Good-bye Sustainability, Hello Resilience

By Andrew Zolli

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 each other.

It’s an alluring and moral vision, and following 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, most recently, 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, NGOs, philanthropies, governments, and corporations, a new, complementary 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 an imbalanced world.

It’s a broad-spectrum agenda which at one end seeks to imbue our communities, institutions, and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence, and responsiveness to extreme events, and at the other centers on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances.

For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but—as was just demonstrated in the New York region—fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism, or energy shortages.

Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls—it’s about accommodating the waves. For extreme weather events, that means developing the kinds of infrastructure more commonly associated with the Army: temporary bridges that can be “inflated” or repositioned across rivers when tunnels flood, for example, or wireless “mesh” networks and electrical microgrids that can compensate for exploding transformers.

We’ll also need to use nature itself as a form of “soft” infrastructure. Along the Gulf Coast, civic leaders have begun to take seriously the restoration of the wetlands that serve as a vital buffer against hurricanes. A future New York may be ringed with them, too, as it was centuries ago.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York hardest right where it was most recently redeveloped: Lower Manhattan, which should have been the least vulnerable part of the island. But it was rebuilt to be “sustainable,” not resilient, noted Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer.

“After 9/11, Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEED-certified, green buildings in the world,” he said, referring to a common standards program for ecofriendly design. “But that was answering only part of the problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment”—for example, by having redundant power systems. In an age of volatility, the extremophilic trumps the ecoperfect.

In a reversal of our stereotypes about the flow of innovation, many of the most important resilience tools will come to us from developing countries, which have long had to contend with large disruptions and limited budgets.

In Kenya, Kilimo Salama, a microinsurance program for agriculture, uses wireless weather sensors to help small farmers protect themselves financially against climate volatility. In India, Husk Power Systems converts agricultural waste into locally generated electricity for off-grid villages. And around the world, a service called Ushahidi empowers communities worldwide to “crowdsource” information during a crisis, using their mobile phones.

None of these is a permanent solution, and none roots out the underlying problems they address. But each helps a vulnerable community contend with the shocks that, especially at the margins of a society, can be devastating. In lieu of master plans, these approaches offer a diverse array of tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation, and creativity before, during, and after a crisis.

Yet as wise as this all may sound, a shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation, a word that is still taboo in many quarters. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place—and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.

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. That doesn’t mean there aren’t genuine bad guys and bad ideas at work, or that there aren’t things we should do to mitigate our risks. But we also have to acknowledge that holy war against bogeymen hasn’t worked, and isn’t likely to anytime soon. In its place, we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive—rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.

 A version of this article originally appeared in The New York Times. ©2012 by Andrew Zolli. Reprinted with permission.

Photo ©Cristiana Ceppas



  • Tim Gieseke March 11, 2013 at 6:11 am

    Very nice explanation and comparison of the terms. In addressing resiliency in my agri-enviro work, I rely on shared governance. It unleashes positive human forces:


  • Robert Murphy March 11, 2013 at 6:48 am

    The climate change discussion is changing…. I live on the coast of Massachusetts and we’ve been hit by a series of major storms that have overwhelmed local resources. During Winter Storm Nemo, communications systems collapsed and two-thirds of our households lost electricity for 2-3 days or more during freezing weather.

    The damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York was far worse than anything that we saw in Massachusetts.

    If this is what climate change change looks
    like, “we’re not ready.” Trying to prevent climate change is fine and it’s a goal that needs much attention. Still, I’m wary of any climate change program that ignores “resilience” and adaptation. And I’m also wary of programs that emphasize “sustainability” while ignoring social justice.


  • Jim Maloney March 11, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    “Sustainability” was always hampered by several things – one of which was its anthropocentric perspective and a second of which was its belief in the mythology of “the balance of nature”. Ecologists and others have known for quite a long time that there is no long term magical state of “balance” in the natural world but rather a dynamic flux of states, forces, relationships, etc. all changing on different time and landscape scales. Resilience recognizes these facts and seeks to understand and support the response-ability of systems – human and non-human – to this unending cascade of change rather than shore-up and maintain a mythical “sustainable” state.


