Making much ado about 'resilience'
The term “resilience” is popping up often these days in discussions about issues of sustainability. But what does it mean, and why should we care about it?
Sander van der Leeuw, dean of ASU's School of Sustainability, answers both questions in a recent interview with Future Tense.
“Any system, whether it’s the financial system, the environmental system, or something else, is always subject to all kinds of pressures,” he explained. “If it can withstand those pressures without really changing its behavior, then it’s robust. When a system can’t withstand them anymore but can deal with them by integrating some changes so the pressures fall off and it can keep going, then it’s resilient. If it comes to the point where the only choices are to make fundamental structural changes or to cease existence, then it becomes vulnerable.”
Using the fates of the Roman Empire and prehistoric Australia as cautionary tales, van der Leeuw discussed how bountiful environments can be overtaxed and falter when humans do not plan ahead.
Applying this knowledge to today’s world, he sees humans taking a similar path by possessing and passing down nonresilient thinking. His hope is that upcoming generations are encouraged to become creative thinkers, as well as be made aware of their roles in sustainability challenges.
Van der Leeuw, who also is a professor of archaeology in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was part of the resilience-themed live event for Future Tense in Washington, D.C., on March 23. Designed to explore emerging technologies, policy and society, Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, ASU and the New America Foundation.