Resilient, Sustainable or Unsustainable?

I have a bone to pick with academics regarding the hijacking of common words in the English language (or probably any other language for that matter) for their own arcane purposes.  There seems to be a tendency, as in other cases in our narcissistic society, to take something of common property and twist it to make it one’s own.  Being an accountant, and therefore trained in the art and science of splitting hairs on seemingly mundane issues, I take offense to this and feel compelled at times to say ‘Enough!‘.

The issue at hand is the discussion of responsive strategies to storm surge and sea level rise, in which the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’ have taken on prominence, and are too often used as synonyms for each other, which they are not.  But the mangling of meaning is not only relevant to storm surge, or other facets of climate change, but business continuity, healthcare, the military, technological evolution, the economy in general, life itself.  So, maybe it’s worth taking a few moments to split a hair or two.

First, let us acknowledge that the English language in particular is a living thing, which means that it is also an evolving thing (for those who believe in evolution in all its forms). That means that change is inevitable, if not good, in meaning.  But the point of language is to communicate, and to that end, each word, each little vessel of meaning, should hold reasonably constant over some period of time, or we have babble.

In the context of sea level rise and storm surge (and let’s throw in drought and water depletion and wildfires) the terms ‘resilient’ and ‘sustainable’ have been used interchangeably to define the goal of public policy to move a condition of exposure beyond current vulnerability to a status of future safety and endurance.  The goal is good. But the criteria for attaining that goal require a parsing of the two terms.

In general usage by us common folk of modest educational attainment (and ratified by Merriam-Webster and various and sundry other chroniclers of lexicon) resilience means the ability to bounce back from adversity of some kind, to return to prior form.  Sustainability refers to the ability to maintain form or status or state of being over time and against opposing forces or influences of degradation. Not the same things.

Because we live in a world of competing forces, sustainability generally requires a component of resilience, because all beings or entities face attack in various forms by hostile forces of nature.  In the human analog, I sustain by eating and sleeping well, properly clothing and housing myself against the elements and educating myself in the proper use of language so as to communicate my needs, wants and value to others.  But when my normal mode of function is impaired by illness, my body reserves, my immune system, my health insurance and my family support system, (my various resources of resilience), return me to a state of sustainability…if I have any and all of these necessary to the particular threat.  Unfortunately, short of the end-game of death, there may become situations which are unsustainable, in which no amount of resilience can RETURN AND MAINTAIN me to sustainable health and function.

It is the alternative state of unsustainability which makes the distinction between resilience and sustainability vital, as we are now seeing on the New Jersey and New York shores in the aftermath of Sandy, or the mountain-sides of California and Arizona and Colorado in the aftermath of wildfires, or in little Texas towns run dry by fracking in competition with drought, or in communities on the Elbe and Danube which have had their third ‘100 year flood’ in twenty years, and are finding their resilience to the frequency of such events eroding; or the ability of Microsoft and Apple to fend off disrupters of their various business models from beyond the borders of the hegemony they have long enjoyed; or the US military being drafted for another misadventure when it has not fully recovered from our past mis-adventures.  The list can go on.

Sustainability must include a capacity of resilience because we live in a world of uncertainty and much of that uncertainty poses risks to our status quo.  Resilience often means conserving some portion of resource (cash on hand) or expending some portion of resource (insurance premiums, redundant and distributed operations) or deploying some capacity (distributed operations, the internet) or forming mutual alliances/dependencies to guard against known and unknown hazards that would otherwise render us unsustainable.   Resilience inevitably involves a cost of some kind, a diversion of effort or resources from activities that we might prefer to do with those resources, activities that might further advance our primary purpose/mission rather than merely guard our flanks.

Sustainability is about keeping the enterprise going in a preferred direction or state of being.  It is rarely static, despite to our antipathy for change, because the environment around us is constantly changing and demands response. It is in the nature of that environmental response, whether natural or social or economic or technological, that the distinction between the sustainable and the unsustainable is ultimately determined.  As we know on a human scale, when a cancer metastasizes beyond the capacity of medicine to contain and the body to fight, no amount of resilience by any definition will sustain the unsustainable.  The same is true of parts of the Jersey Shore and perhaps the cotton fields of West Texas, and our involvement in the Middle East, etc.

Stated differently, but hopefully without adding confusion, sustainability is about pro-action to advance primary goals; resilience is about pro-action to position one for reaction and recovery, if necessary.

