Sustainability and Resilience

lemmings

Overthinking…it’s what I do. 🙂

Sustainability and Resilience:

I like these two words very much but I fear they are on the verge of being overused. When words are repeated too many times they become meaningless. Consider what has happened to “friend” and “like”. Or “happiness” or “freedom”. Say “friendfriendfriend” over and over and it becomes just noise. It stops meaning a familiar person with whom one shares an affinity, holds in regard and even affection, a companion along life’s path. Or worse, it becomes a buzzword and is loaded with one agenda or another.

It’s too bad such things can happen to words. Language has its limitations.

So I want to consider sustainability and resilience before they fall off the cliff of overuse.

What I like about sustainability is the long-term implications. Sustain has a Latin root, meaning to hold up from under. To sustain is to keep from sinking or failing, to uphold and support. I picture a solid foundation—whether it is constructed with stone or sound concepts. Perhaps a well-built bridge, sturdily attached to both sides of a chasm and designed to bear a load. Or a bridge from one idea to another, explained in such a way that a listener can follow the reasoning. We hear about sustainable economies, sustainable energy, sustainable landscapes, even sustainable trails. But nobody ever gets into the details of what sustainability means and what it might look like. Too often sustainability implies a dream of steady funding for whatever we hope will persist into the future–an economy that doesn’t go up and down on whims, or an endless free energy supply, or a trail that holds up without maintenance. But without a solid foundation, sustainability is just wishful thinking.

I’ve been thinking about sustainable trails because that’s my day job. I’ve done some reading of my agency’s glossy propaganda and even attended a webinar. There are a lot of words and cheerful thoughts that leave me scratching my head in bafflement. Sustainability is a nice idea if you are building a trail system from scratch. You can design it for the kind of use it will get, avoid the sensitive soils, plants and animals, and construct it so that it will require minimal maintenance by unskilled volunteers. In other words, you can design a trail based on a solid foundation. On the other hand, you can try to retrofit an existing trail system that was built for entirely different kinds of uses than it receives today, that was never meant for the volume of use it gets, that responds to human and natural agents of change in the environment, all in a time when the legislative body is unwilling to invest in an amenity that many members of the public value. Sustainability becomes much more challenging in the absence of a foundation. For example, I have come to wonder if bridges across backcountry streams are unsustainable. Trail bridges have a lifespan of 30 or 40 years. They can decay or be washed away or the ground holding them up can be undercut by the stream. In the 1970s, timbers and even entire bridges were flown into the wilderness by helicopter. As those bridges fail, no one (or at least me and the people I hang out with) imagines that money will be spent in such a way again in our lifetimes.

Which brings me to resilience. Resilience also has a Latin root, meaning to leap back. A thing regains its original shape after being stretched or compressed. Elastic comes to mind. Or a tethered balloon that returns to its place after being bounced and bobbed around. We hear about resilient landscapes, perhaps forests that quickly return to health and productivity after a disturbance such as fire. And resilient employees, who keep chugging along in a chaotic and rapidly-changing workplace. Resilience is the ability to recoil undamaged and unchanged after pressure or shock. I wonder what makes a thing resilient? It doesn’t seem to be a permanent state. My experience of elastic indicates that it works as designed for awhile, but after so much stretching it eventually wears out and your pants fall down. A tethered balloon bounces back until it has been hit so many times that it deflates or pops. So I expect that resilience is dependent on the repetition of pressure and shock as well as the forces involved. And entropy, that state of increasing disorder in the absence of infusions of energy. In other words, stuff wears out unless you work at keeping it going.

So a thoughtful reflection on sustainability and resilience leads me to the conclusion that these words have important meanings and shouldn’t be lightly tossed around. Both words indicate to me that some effort is required to truly be sustainable and resilient. There must be a firm foundation supporting that which we want to keep from collapsing. And resilience must be tended or it will wear out. Where will we put our attention and energies?

I’ll be watching for these words to go over the edge. And be sad to see them go.

One thought on “Sustainability and Resilience

  1. Example: Three miles up the trail along Hyas Lake the punchion / bridges are in disrepair and breaking. Darrell and I have been patching them with timbers from replaced older bridges as best we can. This is a horse trail so they take considerable pounding. It will take considerable money and effort to replace them. Tim Foss laid out an alternate route around the area. That suggestion i suspect is long gone. I doubt if I will see them replaced in my life time. OK I’m 83, a no brainer. I’m not shure I can still pack timbers a quarter mile on my shoulder from the pile. You know the place.

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