A New Paradigm Will Help Navigate the Anthropocene

By Keith Kloor | February 15, 2013 1:55 pm

As anyone who follows environmental discourse knows, sustainability is more than a popular buzzword. It’s a concept that frames all discussion on climate change, development, and ecological concerns. For example, today’s line-up of sessions at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting includes a panel called, “Getting to Global Ecological Sustainability: Climate and Small-Planet Ethics.”

But what if there is no getting to global sustainability, because it’s an impossible goal? This is an argument that is put forward compellingly by advocates of the emergent resilience paradigm.

Resilience, in ecological circles, is defined as

the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly.

It’s an idea that is more compatible with the way the world actually works–not just ecologically, but at a societal level, too. Several months ago, Andrew Zolli wrote in the New York Times:

For decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” — interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change — have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”: 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.

It’s an alluring and moral vision, and in a year that has brought us the single hottest month in recorded American history (July), a Midwestern drought that plunged more than half the country into a state of emergency, a heat wave across the eastern part of the country powerful enough to melt the tarmac below jetliners in Washington and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, it would seem a pressing one, too.

Yet today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

As much as I think this is the way forward, I very much doubt that the “sustainability” frame will go quietly into the night. It has become an all-encompassing, institutional term, invested with powerful, symbolic meaning. (Think of it as an offshoot of the “balance of nature” meme, which still shapes much of our popular environmental discourse.) Still, the notion that there is a path to a sustainable world is wrong-headed, Zollie explains in his NYT piece:

Unfortunately, the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding: that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable. But the world doesn’t work that way: it exists in a constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions: they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.

“Resilience” takes this as a given and is commensurately humble. It doesn’t propose a single, fixed future. It assumes we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, that we’ll be surprised, that we’ll make mistakes along the way. It’s also open to learning from the extraordinary and widespread resilience of the natural world, including its human inhabitants, something that, counterintuitively, many proponents of sustainability have ignored.

The point here is not to beat up sustainability, for as Jamais Cascio wrote several years ago in Foreign Policy, it is a well-meaning, laudable goal. Sustainability, he says,

tells us we need to live within our means, whether economic, ecological, or political — but it’s insufficient for uncertain times. How can we live within our means when those very means can change, swiftly and unexpectedly, beneath us?…As we look ahead, we need to strive for an environment, and a civilization, able to handle unexpected changes without threatening to collapse. Such a world would be more than simply sustainable; it would be regenerative and diverse, relying on the capacity not only to absorb shocks like the popped housing bubble or rising sea levels, but to evolve with them. In a word, it would be resilient.

If there is one thing the age of the Anthropocene is driving home, it is that we humans are in the driver’s seat, but we don’t know where we are headed. Thus it makes perfect sense that a network of resilience science researchers has made this their creed:

Navigating the surprises of the Anthropocene.

So resilience may be an idea whose time has come. I was glad to see Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy recognize this in his recent discussion with a UCLA class that is exploring environmental communication in the Anthropocene. He mentioned resilience as a promising new frame of reference that could helpfully reposition the dialogue on environmental issues.

As Utne magazine put it in 2010: “Forget sustainability, it’s time to talk resilience.”

Photograph courtesy of Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock

  • Jeremy Miller

    Here’s a good meditation on sustainability from a few years back by Eric Zencey in Orion Magazine. (The money quote, I think: “Nature will decide what is sustainable, it always has and always will.”) http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/5502

  • Jeremy Miller

    Also this from Zencey regarding the distinction between “sustainability” and “resilience”: “NATURE IS MALLEABLE and has enormous resilience, a resilience that gives healthy ecosystems a dynamic equilibrium. But the resiliency of nature has limits and to transgress them is to act unsustainably. Thus, the most diffuse usage, ‘sensibly far-sighted, is the usage that contains and properly reflects the strict ecological definition of the term: a thing is ecologically sustainable if it doesn’t destroy the environmental preconditions for its own existence.”

    • Joshua

      Once again, we are presented with a frame that mostly puts concepts in opposition to each other where they needn’t be: Resilience and sustainability are not in opposition. One unproductive way to respond to insufficiently sophisticated views on sustainability (i.e., as a one size fits all magic bullet) is to work from an insufficiently sophisticated concept of resilience – and act as if we can achieve resilience without considering sustainability. This reminds me of the shallow embrace of global agricultural progress as somehow being in opposition to improvements in small-scale farming or emphasis on urban farming.

      Why do people naturally gravitate to shallow, oppositional frameworks for these debates?

      • Keith Kloor

        If we’re talking about food security on a global level, then yes, small scale farming is wholly insufficient. Similarly, sustainability is the wrong lens to view global environmental challenges wrought by climate change et al. Resilience is more apt and useful.

        What’s romantic is clinging to the feel-good fuzziness of sustainability and the quaint idea of small-scale organic farms.

        • Joshua

          What’s romantic is clinging to the feel-good fuzziness of sustainability and the quaint idea of small-scale organic farms.

          Keith – not sure how to respond to that comment. I didn’t say that small-scale farming is wholly sufficient.

          I’m sure your description is accurate for some folks, just as might be a characterization of clinging to the quaint feel-good fuzziness of unrealistic and unobtainable total resilience.

          Small-scale (not necessarily organic) farming is absolutely an important component of achieving global food security. Are you suggesting that large-scale agricultural farming will suffice, and that working with local populations to increase their efficiencies in small-scale farming is not a needed component? Do you think that the efforts of relatively small-scale urban farming does not have real potential for addressing problems such as the food desserts that exist in the heart of a country where large-scale industrial farming is ubiquitous?

