Resilience – or sustainability?

Recently the concept of “resilience” has gained a lot of momentum. One of the arguments have been that “sustainable development” is too unclear and has been used by policymakers and other evil persons with no real intention of creating a better world…

One of the problems with the concept of sustainable development is that it combines two aspects that can be contradictory. “Sustaining” can, and have, been interpreted as similar to conservation. The question of course is –  what is it that we are sustaining? What role humans have in the systems that we look at. Are humans a “disturbance” or maybe just as “natural” as a frog or a fungus? In any case, “sustaining” seems to be targeted towards the “natural” state, which, with an exoticising eye might include ways of living that have not yet been corrupted by modern media. And what (who) do we need to develop? This easily turns just as imperialistic and western-society-values-centered. So – the concept of sustainable development is problematic. And we might need to replace it with something more…..more….specific and unambiguous. Like resilience maybe?

Don’t get me wrong now. Resilience could be a very useful and important concept. But there are also some problems, if not with the concept itself, but in the way that it is used. And some of the institutions that build on the concept, like Stockholm Resilience Center, are doing a magnificent work. That’s why it’s important that the concept doesn’t get kidnapped!

Resilience as a concept also contains some of the contradictions that we find in sustainable development. If we think of it as a property of an ecosystem we want to preserve or protect, it refers to the robustness, how well it can handle “disturbances”. But if it refers to aspects of a social system that we want to change – like corruption – then “resilience” is a problem, something that we need to overcome.

One of the most important qualities of “resilience” is that it highlights the importance of a systemic perspective. But there are also pitfalls here. Systems tend to indicate solidity, stability – and even some sort of control. But the social and ecological systems that we are a part of are open, constantly changing and largely unpredictable. Also – thinking in “resilience” terms could lead to a position where we perceive that the safe lifestyle or community that we are part of is under threat, and must be defended against…

So – my position is:  “resilience”, OK, I’ll buy it. But we need to qualify how we use the concept. Why is this preferable to sustainable development? And in what way will the use of resilience as the core concept lead to different outcomes?


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