    • Michael R. April 6, 2015 at 9:09 am

      We should not confuse the idea of balance* with the idea sustainability…nor should we abandon one for the other…any adaptation will require both….in part, because resilience measures will be costly, so maintaining sustainable infrastructures, energy sources, manufacturing, and resource usage (including preserving and valuation of )ecosystem services) will be a way of saving costs while simultaneously shifting budget costs to resilience measures. Sustainability is not a “myth” per se (or mythic state), but an ideal (or goal) which must be striven for.

      Life and Nature may indeed be chaotic (at times), but this is not the same thing as being ‘unpredictable’..(there is ‘deterministic chaos’) the entire purpose of climate models and data collection is to predict (to the extent that it is possible, and we don’t know the full extent) the impacts of climate disruption (including ‘down-scaling global trends to regional/local impacts…an imperfect science, to be sure, but still necessary

      *Interestingly, as I read the article, a sequence from the film Koyaanisqatsi popped into my head (the Hopi term meaning “life out of balance’)…seems this film (and the indigenous ethos behind it, that emerged in the late ’60’s /early 70’s was a warning to us…one that we roundly ignored.


  • Steve Crooks March 19, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    For a couple of decades a number of us have been working on resilience as an element of sustainability. It is dissapointing to see a shift from the broader concept to one of the component elements. It’s only one leg of the stool.


    • Jeannie Lewis March 24, 2013 at 8:14 am

      While a well-written and thought provoking article, I have to echo exactly what Steve Crooks posted. Sustainability is the umbrella. Resilience is a combination of adaptation and mitigation strategies and is a part of sustainability. And “soft” infrastructure in the environmental world is known as green infrastructure. It is a critical mindset, tool and approach for both sustainabilitiy and resiliency, taking into account the built environment. It’s a widely used term. I also would not like to see the notion of sustainability dismissed out of hand. While clearly quite lofty terminology in its highest order, it is arguably achievable on many levels and in many realms. At the very least- it has served us tremendously- propelling us forward in many industries to globally reduce human impacts and serve the population and other living resources. In an oft used quote by Leo Burnett, “When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”


  • Matty Wilson March 29, 2013 at 3:08 am

    Definitely a well-argued and engaging article. But I think we also need to look at the resilience and sustainability of our own language. Rather than being an either/or – or even seeking a balance between sustainability and resilience – we also need to recognize that there’ll be fluxes between the two, driven by context. I would also suspect that if you ask a layperson what they understand by resilience, they might say, ‘strong, tough, built to last’ – which might preclude any notion of sustainability. Indeed, resilience needs to be a pillar of sustainability or vice versa.


    • Matty Wilson March 29, 2013 at 2:48 pm

      The other thing to add is that the author’s definition of ‘resilience’ seems to be from an anthropocentric perspective – a sole focus on human communities. I would think suggest that real resilience should embody the entire social-ecological continuum. Without resilience in natural ecosystems, don’t expect resilience in human communities.


    • Michele Potter April 6, 2015 at 8:27 pm


      Perfectly said: we need to look at language, context, and anthropocentrism. That said, the word “resilience” offers fresh perspectives.


  • Madeline Hirschland March 29, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    I find this article’s “goodbye sustainability, hello resilience” argument to be distressing – and confused. Striving for resilience makes sense from a planning-for-climate-change perspective. It doesn’t make sense as a replacement for sustainability because the two respond to different issues: resilience addresses climate change’s effects, sustainability addresses its causes.

    Using the author’s final metaphor, the waves are not simply a phenomena to which we must respond. The waves are largely created by us humans. Unless we change our use of energy such that the planet is sustained – as much as it still can be – we will continue to increase the size of those waves until, resilient or not, we’ll all go under.