          Are you so locked into a simplistic framework for these debates that you seriously think that your hyperbolic, stereotyping, antagonistic, caricature accurately describes me, or everyone who is serious about addressing sustainability? After researching these issues as much as you have, are you really ignorant of the many people, heavily invested in these issues, who do not have a simplistic mindset such as that you describe in your stereotype, and who do not dismiss addressing resilience even as they work to address sustainability?

          Dude. Have you been buying straw in bulk and have bales left over that you just need to get rid of?

          • Keith Kloor

            Joshua,

            Your first comment ended on this note:

            “Why do people naturally gravitate to shallow, oppositional frameworks for these debates?”

            My post reflected not just my own opinion, but that of some pretty smart thinkers. I provided the links to those articles–quoted from them extensively. Do you consider them shallow and strawman arguments, too?

            Look, I get what this is about. People like the sustainability frame–I like it too. I also know that people don’t like what resilience implies.

            I would like to debate with you–I really would, but if you’re going to play these silly games, I’m just not going to bother.

            Read the articles I linked to–they’re fully-thought out arguments for what I summarized in my post.

            It would be great if the ideals of sustainability could be reconciled with resilience. I’ve said as much here recently:

            “Perhaps the resilience/sustainability dilemma is best addressed by exploring how their respective goals can be aligned.”

            http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2012/10/25/on-resilience-and-sustainability/

          • Joshua

            Keith –

            Fair enough. Point taken – the snark of my last sentence in my first comment was out of balance with the overall frame/tone of your post. I guess I was mostly responding to the last line of your post:

            As Utne magazine put it in 2010: “Forget sustainability, it’s time to talk resilience.”

            in that I don’t think that “forget[ting] sustainability” should be the goal. They weren’t your words, and now that I’ve clicked through on the link (which I didn’t do before, mea culpa), see that the line was from a headline (and to some degree review) that actually largely misrepresents the perspective of the material referenced by that headline. For example, let’s take another last line, the last line of the review linked by that headline – which is an excerpt from the material being reviewed…

            However, resilience thinking would argue that the closure of local food shops and networks that resulted from the opening of the supermarket, as well as the fact that the store itself only contains two days’ worth of food at any moment – the majority of which has been transported great distances to get there – has massively reduced the resilience of community food security, as well as increasing its oil vulnerability.”

            I think that quote describes a pretty good example of why it will not be maximally productive to look at either sustainability or resilience in isolation from the other.

            And I’d say that the excerpt, when seen in the context of the overall review, serves as an object lesson in how these discussions lend themselves to counterproductive and simplistic framing. Looking at that excerpt, and the rest of the material reviewed, I’d say that not only is the headline a mischaracterization of the material it is reviewing, so is the rest of the review. In other words – from the editorial voice in the review:

            It’s time to give sustainability a rest and start talking about resilience,

            And from the material being reviewed (please note my bolding):

            However, responses to climate change that do not also address the
            imminent, or quite possibly already passed, peak in world oil production do not adequately address the nature of the challenge we face.”

            So is the author’s message really, as the reviewer summarized, to “give sustainability a rest?” If you don’t think so – then isn’t the reviewer’s simplistic framing part of the problem?

          • Joshua

            BTW – Keith – FWIW, I think that the “edit” feature of the new commenting interface is great. On the other hand, I think that the algorithm used to order comments from the top of the list to the bottom makes it more difficult to have productive dialog. It isn’t the fact of nesting per se, but that if I want to see if anyone responded to a comment I may well have to scroll down to the bottom of the list – which may require refreshing numerous times as the number of all overall comments grows.

            Of course, I could just be responding that way because I realize that the ranking by popularity is likely to forever consign me to the bottom of the list :-)

    • jh

      I’m curious about when and where standards for the health of an ecosystem have been established. Has an ecosystem in “dynamic equilibrium” ever been completely described?

      We can fully describe, for example, the dynamic equilibrium of a chemical equation:

      SiO2 + CaCO3 = CaSiO3 + CO2

      We know that “dynamic equilibrium” is a valid description of this reaction, because we can determine the rate of the reaction and fully describe the system in which it occurs – that is, we can describe other ongoing reactions driven by the production of CO2 and the consumption of Qtz and Calcite.

      I suspect there is no analogy for ecosystems. The term “dynamic equilibrium” is borrowed without reference to the rigorous constraints that accompany it in chemical systems. In fact, we don’t even know most of the interacting components, much less the rate of interaction of those known components, in an ecological system.

      Thus, “dynamic equilibrium” in the ecological sense isn’t a demonstrated condition – not even close.

      So why are we making this probably wildly inaccurate presumption – that there is “dynamic equilibrium”? It seems that we’re making it so we can say we understand when an ecosystem is “healthy” or “not healthy”. Once we’ve made that decision, then we can proceed to our favored solution, whether it has any bearing on the actual problem or not.

  • jh

    OMG! The EcoGroovies have finally discovered what everyone else has been doing for 100K years – trying to figure out ways to survive in a constantly changing world!

    Thankfully, for those of us lacking the intellectual power to understand the depth and complexity and utter utterness of their realization, they’ve coined a new term that we can all add to our repertoire of empty verbage – resilience! Indeed, these deep thinkers must have very long beards.

    Next thing you know they’ll be telling us technology and energy are good things! What will they think of next to solve society’s problems – corporations?

  • http://dystopianpresent.wordpress.com Chris Oestereich

    I think the understanding of sustainability is changing, and as such, that these two terms are no longer mutually exclusive. I once looked at sustainability as keeping things as they were, but having a better understanding ecology, I now look at more from the frame of minimization of harm. Or, in wicked problem parlance, better, rather than worse.
    As such, I think we should be aiming for the intersection of these ideas, more resilient for today, more sustainable for tomorrow.

  • Tom Yulsman

    Someone should have told the dinosaurs to be “resilient.”

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Collide-a-Scape

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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