All Weather Words

There is talk lately of retiring the word sustainability and shifting to resiliency. Merriam-Webster defines resilience as:


: the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress


: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling was the first to use the term in an ecological sense, in other words, the capacity of an ecosystem to bounce back from a disturbance (Wikipedia, 2013). So the idea of resilience has been floating around since the early 1970s. It’s what the Transition Town movement has been talking about for some time now – buildings skills and planning for the inevitable (adapting), so that when peak everything hits, it will be more like sliding down a gentle slope than falling off a cliff. But the term had fallen out of favour. Hard core sustainability advocates say that adapting is as good as giving up and that the self-serving folks who have got us into this mess won’t be held accountable.

I read an oped recently in the New York Times that makes a compelling case for leaving sustainability behind and planning for resilience instead. The author, Andrew Zolli, is the executive director of PopTech, and wrote a book, with Ann Marie Healy, called “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.” He writes, that after 911, Lower Manhattan was rebuilt, with a higher concentration of LEED green buildings than anywhere in the world. Yet, when Hurricane Sandy hit, the green structures didn’t fare well. They may have been more environmentally friendly, but they were not built to withstand the effects of a storm on steroids. Back up power systems would have come in handy during the hurricane for example. In the face of climate change, building green may no longer be enough; we may also have to build for resilience.

Environmentalism. Sustainability. Resilience. The linguistic landscape continues to shift along with the weather.

One Reply to “All Weather Words”

  1. We’ve seen this process unfold in the EU, where the economic system is only as strong as its weakest members. It’s not unlike the human body, where, of course, sickness in one part can’t be ignored just because other parts are healthy. So system-wide resilience is the key to health — the equivalent of a strong immune system. It’s not the absence of crises that determines our health, but our ability — and how we nurture and build and maintain that ability — to respond.

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