Resilience vs. Sustainability

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This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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photo by Derek Jensen

Is the glass half-sustainable or half-resilient?

Have you noticed the word ‘resilience’ cropping up in places where you might expect to see the word ‘sustainable’? Are the speakers making a real distinction here, or are they just moving on from yesterday’s buzz word? Let’s find out.

First, Merriam Webster defines the two words as follows:

resilience:

1. the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress

2. an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

sustainability:

1. capable of being sustained

2a. of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> 2b. of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods<sustainable society>

Wow. Does the increased use of ‘resilience’ mean planners and policy makers are becoming more pessimistic? Are they already assuming the worst and now aiming for damage control instead of wise action? Well, maybe. But in all honesty, there is a difference, and it is important to make the distinction. This is not an either/or occasion, but more of a both/and.

Perhaps it seems obvious, but it is crucial to use the right words in order to come as close to the precise meaning as possible. ‘Sustainable’ is a very pro-active word, but it says nothing about the context in which it operates. The word ‘resilience’ by contrast implies a built in complexity; it is a word of reaction, and of endurance. The terms converge, but they are on separate tracks. My point is this – not only do the right words communicate to others better, but the right words can also re-frame the ‘same old thing’  in a beneficial and insightful way. In other words, if sustainability starts at home, maybe spin should too.

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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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2 comments on “Resilience vs. Sustainability

  1. […] Resilience vs. Sustainability […]

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