Will 2012 be the year of the R word?

When it comes to how we talk about ecological issues, 2012 looks like it might be the year of the R word – resilience. This term is more and more frequently used, and it seem to me that resilience is set to join the S word (sustainability) and the C word (conservation) to be another means by which we look at the widening gap between human demands and what our planet can supply.

It has been lurking for some time, but now the idea of resilience is everywhere. From reports by UN agencies to planning policy guidance and from think tanks to NGOs, the R word has suddenly gained prominence.

New concepts of course reflect the times in which they are born. In the 1960s and 70s, conservation was the buzzword. It implied the need to reduce our impact and to set aside areas where nature could be left unmolested. In the 1980s sustainability became prevalent. It arose from the need to reach an accommodation between efforts to reduce poverty while also meeting pressing environmental goals.

Resilience is different. It signals a need to deal with inevitable major shocks, including those which are impossible to predict. And as economic difficulties have temporarily pushed sustainability down the agenda, resilience speaks more to the circumstances we face, where environmental objectives have been side-lined and price volatility and economic upheaval dominate the headlines. But what does resilience really mean?

The short answer is about retaining the ability to function in the face of change, about maintaining the ability to cope in the face of, for example, resource scarcity, ecosystem decline and extreme weather events. All of these pose increasingly serious risks, as we fail to take the steps necessary to avoid an unfolding systemic crisis. But as has been the case with the S word, from this broad level of interpretation the R word can be taken in all kinds of directions.

For example, strategies to render economies more resilient to an inevitable peak in conventional oil production might include measures to promote super-efficient vehicles, agriculture that needs less fossil energy, walking and cycling and different priorities for urban design. Equally, however, it might also lead to an expansion in the mining of tar sands, a more widespread uptake in technologies that convert coal into liquid fuels and the indiscriminate growth in biofuel production. These very different strategies might both increase resilience in the face of the specific threat at hand, but with radically different outcomes and implications.

Resilience embodies vital and important concepts, but also signals a change in the debate. If the dangers inherent in this shift of narrative are to be minimised, then consistent definition will be vital. For while some argue that resilience is about change toward a more sustainable world, it is also possible for the concept to become a vehicle for propping up business as usual, or even worse than usual.

Resilience is a more human-centric concept. Sustainability is about our place in nature, whereas resilience implies that nature is more a series of resources, and as such poses a danger that other life-forms will become even less important in how we plan development. If a particular species of butterfly does not obviously improve our ability to cope with change, why should we conserve it?

So what might be the best way to bottom out the definition so that positive outcomes follow? One way is to see resilience through a lens of what is described as "adaptive capacity". This idea emphasises the need to retain flexibility and ability in the face of unpredictable change, including in relation to the ecological systems needed to sustain development, such as soils, coastal marshes and watersheds.

This idea holds that if we are to survive shock, absorb it and to adapt to it, then keeping and restoring natural systems is a vital prerequisite. This is what many sustainable development advocates mean by resilience, and if this is what the wider world ultimately comes to understand by the idea then the concept of resilience will require us to be very clear as to what we mean, and to constantly define our intent.

The S word suffered from insufficient defence by its originators and proponents, to the point where it became synonymous with oxymoronic phrases like "sustainable economic growth", and thus aligned sustainability with business as usual. The concept of resilience could go the same way.

And if civilisations are to thrive, rather than simply to survive, it seems to me that we must not only define resilience, but also to keep sustainability very much at the centre of the agenda. It is vital not to lose sight of the progress made with the S word over the last 25 years, or indeed the C word over the last 60, to emphasise how people are part of nature (rather than only users of it), and avoid falling into a trap where the world speaks mostly about how to survive the consequences of the damage we have caused to it.

Resilience is a powerful and necessary frame through which to present the need for changes to how we live and plan societies, but it needs to be presented properly from the start, and its advocates careful to protect it from misinterpretation – deliberate or otherwise.

Originally published by The Guardian.