There have been a couple of very interesting articles recently about the relationship between sustainability and resilience. The term sustainability suggests that we are trying to keep the system at a certain level. It flags the existence of an optimal operating point for the (earth) system that we need to moderate/change our behaviour to meet.

the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.”

Sustainability also has connotations of efficiency – the ‘best’ way to do something using the least amount of resources.

The term resilience, on the other hand, is the response we have to a shock. How well the infrastructure (built and human) can respond to sharp changes. Resilience can be defined as

 “the capability to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change”.

As the above graph shows, it is the capacity of a community to get back up and running after a disaster that will determine how it operates post disaster. The quicker the community can ‘get back to normal’, the better for it inhabitants, businesses and institutions.  Andrew Zolli, writing in the New York Times after Sandy hit New York in 2012, makes the link between resilience for communities and that required by emergency services personnel and people facing disasters.

The distinction between the two mirrors that of mitigation and adaptation in the climate change literature. To mitigate climate change is akin to becoming sustainable – changing the behaviours (and emissions) of people to stop the ‘bad’ outcomes we are trying to avoid. Adaptation, like resilience, takes the present situation as the focus and attempts to deal with what comes.

Rob Hopkins from the Transition Towns movement has called it, he believes there is now no more time for solutions, we have to spend our energy adapting to the changes already in the climate and resource systems.

 The future will look nothing like the past. Instead of “designing” a future based on historical observations and future extrapolations, we need to embrace uncertainty and build in resilience.

A very good article on via Paul Higgins spells this out beautifully. Talking about the New York sewer system, it demonstrates the difference between the two approaches in the real world. Building a sewer for resilience means that it is designed to overflow when the inflows become too high due to storm surges or very heavy rain, better it does so than forcing sewerage up the toilets of millions of New Yorkers. With more storms and heavy rain events, the canals and creeks it uses for overflow are becoming heavily polluted. Another example is outlined below:

 Some of the most obvious ways to become more resilient are not sustainable. For example, if you are concerned about reliable electricity, you can increase the resilience of your local grid by buying a diesel generator, or two, or more. In effect, that’s what the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters of the world do. But extra diesel generators are certainly not an efficient, or particularly sustainable, way to create electricity. It’s not ideal for the environment to be burning all that extra diesel, with attendant air pollution and the like.

The ‘trick’ will be to come up with solutions and infrastructure design that manages to do both – be resilient and sustainable. The challenge will be how to do this in economies that are contracting, as the approaches required may be costly. This is yet another reason why we should start to move onto a war footing when thinking about adapting to our changing climate. A report released in early 2011 looked at the process the UK went through at the beginning of WW2.

 The report reveals that in six years from 1938, British homes cut their coal use by a quarter and that between 1938 and 1944 use of personal motor vehicles dropped by 95%. It also showed that 31,000 tonnes of kitchen waste were being saved each year by April 1943, enough to feed 210,000 pigs, while the number of allotments soared, six million people were growing vegetables and food consumption fell at the same time as health improved.

This is the type of activity we need to be engaged in now. If we leave it too much longer, it will be too late.