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September 26, 2016
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Sustainability has become a watchword for development in the 21st century. The simplest definition is: that which can be maintained over time. Another widely accepted definition is found in the Brundtland Report, published by the United Nations in 1987 ( “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In these pages of The River Reporter, we frequently address sustainability: building sustainable local economies; seeking sustainable energy solutions; practicing sustainable use of natural resources; protecting and sustaining the environment (to safeguard clean air, clean water and biodiversity, to reduce waste, etc.); and creating sustainable communities. The list goes on.

Another perhaps less familiar concept is sustainability’s companion: resilience. It, too, is emerging as a fundamental principle for the 21st century. Its definition is: the ability to recover from adverse effects.

The recent Upper Delaware BioBlitz got us thinking about resilience in terms of ecosystems and their ability to recover from negative impacts, although the concept of resilience applies to all complex systems, not only to the natural world (more about that in a minute).

Life as we know it depends on the “products” and services of ecosystems. Take forests, for example; forests store carbon, deliver watershed services, provide habitat for widely diverse species, help modulate climate and afford scenic landscapes. Each component of a forest ecosystem is vital to its continued resilience. The rich dark color of lumber from a cherry tree, for example, makes its hardwood greatly prized on the open market; loggers and forest owners can get a pretty penny. However, an enlightened logger or landowner, or a professional forester would never harvest all the cherry trees in an ecosystem. The forest needs enough cherry trees for that ecosystem to recover with its full complement of birds, animals, insects, plants and more. Increasingly forest managers are talking about building forest resilience.

The opposite of resilience is brittleness. Losing the ability to bounce back, an ecosystem becomes fragile, increasingly susceptible to collapse. Take fish for example; if too many cod are harvested beyond the ability of the cod population to recover, the integrity of the entire ecosystem is affected. The collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery in the early 1990s is a cautionary tale ( Very simply, cod were overfished. Herring eat codfish eggs; mackerel eat herring. Without cod, the entire ecosystem changed (one of the reasons efforts to rebuild the North Atlantic cod fishery have failed).

The same thing happened in Somalia, where coastal waters were overfished. What happened when that fishery collapsed clearly shows the nexus of society and ecosystems. No longer able to earn a living to feed their families and having few choices, Somali fishermen turned to piracy. The socio-ecological system imploded. (For interesting viewing, see the 2013 Hollywood film “Captain Phillips” with Tom Hanks, whose container ship is taken over by Somali pirates.) A less brittle, more resilient society might have survived as a civil society. Instead Somalia disintegrated.

In other ways, too, human communities are vulnerable to external shocks. Witness the Great Recession, from which many have not yet recovered; the changing climate that takes a mounting toll via more violent weather episodes; the rising cost of life’s necessities like food and energy over which we feel we have little control. Like complex ecosystems, human society itself is a highly complex system and can become brittle and vulnerable, or alternatively, through concentrated effort and planning, it can become resilient. “Resilience is, in a nutshell, the ability of a system, whether an individual, an economy, a town or a city, to withstand shock from the outside. Resilience is about building the ability to adapt to shock, to flex and modify, rather than crumble” (

If resilience is necessary for systems’ stability, then learning how to support resilience is vital for our future. As individuals and families, as neighbors and communities, we have the power to increase our capacity to deal and even thrive despite unwelcome change forced upon us from the outside. Resilience starts with becoming less reliant on outside resources over which we have little or no control, especially in a global economy.

Building resilience involves supporting locally owned businesses to create living local economies. It involves learning forgotten skills, for example, how to grow some of our own food, for those who are able. It involves learning traditional trades and new occupations to create local employment opportunities. It involves becoming less dependent on fossil fuels and supporting the growth of renewables. It involves creating stronger social networks close to home, i.e. not in cyberspace. It involves becoming more aware that our actions have ecological consequences.

Human enterprise is inseparable from nature. Society is inseparable from ecology. We are inextricably linked in socio-ecological systems. Everything depends on our ability to preserve and build resilience of these systems.

[Editor’s note: For more on resilience and socio-ecological systems, see For a series of papers on the topic, see]