Will ‘Resilience’ Replace Sustainability?

The following is part of a series by our friends at CSRHub (a 3p sponsor) – offering free sustainability and corporate social responsibility ratings on over 7,300 of the world’s largest publicly traded and private companies.

By Carol Pierson Holding

Last week, the wine-making town of Sebastopol became the second California city after Lancaster to require that solar panels be installed in all new building construction.

Among the driving forces for Sebastopol’s solar are local realtors, who are going door to door, selling the program as a safeguard against power loss and rising prices. Sustainability is still a strong motivation for some in this liberal-leaning town, but it is resilience that’s motivating support from local businesspeople.

The anti-solar forces supported by Heritage Foundation and Fox News’ claim that California will face more rolling blackouts from the state’s increasing reliance on renewable energy. But watching the two sides duke it out on Fox Business, it looks to this viewer like Fox’s tactic could backfire in the face of the very real resilience of renewable power.

I’ll bet you’ll hear more about “resilience.” In the past, the “sustainability” movement has struggled with language. “Global warming.” “Climate change.” “Rising sea levels.” And perhaps the most problematic, “sustainability” itself.

An apt analogy can be found on the Internet. In 1992, when I first started working with Cisco on language around its new field, “Internetworking,” company officials were firm about building a business category around a term that underscored their technical elitism. Back then, Internetworking accurately described what was as obscure as rocket science. Cisco engineers literally scoffed at those who couldn’t understand their equipment’s technology.

Language was holding back the Information Superhighway even as the world was pushing them to build it.

When Cisco realized the market limitations that the whole “Internetworking” approach was putting on the company’s growth, they finally accepted their place as part of a “networking.”

Like “Internetworking” , “sustainability” is cumbersome and hard to understand. It doesn’t speak to a problem real people have. It’s for the insiders.

So what is the environmental movement’s equivalent of “networking?” Is “resilience” the word that can expand “sustainability” beyond the movement’s core?

Kevin Dingle, President of Sustaining Structures, says that the buzz in corporate real estate is all around “resilience.” Business is booming. Legislation like energy benchmarking helps, as does the promise of lower energy bills. LEED construction and Energy Star for Buildings are considered good for Corporate Social Responsibility, in other words, for traditional sustainability reasons.

But the key differentiator for renewable energy in buildings has moved on from sustainability. Now the hot pitch is resilience.

Dingle credits Superstorm Sandy and other natural disasters for this shift. Power was out in downtown Manhattan for a full week in some places while a central station dried out and came back online. Solar can provide an effective, on-site power backup, or resiliency, that commercial and residential customers want.

In April, the American Solar Energy Society conference in Baltimore featured the idea of resiliency in their plenary panel “Climate and Resiliency.” The conference’s lead press release emphasized the same idea, “Renewable energy provides resiliency for communities in the face of climate-related weather disasters.”

The U.S. Department of Energy has initiated a program to improve electric grid reliability and resiliency in part through wind and solar.

A pro-solar web site is called Resilience.org.

Language creates our reality. Sustainability has been driving the environmental world for some years. Maybe I’m alone in this, but when I hear the word, my automatic reaction is “How long can we sustain this?” It brings to mind the phrase, “Dark Optimism” coined by UK environmental radical, Shaun Chamberlin, to describe the force he wants to corral to protest for climate change.

In stark contrast, the word resiliency is filled with light and hope, signifying a rebounding or springing back. Just when so many are so despondent about the environment, new language arrives to save us. It reminds us of the dawn of the Internet, when words like “internetworking” were slowing acceptance of what was to become a life-changing transformation.

Photo courtesy of  Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon via Flickr CC.

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 7,300 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 7,300+ companies from 135 industries in 93 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 230 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.



CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 5,000 companies from 135 industries in 65 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.CSRHub rates 12 indicators of employee, environment, community and governance performance and flags many special issues. We offer subscribers immediate access to millions of detailed data points from our 140-plus data sources. Our data comes from six socially responsible investing firms, well-known indexes, publications, “best of” or “worst of” lists, NGOs, crowd sources and government agencies. By aggregating and normalizing the information from these sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links each rating point back to its source.

