On "Resilience" and "Sustainability"

By Keith Kloor | October 25, 2012 2:44 pm

Like every parent, I want my two young boys to be resilient to life’s vicissitudes, everything from the slings and arrows on the school playground to the randomness of illnesses and tragedies. I want them to develop the capacity to bounce back from sudden shocks and hard knocks. So along with a father’s love and nurturing comes the harder challenge of resilience building, which I and every parent learns, is something a child must develop for himself. Still, when situations arise, you have to know when to step in and when to lay back. It’s tricky. I find it to be my greatest challenge as a parent.

As a society, we face a similar challenge, but on a greater scale. In a recent article, David Biello wrote:

Some 5 billion people are projected to live in urban areas by 2030. These cities of the future””most of them cities of today, like New York””will have to cope with climate change, sea level rise, increasing demand for electricity and the logistics of 5 billion peoples’ sewage, among other things.

The piece asks: “Can cities be resilient and sustainable at the same time?”

To me, the answer seems evident. The more resilience built into a city’s infrastructure and its business, governmental and civic sectors, the more sustainable a city is. That said, Biello’s piece explores some of the tensions between the different aims of “sustainability” and “resilience.” They can even work at cross purposes, as he points out here:

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.

Perhaps the resilience/sustainability dilemma is best addressed by exploring how their respective goals can be aligned. That was, I think, the purpose of a constructive panel discussion last night on the the ways cities can be made more resilient. A nice overview of the themes and main points to emerge can be found at Tori Bosch’s post at Slate.  If I had more time, I’d provide some of my own impressions. But I suspect this is a topic that will be discussed frequently in the years to come, so there will be plenty more opportunities.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping the city I live in (New York) and my children develop the resilience to cope with whatever the future holds.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: resilience
  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Data on mortality, longevity, incomes, productivity and even in some parts of the world satisfaction with life all point to urban life as superior. 

    The brittleness of cities is largely related to supply of food, water and energy. Most cities have less than 3 days of food on hand, and water storage is minimal. Energy is generated on demand, not stored.

    If those issues are well-handled, then cities look remarkable resilient. If those issues are iffy, as they are in many megalopoli in the developing world, cities are hell. (Although they are still better than the farms people fled to come to the city.)

    If you stock your pantry like a Mormon and keep your batteries dry, New York should be a great place for your kids. Lagos, not so much…

  • Mary

    Awww….what a nice wish for your kids. And I think a great thing I got from my parents was having to solve a number of my own problems–even when I wanted them to deal with it. Another good thing was a grasp of interest on my passbook savings account, but I don’t know if you can get that anymore.

    But it mostly mattered how they lived their lives, not so much what they said to me to teach me. I saw them participate in democracy, complain at stores when something was wrong, and be upstanding humans. I think even the arguing was healthy most of the time. All of these things I continue to do.

    And I love cities. And I think their diversity is a strength. Mine is actually working really hard on sustainability and resilience I think. But maybe I’ll know better after Hurricane Sandy.

  • Howard

    Old-school common sense works best with kids.  No TV, no computer games, no sodas, candy or junk food, lots of hikes, trips to the park, kite-flying, projects in the garage, reading, puzzles, artwork, cards, games, Socratic method of “helping” with homework, athletics, drama, music, chores, reserved praise, humorous criticism, don’t give in to whinging, etc, etc.Basically opposite of Dr. Spock and self-esteem. 

  • Jack Hughes

    +1 to Howard. And what does “sustainable” mean? I read last week it means “anything that doesn’t kill whales”. Is this the usual definition?

  • Steven Sullivan

    Stay safe during the storm, KK.  

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    The concept of sustainability has been properly defined since at least 1959:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lL4kJL_NDR0

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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