Resilience vs. sustainability

I work with architecture and design students, and I have a strong interest in understanding some of what they do.  Sometimes this means I get to take a class in a related field–this term I took one in urban planning.  The topic was sustainable cities, which is a pretty fascinating one when you consider how quickly our world is urbanizing, and how this affects poverty, ecology, energy use, and a zillion other factors.

One idea that came up early in our conversations was resilience vs. sustainability.  These are both complex notions, but I’ll boil them down to what I took away.  Basically, a sustainability model supposes that we can create or find ways to live on the planet that don’t deplete more than they give.  In other words, we can keep things going without fundamentally altering our relationship to the world.  A resilience model says that we’ve already altered the planet beyond certain tipping points.  We’ve changed the ground rules–the temperature, the acidity, the fertility, the habitat, whatever–and now we have to focus on finding ways to live with those changes.  There’s no going back.

I find it really interesting to apply a resilience model of thinking to libraries.  Resilience emphasizes adaptability, the ability of an organism or organization to change itself to survive in new circumstances.  Libraries and librarians have for some time been dealing with major, destabilizing changes in our environment.  Gillian recently posted a Call to Arms that speaks to these changes, I think.  Print texts are ceding ground to digital, traditional service models aren’t reaching new users, the skills we learned in our MLIS degrees may not be the ones we need in our jobs.  It can be overwhelming, especially for librarians who have been in the profession for a while and are used to seeing things a certain way.

Thinking about ourselves and our libraries in terms of resilience might help us feel more in control of our situation.  It means we’d have to accept that we’ve passed certain tipping points, and that may not be easy or fun to do.  But if we can do it, then we may be able to start thinking in terms of our own ability to adapt in meaningful ways.  Change is happening all around us–serious change, world-shaking change.  As a species, we have some serious decisions to make about how we deal with that change.

Professionally, ecologically, politically, and in all other ways–isn’t it empowering to start from an assumption that we’re resilient and adaptable?  Doesn’t that make the outlook seem better, no matter how disruptive the changes we face?

This post was originally made at Re:Generations.

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