- The ideas expressed in this blog post were developed through lengthy discussions with my research co-investigators:
- Prof. Pin T. Ng, Northern Arizona University, USA
- Prof. Chin-cheng (Nickel) Ni, National Hsinchu University of Education, Taiwan
- Prof. Tsung-chiung (Emily) Wu, National Donghwa University, Taiwan
- This commentary was originally posted on the Tourism Place blog on 24 October 2015.
One of the slides in my recent presentations on the topic of resilience and sustainability contains a list of the similarities and difference between the two concepts. Putting this list together has helped me tremendously, because I find that the academic literature is more confusing than helpful on this. I have come to the conclusion that there are two basic reasons why academics (and others) are confused by the relationship between resilience and sustainability.
The first reason for the confusion is the weak and sloppy conceptualization of sustainability, which can sometimes combine criteria that are resilience in origin with those that are more solidly based in sustainability theory.
There is a tendency by some to define sustainability as including every possible "good" thing under the sun that a community should strive to achieve, from carbon reduction to heritage conservation to gender equity to creating jobs to open government to religious freedom to performing arts, and more. Such a kitchen soup approach is, in my opinion, good comprehensive planning (as I learned in planning school) and might be good community development, but it does not reflect the original concept of sustainable development, as articulated in the 1987 report, Our Common Future, by the UN's World Commission on Environmental and Development (aka the Brundtland Report), which elevated "sustainable development" to worldwide importance.
Our Common Future clearly articulated a strong environmental ethic and a strong conservation approach. This also included the restoration of historical ecological systems. Although there were some proactive elements (such as creating fairness between rich and poor), the emphasis was on protecting and maintaining natural and cultural resources for the future and avoiding change, which is much more narrowly defined than comprehensive planning.
A good example of the kitchen soup approach to sustainability is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council's criteria for sustainable tourism destination development. A good example of sustainability that is more true to the original definition is the European Commission's European Tourism Indicators System for Sustainable Destination Management.
Resilience, on the other hand, has it conceptual origins in ecology and disaster management. It is about adaptation, building capacities to change, learning institutions, and creative and innovative responses to changing circumstances. [new 22nov15] It can also be confused by authors who use a more simplified dictionary definition of resilience. This happens because everything conceivable, from a river to a city and from a sound to an idea, exhibits some degree of resilience. Things exist and they end; and in simplistic terms, measurements of the time between their coming into existence and their eventual ending reflects their resilience. Thus, an researcher could say that because a religion has been in existence for over 2000 years, it is resilient. On the other hand, one could also say it is sustainable, which leads to the second reason for the confusion between sustainability and resilience. [end new]
The second reason for the confusion between resilience and sustainability is that they share some common assumptions, methods and goals. Table 1, below, summarizes what I see as the major similarities between these two frameworks. In essence, they are both seeking to ensure the survivability of human society through greater harmony with the natural world. As such, both resilience and sustainability research has tended to focus on natural ecosystems, on community development, and increasingly on climate change. These common goals and research topics makes it seem like resilience and sustainability are the same thing. They are not (IMHO).
Table 2, below, outlines the many and major differences between resilience and sustainability. The biggest difference is in the basic ontological assumptions about the nature of the world: whether it is normal to be in a state of stability and balance, or in a state of change and even chaos. To be sustainable requires that stability is possible. However, human experience seems to be telling us that we live in a chaotic world that requires resilience.
