- A system is a mostly independent, learning and self-organizing entity. A human social system is a collection of individuals working together toward some goal(s). For the purposes of this discussion, resilience is defined as the capacity of a system to behave in a way that maintains a sense coherence through changing conditions, while sustainability is defined as a system's behavior that can be considered environmentally, socially and economically ethical.
- I think my definition of resilience is fairly standard, although the activities that I believe could fall under this definition (below) might differ from what some resilience theorists say. Sustainability's definition is more complicated. I build upon the thinking of many resilience authors who consider sustainability as a normative practice, with resilience being a non-normative descriptive characteristic of a system. I extend the idea of "normative" (a "common ideal") to mean a "morally ethical goal" because that is how I read most of the recent UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. I realize that there are other definitions of sustainability.
A RESILIENCE-DRIVEN APPROACH TO SOCIAL SYSTEM DEVELOPMENT
- All systems have some degree of resilience, which is exhibited in their self-organizing effort to survive (system survivability). This might also be considered as their resistance to extinction. Examples of (mostly) extinct societies from the past are evidence that not all social systems are resilient over the long term. ("Long" is, of course, a relative measurement, as is, to a degree, "extinct".) Some form of social organization appears to be a natural state for all social systems, although what that form of organization is can vary considerably.
- Sustainability, on the other hand, is not a natural state of behavior, because most of the time it needs to be imposed by government policies. Instead, it is a normative (ethical) goal that many social systems seek to achieve. (While some argue that there is a normative element in resilience, many more authors suggest that normativity is one, if not the main, difference between sustainability and resilience.) Whether sustainability is natural or not, and whether all social systems seek it or not, are questions that are open to debate. However, assuming sustainability is not intrinsic to human social systems, then it is also true that not all social systems are sustainable. (This might depend on one's definition of sustainability, but by most definitions it is fairly safe to say that many societies are not currently environmentally sustainable.)
- Based on propositions 1, 2 and 3, we can define sustainability as the effort to make a resilient system more normative. Normative here is defined as environmentally ethical, socially ethical and economically ethical. The goal then becomes to create system resilient first, and then make it sustainable (ethical).
- Examples of this would be strongly centralized and bureaucratically complex organizations, including countries and most large business enterprises. Their resilience is based on the power that the social system gives to their central leadership, and the diminished voice that it it gives to average members in shaping policies that direct the system overall.
- The above scenario is a Resilience Driven Approach to Social System Development. Resilience is the base line upon which all other other actions, including sustainability, are then undertaken. I believe that this is how most social systems around the world function. This, for example, has been the argument made by developing countries (such as China and India) to allow them to have higher rates of greenhouse gas emissions than more developed countries (like the US and Europe) in global climate change discussions, which will strengthen their resilience first, after which they can focus more on sustainability.
A SUSTAINABILITY-DRIVEN APPROACH TO SOCIAL SYSTEM DEVELOPMENT
- An alternative approach could be to make sustainability (ethics) the primary goal of the system, with resilience a secondary goal. The system could self-organize (a resilience action) around sustainability (ethical) objectives.
- This might also be a smart resilience move, as sustainability arguments often claim greater long-term system survivability (such as the conservation of natural resources). There is also evidence from the past suggesting that non-resilient societies (those that became extinct) were also environmentally unsustainable.
- Economic sustainability is important for the overall quality of life of a social system, but is less clearly tied to the complete collapse of a social system (resilience). The demise of communism as practiced in the Soviet Union and Maoist China might be examples of economic system collapses. In both cases, however, the systems were able to reorganize and continue in a modified form.
- Social sustainability (social ethics) is certainly a laudable goal, but may be the least crucial in terms of the complete collapse of a social system. On the other hand, social sustainability, depending on how it is defined, can be a major factor in building system resilience responses to fast and slow variables that put pressure on a system to change.
- As opposed to highly centralized and complex systems, participatory social systems might be an example of a sustainability approach to societal development. The social system is made socially ethical by allowing members to have some kind of voice in the selection of their leaders and in the adoption of policies that define system relationships and behavior. The system’s resilience is primarily based on the greater perceived legitimacy of the selected leaders and policies.
- Based on these propositions and examples, a system’s resilience is lower in the short run under a sustainability driven approach, and higher in the short run in a resilience driven approach where fewer ethical considerations need to be made. Socially sustainable participatory social systems are more susceptible to short term influences (public opinion shifts), making them potentially less resilient if legitimacy issues arise. This might be seen in the recent vote by UK citizens to succeed from the EU. Citizen satisfaction levels, however, may be higher over the long term in sustainability driven systems because members have a greater sense of empowerment than in resilience driven systems.
- Spatial scales (both geographic space and social space) and temporal scales need to be considered in this discussion. The spatial scale of the social system can range from a neighborhood organization, to a country, and to the entire planet Earth. Discussions of "short term" and "long term" changes should be clearly defined each time they are used, as they can vary considerably from one person's perspective to the next.
- Finally, people tend to want both a resilient social system that is able to maintain a high degree of recognizable self organized structure through a fast and slow changing world, and a sustainable social system that leads to more ethical and harmonious relationships with our environment and other people. To achieve this, I think it is important to be aware of the differences between resilience-driven and sustainability-driven policies and actions, because without proper attention, it is possible to have one without the other. Balancing the two approaches may be the major challenge that human societies face.