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Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013: Resilience vs. campus sustainability?

Has “sustainability” run its course? Is it time for the Next Big Thing?  

By Dave Newport

The transition from an exploitive business plan for the planet to a sustainable one has gone through a few iterations—and we are definitely not there yet—but we keep trying.

In the 1950s public health concerns on the heels of the Donora, PA et al air pollution incidents aroused enough angst to pass the first federal laws protective of air quality. The 1960s were marked by Rachel Carson-induced endangered species protections. The 1970s spawned “past sins” Superfund legislation to begin cleaning up/preventing the Love Canals of the world. In the 1980s we fixed the ozone hole. And in the 1990s, “sustainability” began creeping into our lexicon.

Along the way we chased trends and words like Kyoto, Agenda 21, Corporate Social Responsibility, Triple Bottom Line, Eco Efficiency, Socially Responsible Investing, Biomimicry, Industrial Ecology, Renewable Portfolio Standards, Transition, Permaculture, Adaptation, etcetera… and lately: Resilience.

The history lesson is meant to remind us that it is normal to morph our approaches as we get smarter. So the idea of moving past sustainability isn’t radical or anti-environment. On the contrary, we have a need for “new and improved.”

So now what? Is it time for the Next Big Thing?  Has “sustainability” run its course? Before we think about that, what has sustainability accomplished?

Well, on campuses at least, there are more courses, majors, schools, colleges and certificates in sustainability than ever; fairly rapid growth because many students want to learn about it. More campuses are offering sustainability curricula. More students are signing up for these classes. This is no small feat and a very hopeful sign.

Likewise, campus carbon emissions are moderating or even going down. Green buildings are going up. Zero waste efforts are also on the rise. Local food programs/campus gardens are taking root. Renewable energy is up. And we are getting better at measuring all these impacts (STARS!). Great environmental improvements.

Yet missing from the list of sustainability’s accomplishments are two important categories: fiscal equity and social justice.

In terms of finance, sustainability programs are still woefully underinvested. More importantly, campuses are still investing in exploitive enterprises. The recent fossil fuel divestment campaign makes this point very clear. While Unity College is leading the divestment effort, they are a lone voice so far. Indeed, the Chronicle last year reported socially responsible investing on campuses was decreasing despite a growth in that industry and demonstrably more favorable returns on investment.

As for social justice, only a little progress targeting sustainability’s benefits towards those in the most need is reported. And while I don’t have any data, I am going to bet that even the rapid expansion of sustainability curriculum nationwide has disproportionately targeted richer, white students. For instance, despite a couple notable exceptions, there has been disappointing growth of sustainability coursework in the HBCUs. There is a reason: sustainability’s unifying theme and beneficial impacts don’t default to the breadth of society—only the privileged classes.

Sustainability has yet to put Humpty Dumpty back together again...

I published The Death of Campus Sustainability about a year ago. Re-reading it the other day, one change from last year is that public concern has turned up a notch or two on the heels of Hurricane Sandy and the warmest, driest, most flammable year ever. Also, unlike previous conferences, last fall’s AASHE conference in LA saw record numbers of social equity presentations; truly a heart warming sign that our colleagues get that we need to be more effective in that arena. Otherwise, the ideas and facts offered in the ‘Death’ blog are still pretty much intact.

Indeed, sustainability has yet to put Humpty Dumpty back together again because, as you recall, “all the Kings horses and all the King’s men…” So now the proponents of “resilience” are increasingly making the case for a new approach that concedes that our eggs are broken.

Writing in the New York Times last fall, author Andrew Zolli presents “resilience” as an alternative to the sustainability agenda. “Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world,” he writes.

“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,” Zolli continues.

Zolli’s piece goes on the offer numerous approaches for dealing with the impacts of climate disruption in a people-first holistic approach—everything from building flood dikes to counseling services. He uses Hurricane Sandy as an example of the need to prepare tangible on-the-ground responses that help “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 diverse tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation and creativity before, during and after a crisis” [underlining added].

So far, so good...

Nobody gets out of bed inspired by "damage control." We dream of Camelot.

