“Sustainability” is so ten years ago — Let’s talk “Resilience”

Deep in an April 14 New York Times story on the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami was mention of an iPhone app called Yurekuru that gives warning of an impending quake. The name, said the Times, translates into English roughly as, “the shaking is coming.”

Before the March 11 quake, the app attracted 100,000 users. Now: 1.5 million.

In a sense, living organisms could always be fairly certain that a shaking of some kind was on the way. Life on earth has been shaped by violence, by sudden upheavals and reversals of fortune for one hapless population or another. Foreboding is written into the human psyche. It’s only recently that we’ve felt entitled to be spared.

It’s an expectation ungrounded in reality. But it has its good points. If we don’t believe that everything is out of our control, we are motivated to take charge of some things. We can organize ourselves to survive. Which is why, in the developed parts of the world, at least, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophic acts kill far fewer people than they did a century or so ago, even when horrific events take place in more populous areas.

Maybe because the 200,000 death toll was so dramatic, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami challenged scientists who applied our modern assumption of a right to survive and bounce back from calamities to the study of resilience strategies. And much of what they discovered not only helped agencies and communities fine-tune emergency response techniques, it expanded the market for ideas scientists have been thinking about for generations to an audience made suddenly attentive by the life and death implications of their theories.

Resilience thinking is systems thinking. Complex, interconnected systems – systems within systems – are reality’s engines. And they are made even more complex by ways in which their components adapt to new situations. Continuous adaptability makes the systems dynamic, always changing into something else. The change may be slow and predictable. But maybe not. Sometimes giant tectonic plates shift and the shaking comes.

What scientists learned from the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami is that some communities were better than others at adapting to the sudden, violent change and bouncing back. They faced the complex adaptability of nature with adaptable systems of their own. They had responsive leadership networks that people trusted. They had developed diverse economies in which some sectors might recover faster and support the recovery of others.

I was reminded of this over the last year working in Coastal Alabama in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. I wrote about our report, “A Roadmap to Resilience,” here. The one-year anniversary of the spill will be April 20. And the lessons many are taking away from the experience is that the ways in which many communities in the region organized themselves were not sustainable.

Living in the path of potential catastrophe, whether from oil spills or hurricanes or a sudden churning in the world economy, requires flexibility and adaptability. And those attributes were in shorter supply than we imagined in a region overly dependent on tourism and on seafood harvesting and processing.

Fortunately, Coastal Alabama may be applying the lessons of resilience in ways that might serve as a model for other communities and regions in the path of disaster. That’s a pretty broad universe. For eventually, the shaking comes.

–Ben Brown


  1. My only disagreement with this post is the statement that “Resilience thinking is systems thinking. “ Resilience thinking needs to leverage systems thinking while recognizing systems thinking’s inherent limitations. The most important is that systems thinking often encourages a false sense of confidence. By employing the methods and practices of systems thinking, we often come to believe that we have accounted for all significant factors in describing how a system works. As this online discussion shows, the most important factor to include in a systems approach is what we call the wild card, the black swan, or the finagle factor, i.e. the event we never even imagined, much less accounted for in our resilience planning.

    The Roadmap to Resilience touches on this, but does not adequately recognize what Daniel Altman calls the “deep factors” in society. These deep factors are embedded ways of thinking that encourage business-as-usual despite all indicators that business as usual exposes everyone to disaster. In Alabama and similar cultures, the resistance to thinking and planning for the unthinkable event that can disrupt familiar way of life runs deep.

  2. Hey, Rob: Thanks for this thoughtful — and helpful — criticism. Your point pushes the resilience discussion deeper. Indeed, one of the most significant contributions of resilience studies is the realization that complex adaptive systems often adapt in ways and at speeds that make our descriptions of them incomplete. That discovery should undermine our arrogance. And as you also suggest, the fact that we can’t abandon overconfident, business-as-usual strategies in the face of evidence to the contrary sets us up for more painful lessons in how the world really works. Thanks again for improving the quality of the conversation.


  1. […] Scientists have been studying strategies for better understanding and for more successfully operating within complex adaptive systems. Many are involved in the field of resilience studies, and their work has been playing an increasingly important role in planning for disaster preparedness. I talked about some of those efforts in a previous post. […]

  2. […] innovation lab. You’re drawing from diverse perspectives, co-creating solutions, and taking on a systems approach for problem solving. You’re helping the community to use design thinking married up to community […]

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