Sustainable or Resilient?

by ziggy on August 30, 2016 -- 1 comment -- Follow

Sustainably or resilient?This is just a bit of a thought experiment. I’ve been pondering the differences between the words “sustainable” and “resilient” lately, and if either of them apply to how we’re trying to live. I used to throw around the word “sustainable” a lot more than I do now, and I’d like to try to explain why I feel more cautious these days.

In textbook terms, sustainability means “the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely” (source). The key word here is “indefinitely”, which is defined as “lasting for an unknown or unstated length of time”. A synonym for indefinite is infinite. Practically speaking, what’s implied here is that if something is defined as sustainable, it means that it can be continued forever into the future.

Well, that’s a pretty heavy statement, huh? Going by this definition then, the phrases “more sustainably” or “less sustainably” don’t exactly make sense — there is only “sustainably”, since how can you do something “more infinitely” or “less infinitely”?

What Does It Mean to Live Sustainably?

Here’s a real world example now. Driving a car is not sustainable. Driving a car less often is not sustainable. Never driving a car is sustainable, at least in terms of ecological impact. But could you live your current life without ever stepping foot into a vehicle? Many people would probably say no, myself included.

Here’s another example. Industrial monoculture is highly unlikely (okay, let’s just say certainly) not sustainable. Growing your own vegetables could be sustainable, but there are a ton of variables to consider. (Are you buying seeds every year, and from what source? Are you importing nutrients every year?) Simply growing a garden does not mean you’re doing something sustainably…. the details matter. Basically what I’m driving at are the details, of which there are many in everything that we do.

This is why I feel uncomfortable and a bit self-conscious using the word “sustainable” these days. It’s a very grandiose sentiment. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a fairly ambitious individual, but I also want to be very realistic about what it is that I’m doing. In textbook terms, I’m not sure how many things I can claim are indeed sustainable.

Resilience: The Ability to Recover and Adapt

That’s where the concept of being “resilient” comes in. Here’s the Oxford definition:

  1. (Of a person or animal) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions
  2. (Of a substance or object) able to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed

I like the word (and the definitions) right off the bat. The word resilient makes me think of a tree branch that bends with the weight of the snow, and springs back up into shape when the load is lifted. Resilient could mean being ready for changes and rolling with the punches, so to speak. It could mean having the skills and the knowhow to keep life moving forward in the face of a power outage, poor weather, or a difficult gardening year. It could mean not bending and breaking in the face of difficulty, but bending and adapting until the time that the burden is lifted.

I think this word applies much more to what I’m personally capable of achieving in this life. The young idealist in me wants to live a truly sustainable lifestyle, but I have to acknowledge the folly that represents. Sustainable might look like living under a tree and catching fish with a piece of cordage and making clothes from buckskin, but few of us have the ability or option to really live in that fashion. So what are we left with?

I know that I strive to live as responsibly and respectfully as I possibly can, and there’s always room for improvement. This is a very unique time and place that we live in, and the scope of the challenges we’re up against are monumental. Being resilient in the face of climate change and changing weather patterns and social/political upheaval and oppression will be an increasingly important skill.

There are so many ways we can equip ourselves to be more responsible, more creative, more productive, more skilled, more forward-thinking. I salute anyone who is making the attempt to do that, whether it’s by growing a garden, participating in activism, or being a kind and generous neighbor.

Photo credit: Glow via photopin (license)

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  • Darshana Maya Greenfield

    I love the newer terms restorative, or regenerative, which I learned from architect Eric Corey Freed. Instead of a building being sustainable or even “net zero,” a restorative home gives back more than it takes. It might harvest water from rain, clean its own waste water, make electricity from the sun and wind, grow plants on its roof and walls that both feed us, local wildlife, and clean the air, and of course be made from the mud and trees/plants on its own site, and eventually able to return to the earth. You get the idea!

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