Planet Earth

On "Resilience" and "Sustainability"

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorOct 25, 2012 11:44 PM


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Like every parent, I want my two young boys to be resilient to life's vicissitudes, everything from the slings and arrows on the school playground to the randomness of illnesses and tragedies. I want them to develop the capacity to bounce back from sudden shocks and hard knocks. So along with a father's love and nurturing comes the harder challenge of resilience building, which I and every parent learns, is something a child must develop for himself. Still, when situations arise, you have to know when to step in and when to lay back. It's tricky. I find it to be my greatest challenge as a parent. As a society, we face a similar challenge, but on a greater scale. In a recent article, David Biello wrote:

Some 5 billion people are projected to live in urban areas by 2030. These cities of the future"”most of them cities of today, like New York"”will have to cope with climate change, sea level rise, increasing demand for electricity and the logistics of 5 billion peoples' sewage, among other things.

The piece asks: "Can cities be resilient and sustainable at the same time?" To me, the answer seems evident. The more resilience built into a city's infrastructure and its business, governmental and civic sectors, the more sustainable a city is. That said, Biello's piece explores some of the tensions between the different aims of "sustainability" and "resilience." They can even work at cross purposes, as he points out here:

Some of the most obvious ways to become more resilient are not sustainable. For example, if you are concerned about reliable electricity, you can increase the resilience of your local grid by buying a diesel generator, or two, or more. In effect, that's what the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters of the world do. But extra diesel generators are certainly not an efficient, or particularly sustainable, way to create electricity. It's not ideal for the environment to be burning all that extra diesel, with attendant air pollution and the like.

Perhaps the resilience/sustainability dilemma is best addressed by exploring how their respective goals can be aligned. That was, I think, the purpose of a constructive panel discussion last night on the the ways cities can be made more resilient. A nice overview of the themes and main points to emerge can be found at Tori Bosch's post at Slate. If I had more time, I'd provide some of my own impressions. But I suspect this is a topic that will be discussed frequently in the years to come, so there will be plenty more opportunities. Meanwhile, here's hoping the city I live in (New York) and my children develop the resilience to cope with whatever the future holds.

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