7 responses

  1. Good thought provoking article Carol. “Resilience” is certainly an important & attractive aspect of overall “sustainability”. I understand your concern that “sustainability is cumbersome and hard to understand”. As you know, this problem has been been with us from the beginning: Origin of Sustainability Movement Leads to Current Challenges – http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/08/origin-of-sustainability-movement-leads-to-current-challenges/

    Perhaps we need to balance the method, as well as the message.

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative
    Designing a ‘Big Wheel’ for Civilization

  2. The renewed focus on resilience is not replacing interest in sustainability. Rather, it might be seen as a shift in focus toward process rather than the final goal.
    While the focus of sustainable development is defined in terms of outcomes, i.e. meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs99, recent research on resilience in complex systems highlights that resilience is a process. These differences actually explain the relationship between resilience and sustainability; that resilience is part of the process leading to sustainability.

    Among what can be seen as ‘disillusioned voices’ or revisionists of the sustainability movement, there has been attempts to discredit the idea of sustainable development. Dennis Meadows (one of the authors of Limits to Growth), for instance, recently claimed that it is too late to achieve sustainable development in the sense of equity and use of natural resources that will not exceed regeneration. Meadows recognizes, though, that sustainable development has been the subject of so many definitions that it tends to be meaningless. Recognizing that global sustainable development is no longer an option and that the global system is in an unpredictable or incontrollable decline, Meadows and others now advocate for increasing resilience at all levels of the global system. Eventually, when the system has settled at a new equilibrium this will then allow sustainable development from that basis. It is therefore not a discredit of the sustainable
    development as an objective but rather the need for resilience as a means to
    regain and redefine the path towards that objective.

  3. Is it just a matter of semantics? Sustainability vs Resilience as the term to describe the reason for using renewable energy and for conducting environment-friendly activities… In my opinion, sustainability evokes a more communal, long-term image in my mind whereas resilience could mean, for me, a capability of an individual or a group of people in short- to medium-term. Resilience is just an aspect of sustainability. For one who has used “sustainability” for so long, I don’t see the reason for replacing it with “resilience”. Nevertheless, I give this article merit for provoking our thoughts on what could make the “sustainability” become a mainstream idea. Often, we have to give people the answer to the question: “What’s in it for me?” in order to encourage them to adopt our principles/ideas.

  4. What is interesting is that sustainability’s goal is to achieve balance and a path to achieve this. And under environment, you have to look at climate change in sustainability. What are we doing that affects the climate? What can we do to adapt? What can we do to mitigate? All of this is sustainability. So when you look at resiliency you are in fact looking at an action item to achieve sustainability. What struck me is we are really looking at two totally different concepts. Resiliency is the ability to bounce back – to withstand. So, that mean something has to have occurred in a negative way. “She’s so resilient, she keeps getting back up every time someone knocks her down”. Sustainability is making the changes now to not get knocked down. Agreed by all, you have to plan for risks, and the affects of what dammage has already been caused – so in that case, yes resilient. But for the futue – we are looking to sustain an equal balance. Not financially taking from future generations, meaning for every dollar taken, there is a dollar to put back. Not using up our natural resources at a faster rate than they can replenish, and if that rate does not work for society’s needs, you find alternative methods or resources that meet this criteria. And from a social aspect we look at equal rights to basic needs of humans, ways that improve human life but not to the detriment of the environment/planet and not to be financially impractical.

    This article reminds me of one early this year stating Innovation is the new sustainability – well hello! To be sustainable you are going to have to innovate! To be sustainable you have to plan for risks for the future so you can “sustain” – and resiliency is one of the tactics that can be used.

  5. Sustainability is an outcome, an end, a desired result. Resilience is a process, a skill set a means. Process must support outcome to be successful.

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