Tale of Two Words: Sustainability Vs. Resilience

      A sustainable & resilient rain garden in Washington State
A sustainable & resilient rain garden in Washington State

As words go, “resilience” seems to be the new kid on the block… the new black, today’s “it word”… whatever metaphor you prefer. That’s not to say “sustainability” has disappeared. It’s still being used to describe a host of things, from organic farming to green building to garbage reduction to buying local. And there’s still plenty of “sustainable washing,” like the local supermarket describing how they continually search for ways to make your shopping experience more sustainable.

These days, however, resilience is giving sustainability a run for the money. Maybe it’s something about the (extreme) weather.

When words are ubiquitous, it’s easy to lose track of their actual meaning and become cynical about their use. But before we give up on two words that embody so much of what we want and need, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on some definitions.

Back to the Dictionary1

Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about these words:

  • Sus·tain·able, an adjective, pronounced \sə-ˈstā-nə-bəl\.  First known use: 1727. Definitions include:

1: capable of being sustained

2a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture>

2b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society>

  • Resilience, a noun, pronounced \ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\. Definitions include:

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

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

1 Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com

A Great Pair of Words

The key, of course, is that we can become more resilient in the face of misfortune, change or maybe even “compressive stress,”  if we live sustainably, that is, in a way that doesn’t deplete or permanently damage resources. So, for example:

  • We may be more resilient in the face of drought, floods, superstorms or other calamities that can disrupt the nation’s food supply if we grow and store some of our own food and support local farmers.
  • We may be more resilient economically if we support a strong local economy capable of creating sustainable middle-class jobs regardless of what’s going on nationally or globally.
  • We can be more resilient in these “peak oil” times, able to keep the lights on and the vehicles moving, if we support sustainable, renewable energy by conserving energy, choosing a renewable electricity supplier, installing solar panels, using wood pellets for heat, buying a hybrid or electric vehicle, turning pizza grease into biofuel, using public transportation, car-pooling, car-sharing or simply walking or biking more.

Sustainability and resilience are intricately connected. So are the many ways to achieve them.


2 thoughts on “Tale of Two Words: Sustainability Vs. Resilience

  1. I work in creative marketing and branding, and I go back and forth in a love-hate relationship with trending words. On the one hand, I hate being unoriginal — and I’m often challenged to come up with refreshing new names for products or words to use in tagline and slogans. On the other hand, as an environmental and food activist, I LIKE when words become trendy or buzz words because it means we have reached a tipping point and more people in the mainstream are paying attention. So while I may make fun of people who use words like “novel” or “innovative” or “revolutionary,” I am also impressed that they are doing something that will make enough of a difference in the world that it’s fair to use such words. Come visit my blog. Here’s a post you might like: http://imadealiyah.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/environment-is-not-a-dirty-word-and-being-green-doesnt-mean-being-perfect/

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jen. Funny, I’m in marketing too…marcom copywriting. I know what you mean about the two-edged sword of good words gone trendy. Things have always gotten co-opted. On the other hand, it’s exciting to hear so much public discussion about something like rebuilidng the Jersey Shore in a way that reflects climate change. They’re talking, anyway. We’ll see what actually happens.
      I’ll check out your blog! Take care.

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