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Resilient Character

April 6, 2011

Last week I noted the grassroots movement to rebuild Christchurch, New Zealand’s earthquake devastated core, and the interest expressed in applying principles sustainable urban development. Phil Palin’s Monday updates to his post on Japan’s transition from response to recovery suggest Japanese leaders also see an opportunity to apply innovative thinking to manage ecological impacts as they rebuild the areas shattered by the Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011.

I think Phil and I both sought to make cases that such adaptations reflect a certain philosophical consistency or congruence with the principles of resilience that have represented a central theme in many of our respective posts. This should not, however, be taken to suggest that either of us see sustainability and resilience as synonymous or for that matter we see one necessarily leading to the other.

Most conventional definitions of sustainability start with an emphasis on making decisions today in ways that avoid identifiable impacts on future generations. Resilience starts with the same locus of control, but assumes a different outcome.

When we think about sustainability and act with a view toward the future needs of others, we are doing so in the hope, if not the expectation, that the decisions and actions we take can either prevent some future harm or yield some future benefit to others. When we look to the future from the perspective of resilience, we may also be concerned with preventing some specific harm or controlling circumstances that make us vulnerable.

What distinguishes sustainability and resilience, in my mind at least, is the object of these actions. Choices influenced by the ethos of sustainability seek to limit our contribution to phenomena that can do others like us similar harms in the future. Resilience, on the other hand, seeks to manage how we react to the occurrence of these phenomena when they inevitably recur or are replaced by something equally disruptive.

In the aftermath of a disaster, making a commitment to rebuilding sustainably suggests resilience. If people can look beyond the exigencies of their own immediate needs and think about the future they will leave for others then I think we can say with some confidence that they possess a certain degree of resilience.

That said, acting sustainability may be much harder for shattered communities to say they seek than it is for them to achieve in the end. Striving for sustainability suggests a resilient spirit. Achieving sustainable outcomes in the recovery process demonstrates resilient character.

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