Table 1. Resilience & Sustainability Similarities
Research Focus: Community Development; Ecology; Climate Change
Methods: Climate Change Policies & Actions; Education & Learning as an Implementation Tool
Goals: System Survivability (Social & Bio-Diversity); Sense of Place & Belonging (Heritage)
Table 2. Resilience & Sustainability Differences
Assumption: Stability & Balance are the Norm (or are at least possible)
Research Focus: Environmental & Social Impacts of Economic Development; Over use of Resources; Carbon Footprints
Methods: “Wise Use” Resource Management; Avoiding or Preservation Against Change; Recycling & “Greening”; Education for Behavior Change
Goals: Normative Ideals (Culture, Environment & Economic balance; Intergenerational Equity; Fairness)
Criticism: Poorly Defined & Very Political
Assumption: Nonlinear & Unpredictable Change & Chaos are the Norm
Research Focus: Natural & Human Disaster Management; Climate Change Impacts; Social Capital & Networks
Methods: Reducing Vulnerability & Increasing Physical & Social Capacity for Change (flexibility & redundancy); Embracing Change; Education for Innovation
Goals: Quantitative Equilibrium; System Models (Evolutionary Complex Adaptive Systems; Path Dependence; Innovation)
Criticism: Does Not Address the Causes of Social and Environmental Change
Creating Resilient & Sustainable Communities
Instead, I suggest that the new paradigm for community development should be the "Resilient and Sustainable Community" -- a community that demonstrates strength in both sustainability and resilience.
Faced with the modern challenges of climate change and natural disasters, economic and cultural globalization, and numerous other unpredictable changes, communities need to ask themselves two questions:
(1) What do we want to protect and conserve, and to keep from changing? (sustainability)
(2) What do we want to adapt and change into something new and maybe better? (resilience)
Table 3 shows the basic indicators that we have been using in our research in rural Taiwan tourism communities. This is another slide that I have been using recently to more clearly explain the conceptual differences between sustainability and resilience. It is based on the two questions, (1) and (2), listed above. For each area there is an indicator that reflects sustainability (conservation, restoration and change avoidance) and one that reflects resilience (adaptation and innovation). Neither is inherently better than the other - they are just different policy choices.
In general, the better a community is able conserve (or sometimes recover) that which they cherish, the more successful they are at sustainability. Similarly, the better a community is able to adapt and change in areas that they want to see development, the better they are at resilience. On the other hand, the inability to protect a community resource against change, or being forced by external forces to change something in directions deemed undesirable by a community, reflects disempowered states of sustainability and of resilience, respectively.
Table 3. Resilience & Sustainability Indicators
• Building Community Capacity for Change (Resilience) •
• Conserving Community Resources (Sustainability) •
2. Environmental Knowledge
• New Environmental Knowledge (Resilience) •
• Traditional Environmental Uses (Sustainability) •
3. Community Well Being
• Improve Living Conditions & Employment (Resilience) •
• Cultural Preservation & Traditions (Sustainability) •
4. Social Support Systems
• Social Collaboration (Resilience) •
• Social Welfare & Equity (Sustainability) •
To see how we a are applying these indicators our research, visit our Taiwan Project website at
An academic version of this blog post was published in Tourism Geographies:
- Community sustainability and resilience: similarities, differences and indicators. - Research Frontiers - Alan A. Lew, Pin T. Ng, Chin-cheng (Nickel) Ni & Tsung-chiung (Emily) Wu - DOI:10.1080/14616688.2015.1122664
Two worthwhile papers on the evolution and multiple definitions of "resilience" are:
- Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey, by D.E. Alexander. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 13, 2707–2716, 2013. http://www.nat-hazards-earth-syst-sci.net/13/2707/2013/nhess-13-2707-2013.pdf
- Multiple interpretations of resilience in disaster risk management, by Kristen MacAskill and Peter Guthrie. Procedia Economics and Finance 18, 667–674, 2014. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212567114009897
New text added: It can also be confused by authors who use a more simplified dictionary definition of resilience. This happens because everything conceivable, from a river to a city and from a sound to an idea, exhibits some degree of resilience. Things exist and they end; and in simplistic terms, measurements of the time between their coming into existence and their eventual ending reflects their resilience. Thus, an researcher could say that because a religion has been in existence for over 2000 years, it is resilient. On the other hand, one could also say it is sustainable, which leads to the second reason for the confusion between sustainability and resilience.
Old text removed: While it can also be confused by authors who use a more simplified dictionary definition of resilience, that tends to be less of an issue (so far) in resilience scholarship.
Updated 4 December 2015
Added reference and link to "Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey" and "Multiple interpretations of resilience in disaster risk management"
Updated 3 July 2016
Moved from Tourism Place blog to the Blog of the Collaborative for Sustainable and Resilience Communities