Sustainability and resilience: two sides of the same coin?

Sustainability and resilience: two sides of the same coin?

November 02, 2017

Sustainability and resilience: two sides of the same coin?

Often thought to be synonymous, the terms sustainability and resilience in fact refer to two different concepts. However, they are not necessarily diametrically opposed, since they both target sustainable development.

Initially, the ideas of sustainability and sustainable development took centre stage. The concept of sustainable development was introduced for the first time in 1987 in the “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future”, also known as the Brundtland report. Sustainability still lies at the heart of the international debate and is the central objective of many global initiatives, most notably the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. However, increasingly often, the concept of resilience is introduced to add further nuance to the idea of sustainability, enriching it and perhaps making it more suited to the world around us. 

Adding clarity

The terms sustainability and resilience are frequently used to mean the same thing, but they are actually two markedly different concepts. They are, nonetheless, closely connected, as is clear from their definitions. According to the Brundtland report, sustainable development refers to development which meets our current needs without hindering the ability of future generations to meet theirs. 

In a sense, the goal of sustainable development could be described as bringing about a state of balance in the world which must be kept as stable as possible. According to many experts, this objective is extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve, as shown by the Sustainable Development Goals, especially given the current climate which brings with it new and complex challenges to development, along with a great deal of unavoidable changes and disruptions already taking place. This is where resilience comes in, defined by the experts at the Stockholm Resilience Center as “the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop”. “It is about how humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking”, add the experts, with the Sustainable Development Goals in mind.

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Friend or foe?

While the concept of sustainable development targets development which can at least in part avoid such changes and their negative consequences on people and the environment, resilience is about tackling and overcoming these changes without being completely overwhelmed by them. Despite what some may think, shifting from policies focusing efforts on sustainability to others which promote resilience does not mean admitting the defeat of sustainable development. Instead, it simply marks a shift in focus, integrating various approaches to obtain a better outcome. 


Indeed, “resilient thinking” investigates how interacting systems of people and nature can best be managed using some fundamental principles which must be applied at the right time and in the right way to be truly effective. These principles are described in detail in the CGIAR’s blog, where you can find useful advice on how to put the concept of resilience into practice. 

In order to be successful, sustainability and resilience need to work hand in hand. Indeed, many resilient solutions are arising in developing countries, which are unfortunately the most used to dealing with drastic changes and shortages (of food, water and economic resources). These are the same countries which sustainable projects seek to involve and place at the centre of their targeted approaches. 


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