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Rethinking resilience

The word resilience is going the way of sustainability - becoming so over-imbued with meaning that it becomes meaningless. I recently heard a presentation by somebody who was basing a whole research project around meanings of sustainability. It seems to me the time would have been better spent organising a Potato Day like the one we have coming up in Stroud.

For surely, resilience is about getting down and dirty in your local environment. It seems to me a contradiction in terms to travel away from home, as I do, to conduct academic research into what resilience or sustainability might mean. For the record we should be clear that these two are not the same. Sustainability is an approach to life that is respectful of the planet and all the species who enjoy it today and may enjoy it into the future. Resilience is a much more limited concept, which seeks to elucidate our relationship with natural systems.

The reason resilience is useful as a concept is that it has a fixed, physical definition, which we can use by analogy to explore what we are doing in planning our transition to sustainable living. Wikipedia defines resilience as 'the property of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically and then, upon unloading to have this energy recovered.' This strikes me as a wonderfully inspiring definition if we apply it to our human communities. When they are challenged by environmental or social change, rather than fracturing, they can adapt to the stress temporarily and then unleash creative energy in response.

In these days of unexpectedly harsh weather, the word resilience has crept into many journalistic reports as an expression of what has limited our response. The suggestions for change focus around the expenditure of more energy and money, much as the proposed response to the environmental crisis apparently needs more technology.

But true resilience lies in the design of systems, not their technological sophistication. Because there will always be situations where the road between Glasgow and Edinburgh is likely to become impassable on some days of the year, an economy which requires large numbers of people to travel between these cities is not resilient by design. The large distances we travel for work and to acquire provisions are examples of poorly designed, non-resilient systems. Building resilient communities can enable sustainable living precisely because it will mean embedding deeper into your local environment, a key feature of the bioregional economy that will offer a resilient and a sustainable future.

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