Remembering the first rule of campus sustainability—listen to the students—I recall Scott Carlson’s coverage in the Chronicle of the emerging student demand for skills-based training that complements their academic learning.  As I reported in the ‘Death’ blog, Carlson wrote of “hands-on people-oriented education experiences ranging from beekeeping to shop to gardening to carpentry to cooking.”

“At the soul of this renaissance of interest in life skills is a sense that today’s students want to build self-reliance and self-determination capacity because the road ahead looks steep—and they know it. Resilience and practical skills are becoming critical attributes to live well and prosper going forward. Integration of people-facing education with community-centered initiatives underpin this trend—and are expositive of sustainability’s finest tradition: the nexus of people-primacy, eco-resiliency, and local economic focus.”

Once again, the students have signaled the Next Big Thing. It is not—as Zolli writes in the close of his article—an either/or proposition. In the end, Zolli sees sustainability as a “holy war against boogeymen [that] 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.”

Ah, disagree. Resilience is not the successor of sustainability; it is a sustainability synergizer. It can make sustainability work better.

How? First, resilience is people-facing. Perfect. That is sustainability’s soft spot. Allying with people-focused efforts heals sustainability’s historic hurt: a paucity of explicit social justice mechanisms. Thus by folding in resilience techniques we make sustainability better. By focusing our campuses on adapting to the new climate realities, we make our campuses better. This means we work on adaptation plans that include disaster planning not just low flow toilets. It means we talk to our leadership about investments in durable assets like renewables that are immune from impending resource shortages—and pay better anyway. It means integrating skills-based content into sustainability curriculum such as learning to weatherize low-income homes in local neighborhoods to build resilience-- and sustainability--in our communities.

Resilience is not the antidote to sustainability; it’s an additive. Instead of Zolli’s existential, damage-control approach to life on Earth, sustainability has the advantage of casting an inspiring “I have a dream” vision. Human beings are dreamers—that’s who we are. That’s why we discover things. Nobody gets out of bed inspired by damage control; we dream of Camelot.

"Some men see things as they are and say why. 
I dream things that never were and say why not."

So, one year later I am more hopeful that campus sustainability can right its wrongs, learn from experience, and integrate new strategies and tactics so as to dodge the capital punishment foreseen in “The Death of Campus Sustainability.” We haven’t done that yet; however, let’s not get sidetracked by a fake fight with resilience proponents. Instead, let’s synergize their valuable lessons into our ongoing efforts.

Let’s resolve to make 2013 the year of a more mature and resilient “sustainability-plus” approach.

Happy New Year.



  1. Nice piece. You show that “sustainability” continues to be challenged as the word of choice in dealing with today’s top issues. I agree that we should stick with "sustainability," because words matter and sustainability is a good one with a long history in the making. Moreover it has been accepted by the academy as a legitimate field of science.

    I'd add too, that a focus on resilience in the face of change is incomplete in addressing society’s daunting challenges, because it alone does not address the matter of how one community impacts others now and into the future.

    I have a minor nit to pick on the notion that resilience is an additive to sustainability, at least in the sense that it is something new. Resilience has always been a part of sustainability and always will be along with many attributes that make sustainability a meaningful concept for analysis and management.

    Let's stick with "sustainability" and keep it sustainable.

  2. Good post D! I would tend to agree and vote that we keep any/all new "buzzwords" out of our collective vocabulary and continue to better understand what sustainability is (and what it's not).

    For example at last years Rocky Mountain Green conference, the latest word was "regenerative." Though I love the idea/concept, it completely through my students off track. It gave them the impression that "sustainability" is without compromise - as if we had already accomplished some type of resource neutrality thanks to LEED. The speaker said that we should be focused on having a net -positive impact. But wait! Last I checked, our campus (including/especially our LEED buildings) doesn't (don't) run on rainbows and shamrocks! How can we "regenerate" in the face of continuously hemorrhaging natural, fiscal, and social capital?

    Perhaps this is the difference between a boomster and a doomster. In that case, much to my New Year's resolutions chagrin, I guess I'm more akin to the latter.

