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Sustainability or resilience: which should we seek?

Rochester Business Journal
May 17, 2013

The notion of sustainable development and the more general concept of sustainability have become quite the rage today. The idea of sustainability appeals to many people because it suggests that with the apposite mix of incentives, technological improvements and social change, we actually may be able to attain a lasting equilibrium not only with ourselves but also with planet Earth.
Although it is easy to comprehend the mesmerizing appeal of this "one with Nature" idea, there are two key problems with sustainability. First, there is no clear, accepted meaning of the word, so meanings of sustainability abound in both the popular and the academic literatures. With so many interpretations around, the term is now largely devoid of any analytical significance. Second and more important is that despite the many meanings of sustainability, these meanings are typically all equilibrium-centered.
On the basis of many noteworthy studies of ecological systems, C.S. "Buzz" Holling argued that when contemplating the management of ecological-economic systems such as agriculture, fisheries, forests and rangelands, we ought not to be focusing on an equilibrium of the underlying system because such systems typically are not in equilibrium. Instead, argued Holling, what we ought to focus on is the ability of a system to absorb both human-induced and natural changes and yet retain its essential character. Holling called this ability resilience, and in the last four decades this notion has been studied and applied to socioeconomic systems by researchers working in disparate disciplines.
Consider two examples. A powerful earthquake 40 miles off the coast of eastern Japan in March 2011 set off a series of events that devastated large parts of this country. Japan's strict building codes ensured that most affected structures were able to withstand the major earthquake-related stress. As noted by Scott Carlson in the Chronicle of Higher Education, what these building codes did not prepare for was the tsunami that unexpectedly breached sea walls and ultimately killed most of the more than 15,800 people who died in this disaster. Closer to home, Hurricane Sandy hit lower Manhattan-the most recently redeveloped part of New York City-the hardest. This part of New York should have been the least vulnerable area of the city, but it succumbed to Sandy because, in the words of urban planner Jonathan Rose, it was built to be sustainable but not resilient.
These two examples and many similar ones together tell us that our world is increasingly not in balance or in equilibrium. Hence, in the face of unexpected events and natural disasters in an ever-changing world, what's important is our ability to withstand and adapt to unforeseeable contingencies. In the words of author Andrew Zolli, the sustainability notion is being effectively challenged as a management tool because sustainability strives to put the world back into balance or equilibrium, while resilience looks for ways to manage imbalance or a world in disequilibrium.
In the business world, a focus on sustainability frequently involves either minimizing or eliminating a company's environmental impact by reducing, among other things, its energy and resource inputs, its waste stream and its emissions. These actions, guided as they frequently are by a focus on short-term profits and an antipathy for long-term thinking, are fundamentally equilibrium- and efficiency-centered. However, Joseph Fiksel of Ohio State University points out that too much efficiency can be counterproductive because it prevents companies from being resilient in the face of potential "black swan" events.
The resilience approach to management is not a panacea, and there is the danger that like the notion of sustainability, it will come to mean whatever one wants it to mean. Even so, as a practical management tool, the resilience approach's biggest strength is that it assumes we don't know how things will turn out, that we'll be surprised, and that we'll make mistakes. Therefore, in the words of Zolli, this approach rightly calls for "rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean."

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics at Rochester Institute of Technology, but these views are his own.5/10/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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