    On a practical level, we can’t afford to stop trying to curb climate change and, instead, learn how to deal with it because climate change is not a discrete event that will be followed by a natural plateau – a new, more difficult normal. If we don’t curb it, global temperatures will keep rising. Scientists warn that we’re now on an unchecked path towards a 6 to 8 degree increase in temperature – far beyond the 2 degrees that we’d been warned was a prudential imit. One can certainly live with a fever of 101 and even 103 or 104 but, if one doesn’t stop that fever from rising…

    My distress comes from thinking that some of the prescient folks most aware of the dangers we face might be persuaded to focus solely on how best to live with climate change rather than on how to slow it. To curb the beast, we need all of us who are now aware to engage many more people.

    But focusing on sustainability is also a moral issue. As the author notes, the most vulnerable people who are resilient because they have no buffers can’t curb climate change because they are not causing it. We are. Kenya’s per capita carbon footprint in lbs. per year is 400; America’s is 34,000. We are morally obligated not simply to learn how to live with this catastrophe but to do everything in our power to curb it.

    (I have to add: The author objects to “old school environmentalists and social activists” waging “a holy war against bogeymen”. In so doing, he himself sets them up as his own bogeymen. I agree with him: setting up bogeymen doesn’t help us move forward.)


  • Paul Fratianni April 10, 2013 at 6:32 am

    Interesting and important article for the times. As noted resilience thinking may not address the underlining problems and therefor in a sense is temporary at best. Yes, sustainability may need a good dose of adaptability as even under the best of conditions surprises still happens. It seems obvious to me that resilience thinking and sustainability are not mutually exlusive concepts but rather can go hand in hand.


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  • Robert Murphy April 6, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Two years have passed since I wrote my previous comment…. What have I learned since March 11, 2013? Answer: Some good things and some “difficult things,” as the climate change problem – in combination with other problems – continues to develop.

    First: Let it be noted that this past winter was one of the most difficult in history, for much of North America. The drought in California continues. In my area, consumer costs for electricity have gone to new heights….. Last September, there was a big march in New York City, to protest against climate change. In November, Americans elected a very conservative Congress that doesn’t want to acknowledge climate change.

    “Resilience” is now the popular term in the climate change discussion. In my area, the discussion about “resilience” is, mostly, a discussion about civil engineering and the purchase of new hardware….. Should our town build more walls, to control flooding, and, maybe, to provide a bike path? Should our corporation buy some generators?

    Meanwhile, the vulnerable groups – in particular, the poor folks – continue to suffer during every crisis situation. When the emergency shelters are opened in my area, over eighty percent of the people admitted are past the age of seventy. Many need medical care but we don’t have a plan for medical services. We don’t have an adequate plan for meals. Laundry services haven’t been discussed. If we can’t care for fifty people for three days, how can we care for five hundred people for a month? (Or even longer, perhaps.)

    What does “resilience” mean? If it supports social justice, I’m interested. If “resilience” means protection for the rich and famous, it looks like social Darwinism.


  • Lucy Weinberg April 6, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Equating the word sustainable with “perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium” is so far off the mark I have to wonder if Zolli is even knowledgeable enough to take seriously. Many of these opinion pieces are cleverly written but really just space filling fluff.


  • Mike Carroll April 8, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Mr. Zolli nicely points out the importance of resiliency to design, planning, etc. However, I agree with the comments challenging the false binary of his argument and its failure to acknowledge sustainability’s full moral import and conceptual elegance. In fifteen years of related work and study I’ve never seen any serious engagement of a sustainability that “aims to put the world back into balance”. Sustainability, at the least, strives to ensure that the rights of all people for adequate food, air, shelter, dignity, etc. are honored now and in the future given thermodynamic and ecological limits AND complexity. The (LEED) buildings that are deemed “green” or “sustainable” without good resilient design are not (particularly) sustainable, and neither are our current fossil fuel energy systems, despite their remarkable resiliency. Resiliency is a vital system characteristic, concept, and strategy for realizing a sustainable civilization.


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