A simple example may illustrate the distinction.  In a low-lying shoreline area vulnerable to storm surge and eventual sea level rise, purchasing flood insurance for a residential property provides an element of resilience against damage from storm surge.  Raising a residence to FEMA standards enhances sustainability of the basic living areas and critical utilities against storm damage.  But when sea level rise inundates the property and adjoining land on a regular basis, rendering the property unsustainable by norms of public health and safety, no amount of resilience can sustain its status and value.

In the aftermath of Katrina, many voices criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for only rebuilding levees to a Category 3 hurricane standard, when it is reasonable to assume that New Orleans is an ideal and highly probable candidate for a Cat 5 at some time in its future. Separately, but related, when the Connecticut Task Force to Preserve Long Island Sound asked the Corps what standard of projected sea level rise the Corp plans for, the respondent said that it generally looks in the range of one to two feet over several decades, because beyond that the costs of defense escalate tremendously.  It should be noted that the US Navy has chosen a probable global sea level rise projection of three feet by the end of the century.

The point of the above is that, implicit in the Corp’s decision to build only to a Cat 3 specification, is likely the judgment that construction of a stronger levee system would be irrelevant to collateral circumstances that would render such defenses inadequate in themselves, and New Orleans unsustainable. Sea level rise is likely an element of that judgmental calculation.

But if that is the case, it is important for many other parties to understand that, including the energy sector and Midwest farming and manufacturing sector that depend on facilities in New Orleans directly, and their broader respective markets.  If a Plan B is needed for the day when the CAT 3 storm levees no longer sustain New Orleans, and the damage done by sea level rise or storm surge is beyond the capacity of resilience, particularly in the face of repetitive major loss, somebody had better start working on alternatives now, because New Orleans is by no means alone, and there will be many others lining up at the teller’s window to borrow on an uncertain future.

To summarize the above succinctly: No amount of Resilience can Sustain the Unsustainable. Hence the imperative for distinction between Resilience vs. Sustainability, and Sustainability vs. Un-sustainability.

Or, to borrow from the wisdom of the great philosopher, Kenny Rogers, ‘you gotta know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em; know when to walk away; know when to run’.

Splitting hairs?  Perhaps.  On the other hand, once you’re bald…end-game.

Meanwhile, I urge academics to respect common language for its broadly shared meaning, and pick a dead language like Latin (or Greek, in keeping with the status of its economy) to re-purpose to their special needs.

Onward.

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3 thoughts on “Resilient, Sustainable or Unsustainable?

  1. pipmarks

    Hi
    I definitely agree that people often use these (and other) terms incorrectly. In particular, I struggle with the way the term ‘mitigation’ is used in climate change circles – compared to how it is used in emergency management circles (where it is closer to ‘adaptation’).
    I think your arguments would be easier to follow if you had considered’ vulnerability’ as well. There is an inherent problem with ‘resilience’ if it only means to return to the former (vulnerable) state. For me, a key aspect of sustainability involves reducing our vulnerability to hazards (through avoidance, preparedness and improved response) as well as increasing our (potential?) resilience (i.e. ability to recover).
    Re New Orleans & other cities with levees – they have a choice to try and build an almost impenetrable fortress at huge cost (which still has the risk of becoming a huge swimming pool if breached) or to put limited resources into diverting flood waters into other areas or being able to drain the city quickly after a flood and protecting critical services etc. There are lots of complex issues in terms of who pays the financial, social & other costs either upfront or in the event of a large flood event.
    You might like my post ‘Eco-jargon versus commonsense’ (http://pipmarks.com/2013/09/07/eco-jargon-versus-common-sense/) – or at least you might like to critique my terminology!!!
    Your Kenny Rogers quote would also have worked well with my latest post about Antiques. Wish I’d thought of it!
    Cheers Pip

    Reply
    1. integratedman Post author

      Hello Pipmarks,

      Thank you for your response, and for opening an old wound to inspire my next post: “Mitigation and other words that don’t inform”.

      I was mildly perturbed six or seven years ago by the use of terms mitigation and adaptation for climate change response in that they not only mangled the general understanding of mitigation, but failed to make critical distinctions regarding responsive action. Another exercise in hair-splitting, but more on that later.

      Regarding ‘resilience vs sustainability’, you are also correct with respect to climate change and similar paradigms that returning to a former state may not be appropriate resilience. Which is why I note that sustainability must be dynamic as contextual influences are constantly changing, and demanding change for criteria of sustainability.

      Last, you are also correct about vulnerability, which I only briefly touch with a glancing blow in my comment regarding sustainability vs. unsustainability, the determination of which is often governed by externalities and context. But to discuss vulnerability effectively would take a book, not a blog post….but I’ll give it some thought.

      Thanks again, and keep in touch.

      Reply

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