marketing monday: resilience – the new sustainability

I’ve already made my argument that ”sustainability” and “green” are obsolete terms, and over the last year there appears to be growing mainstream momentum (it originated out of the systems design community) around the term “resilience” as a possible successor. One voice on the subject is Dennis L. Meadows, author of The Limits of Growth. In a recent interview with Pictures of the Future, Meadows made the following argument:

In my opinion [sustainable development] is an oxymoron, a term with nonsense meaning. To many people,”development” seems to imply that we can simply keep going as we have for the last 100 years, depleting resources on a large scale and polluting heavily. And adding some kind of “sustainability” makes the detrimental effects of our model of development go away. I am more interested in the term “resilience”. This concept is about how to structure a company or a city or a country so that it can continue to function quite well even in the face of major shocks. Implementing policies that give you resilience tends to make the system more sustainable.

Meadows went on to equate the coming environmental crisis with the current financial crisis, saying that he expects to see similar systemic problems. He said behavioral change is the most important factor in preventing these problems, combined with the tools of technology to realize those changes.

Like the financial crisis, climate change or energy scarcity are not going to proceed in a nice orderly, uniform way. Sometime in the foreseeable future there will be discontinuities, which will put us in a mode of crisis… to prepare ourselves the most important thing is to increase our time horizon.

The leading proponent of the resilience concept has been Jamais Cascio, an “ethical futurist” based in the San Francisco area, who points out the two reasons why resilience is gaining traction: 1. the future is inherently uncertain and 2. failures happen, so the OS of humanity needs to be flexible and self-aware enough to identify failures early and adapt accordingly. He adds that resilience implies two characteristics needed to do that: strength and flexibility.

One reason why the idea of resilience resonates with those of us 
engaged in foresight work is that, as troubling as it may be to 
contemplate, the current massive economic downturn is likely to be 
neither the only nor the biggest crisis we face over the next few 
decades. The need to shift quickly away from fossil fuels (for both 
environmental and supply reasons) may be as big a shock as today’s 
”econalypse,” and could easily be compounded by accelerating problems caused by global warming.

A number of organizations exist to explore the possibilities for resilience as a new social meme, including the Center for Resilience at Ohio State University. Others have emerged in South America and Europe