    Seems like resilience, regeneration, and (______) are just different pieces of the same puzzle - each are inadequate alone and in need of greater systems thinking... i.e. sustainability!

    Keep up the good fight!

  3. Dave,

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insight with this timely post. It was forwarded to me just as I was attempting to write a succinct definition of sustainability for our web site, with books scattered all around. I have been engaged in organizations featuring that long word in their name for two decades, which makes defining it unavoidable. My definitions have gotten shorter over the years. They have also migrated more toward the present and less toward the future.

    In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig’s Phaedrus argues that some concepts defy rational definitions. Concepts like good, love, quality, place, happiness and mind are very difficult to define, yet they are concepts we all intuitively understand. I can’t define love, but I know what it is and I want to keep it, thank you very much.

    I can’t define sustainability in terms everyone will understand or agree on, but I am convinced its end state will be reached by learning to live within the regenerative capacity of the natural systems that keep us alive. Approaching everyday decisions with that end state in mind turns out to be a very useful gnomon. Our fellow non-human travelers on this spaceship have mastered sustainability long ago, tapping into the perpetual abundance of current solar income, with no concept of waste. We have much to learn, but the teachers are everywhere we choose to look.

    The definitions that perhaps require more rethinking are success, well-being and happiness. I am currently reading Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, by Martin Seligman. As Seligman’s research reveals, much of the predicament in which we find ourselves today relates to our dysfunctional ideas about what constitutes a successful life, what really creates a sense of well-being, and what really makes us happy. The skills required to flourish can be taught with measurable success, but we are not teaching them (much of Seligman’s book addresses how to go about changing that). Much of the damage we have done to threaten sustainability can be traced to running on false treadmills to success and happiness. As you suggest that resilience is a part of sustainability, perhaps learning to truly flourish as human beings is as well.

    I suspect that the tipping point toward sustainability will come when people realize that sustainability is not about some unknown generation on a distant island, but about the quality of the experience they each have, here and now.

    In his essay, Experience, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

    Sustainability is a challenging journey, but we can find the end in every step. We can flourish and live the greatest number of good hours, now, in each moment.

    Now, back to that succinct definition of sustainability . . .

  4. Hi Bill

    One of the benefits of blogging about sustainability are the sometimes poignant comments I receive privately and on the blog site itself. Not only do these expand the conversation and offer fresh perspectives, they say a lot about the quality of folks who care about such things.

    It's nice to get a glimpse of your innards. Great comment Bill. Thanks.

  5. Dave,

    Thanks as always for sparking these valuable exchanges. Bill's points above about defining the somewhat undefinable bring to mind for me that everyone sees "sustainability" through the lens of their own experience and training. This variability is one of the field's strengths, and also a weakness. As an ecologist, I find that I think of sustainability somewhat differently than someone who comes to the field with say environmental law or management credentials.

    That said I think that it's extremely important for all professionals in this field to draw from a common core set of knowledge that will ensure sustainability continues to push beyond the sometimes restrictive niches that it finds itself in today.

    Resiliency is a central concept for ecology. Healthy ecosystems are inherently resilient, short of truly catastrophic disturbance. Adaptation can also be considered a facet of resiliency, also central to ecological systems thinking. I have observed that sustainability holds in its grasp the possibility of a truly holistic approach to human and planetary resilience to severe disturbance, with real solutions that help us adapt to truly disruptive change, and with a vision of an integrated systems approach to existing on this planet as part of its regenerative cycles, rather than disruptive to them.

    So I agree that the idea of resiliency should not be new to sustainability, but it is one of the nuances that is often lost when we limit the scope of its application primarily to institutional operational systems. As ecological concepts, resiliency and adaptation are also missing from much of our field's training options - especially professional certification courses. New academic degree programs in sustainability are all over the map when it comes to preparing students with a core knowledge base - there is no consistency as of yet. Perhaps it's time to consider a national accreditation program for sustainability degree programs, like those that exist for other fields.


  6. Indeed, well said Shana. It is interesting to review all the sustainability content that is being offered. It is all over the place, as you said. And missing from most of it are the social justice and fiscal equity parameters, IMHO. As such, a lot of it looks like repackaged environmentalism.