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Monday, May 04, 2009

Sustainability Versus Resiliance

I've never been particularly enthralled by the concept of "sustainability". It seems too static and too pessimistic. It seems to imply we're going to get the world to a certain state, and keep it that way forever, and that's the best we can do. Sometimes you hear the phrase "sustainable growth", but it sounds a bit oxymoronic - either something's sustaining or it's growing, but not both.

Along those lines I noticed an intriguing blurb in Foreign Policy (HT: Virginia Postrel). Here's an excerpt:

Sustainability is inherently static. It presumes thereĆ¢€™s a point at which we can maintain ourselves and the world, and once we find the right combination of behavior and technology that allows us some measure of stability, we have to stay there. A sustainable world can avoid imminent disaster, but it will remain on the precipice until the next shock.

Resilience, conversely, accepts that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, focusing instead on the need to be able to withstand the unexpected. Greed, accident, or malice may have harmful results, but, barring something truly apocalyptic, a resilient system can absorb such results without its overall health being threatened.[...]

Ultimately, resilience emphasizes increasing our ability to withstand crises. Sustainability is a brittle state: Unforeseen changes (natural or otherwise) can easily cause its collapse. Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.
The rest of the article talks about attributes of a resilient system. It's a little short on examples and details, but I like the general concept.


Harry Eagar said...

Sustainable, as used in current debates, means unworkable, but there is nothing inherently static about the concept of sustainability.

Way long time ago, Charles Singer (in History of Technology, vol. 5) had a good discussion about how 19th c. industrial processes were unsustainable (because they poisoned watercourses) but were made sustainable and even expandable by finding a use for what was being dumped.

Hey Skipper said...

... but there is nothing inherently static about the concept of sustainability.Sustainable, by definition, is static.

How many 19th century industrial processes are we still using?

Harry Eagar said...

Practically all of them. The particular example involved, as I recall, sodium hydroxide.

Petroleum cracking, coal tar distillation, sulfuric acid precipitation, ore roasting (pre-19th c.), welding, photography etc.

I am trying to think of an industrial process that postdates 1900, and there must be some, but except for lasers and radiography, I'm coming up blank.

Bret said...

"I am trying to think of an industrial process that postdates 1900..."

I don't know, here's a couple of things that come to mind for which industrial processes have been developed post 1900:

gene splicing
nuclear energy
solar cells
music editing
video editing
microwave ovens
birth control manufacture
MRI machines
automobile manufacture
wind tunnel
fiber optics
dish antennas
nanotech processes
spot welding

Harry Eagar said...

Most of those are new applications of 19th c. processes. Spot welding is an obvious one.

Gene splicing should have been on my list, and radiology (which includes nuclear energy) already was.


That is a surprisingly late technology, dating only from about the 8th c.

Bret said...

That would be windmills for electric generation. Today's windmills are built using much different processes that those from the 8th century (or the 18th century for that matter).

Hey Skipper said...

Practically all of them. The particular example involved, as I recall, sodium hydroxide.Wait a minute. Are we talking about processes, or products?

I doubt there is any 21st century process that a 19th century manufacturer would recognize without a fair amount of introduction.

As a for instance, I'll bet catalysis -- IIRC, a fairly important part of many modern processes -- was completely unknown then.

Harry Eagar said...

I thought we were talking about processes.

The original electrical generators were balls of sulfur on a hand-cranked rod. I don't see how attaching the rod to a windmill could be considered a 21st c. innovation.

I'm not sure when catalysis began to be understood, but it was used anciently. Curiously, I think one of the earliest catalysts was organic, rather than inorganic: the addition of dog shit to tanning liquor to speed up the softening process.

Hey Skipper said...

I think you have process and product mixed up.

Transportation is a product. There are many processes that produce transportation.

I moved to LA in the late 60s, when there was probably a quarter of today's population of people and cars.

Stage 3 smog alerts were not at all uncommon. There was no way that automobile transportation would have been sustainable in the face of a quadrupling of cars.

Yet there are cars aplenty in LA, and almost no Stage III smog alerts.

Why? The product remained the same, but the processes changed drastically: closed loop engine control, and catalytic reactors in the exhaust.

IIRC, on a typical LA day, the air coming out of a modern car's exhaust pipe is cleaner than that going into the intake.

This is a perfect example of why sustainability is an absolutely static concept.