What Happens When Resilience and Sustainability Compete?


Image credit: Dan Phiffer and Bryn Pinzgauer, used under Creative Commons license.

I've written before about the notion of resilience versus sustainability, arguing that efficiency and low emissions are just one part of the puzzle. It's also a topic touched on in Lloyd and James Russell's live chat last week about climate change and the city. Driven by the notion that it's too late for true solutions to the crises we face, many activists are increasingly focusing on responses—developing solutions that are adaptable, and indeed sustainable, if society undergoes economic shocks, political upheaval and/or natural disasters, and often this leads them to the simpler, lower tech, "appropriate technology"-type solutions. But what happens when some of those solutions are in fact more polluting than the higher tech alternatives we might otherwise pursue? Demand Reduction is Common Ground
There are, of course, many instances where the most resilient, and the most efficient/sustainable solution are one and the same thing. A super insulated house is more important than a high efficiency heat system. A community that decreases dependence on travel will be both more resilient, and more sustainable (in the classic "green" sense of the word), than one that relies on high-tech, low emission vehicles. But there are also gray areas.

The Environmental Impact of Burning Wood
The search for resilience has, for example, lead many green living enthusiasts to adopt clean-burning wood stoves as their primary source of heat. After all, the fuel can be sourced locally, is readily available, and the equipment needed to burn it can be readily maintained and even manufactured on a local, relatively low-tech scale. But while using up forestry waste, downed wood or perhaps even sustainably harvested firewood may have some advantages—in terms of carbon emissions—Lloyd has also written extensively about the major problems with wood burning—most notably the scalability; the land use concerns; and the issue of air pollutants. (Even an EPA certified low emission stove puts out enough fine particle pollution in 2-1/2 days as a car does in a year.)

High Tech Heat is Efficient, But Fragile
Contrast that with an air-source heat pump or other high-efficiency, yet high-tech and expensive, heating system—and you have an interesting conundrum. The higher tech systems may produce way less emissions, and work far more efficiently, than a wood stove, yet they are reliant on complex, high-tech components and expertise when it comes to both installation and maintenance—not to mention convoluted, vulnerable, and far-from-sustainable supply lines for their fuel, whether it be natural gas or electricity. While resilience and sustainability may be 100% aligned when we talk about the need to reduce demand (insulation, behavior change, etc), the picture becomes more muddy once actual supply comes into the picture.

Resilient and Sustainable Personal Transportation?
A similar conundrum could be noted for personal transportation. On the one hand, advocates of both resilience and sustainability would most likely agree that well built communities with a robust local economy and plenty of amenities will help reduce the need to travel, increase quality of life, and cut emissions and resource use in the process. Most likely, advocates will also agree that—after walking—bikes and other forms of human-powered vehicles provide both the most efficient, and the most resilient, mode of transport on a local scale.

But once longer distance transportation comes into the picture, the debate once again gets fuzzy. I have heard advocates for waste biodiesel argue that it is more resilient than electric vehicles—and on some levels, they have a point. Diesel vehicles can easily be repaired using scrap and, conceivably, locally manufactured materials. Similarly, the fuel can be made locally—assuming the availability of appropriate feed stocks of course. (As anyone who has followed the "food versus fuel" debate knows, that's a big "if".)

Meanwhile electric vehicles (EVs)—which hold out the promise of highly efficient motoring and, potentially, running on 100% renewable energy—also rely on a convoluted supply chain of components,expertise and resources (exploiting Bolivia's lithium reserves is not without its own environmental, social, economic and political challenges). And, however much we may wish for a localized, distributed power grid—the chances are that EVs will be running on a centralized grid that is vulnerable to disruption.

Trust Those Who Seek the Truth, Doubt Those Who Find It
Ultimately, I don't mean to knock the focus on either resilience or, for that matter, sustainability or efficiency. But I do think we need to move beyond the notion that we can label any one solution, or one approach, as "right". I have met plenty of high tech advocates who scoff at low tech "hippy" green living, and I have met plenty of low impact enthusiasts who repeat wildly inaccurate claims about solar panels—seemingly because they don't want the high tech side of things to work—they are too ideologically invested in their particular vision of the future.

The fact is that terms like resilience, sustainability, agility, efficiency and "green" are useful terms to define the places we want to get to—but they are conceptually too complex to apply as blanket labels to any one technology or approach. The more we can move toward embracing the best of all worlds, and choosing our tools according to what works best, not what fits our own cultural, ideological or political preconceptions, the better chance we have of meeting the challenges that await.

More on Resilience Versus Sustainability
When Low-Tech Beats Fsncy Innovation: Resilience Versus Sustainability
James Russell Live Chat on Climate Change, Agility and the City
There Are No Solutions, Only Responses: Resilience is Key

Tags: Activism | Alternative Energy | Permaculture | United States

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