is much more daunting and complicated than thinking sustainably, which, as a matter of simply maintaining systems, is comparatively straightforward. 

If nothing else, I take comfort in feeling as though such a resilient lens will allow all of us to think a little more holistically about forging paths, from many directions, to a better world.

Stu Fram

April 2014