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Resilient Sustainability

Resilient Sustainability

By Mike Bell


In 1972, the book Limits to Growth[1] was published. It was the result of a research project commissioned by the Club of Rome and developed by a team of scientists, many of them from MIT. The prime author was Donella Meadows, and her husband, Dennis Meadows, was the Project Director.

As suggested in the title, the book, applying extensive data and using computer modelling, showed how ecological constraints could affect human development in the 21st century based on different scenarios. The authors understood that Earth was a one-time endowment. They presented the limits in its ability to bounce back from the damage that would result in the scenarios that were not sustainable While virtually never covered in the press, the book offered four (out of 12) scenarios where policies of sustainable development, if applied at that time, would have resulted in equilibrium states consistent with Earth’s limits.

In March 2012, forty years after the book’s publication, Dennis Meadows gave a talk at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., entitled, “Limits to Growth and the End of Sustainability.“ His talk is available for viewing at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2oyU0RusiA, and the PowerPoint he presented may be accessed athttp://www.si.edu/consortia/limitstogrowth2012. He said that, given the path that had been taken since 1972, sustainable development was no longer possible and we are entering a period of uncontrolled decline. Building resilience as we go through this period is now our best hope. In other words we need to take steps now that help people and Earth adapt to the new situations they are beginning to experience and offer the basis for long-term recovery.

“Resilience” is the key to the work of Bud Hollings and Lance Gunderson. In their book, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems,[2] they describe resilience as the ability of systems to adapt to changing environments and, in some situations, recover. They begin with the resilience of natural systems and point out the same transformative capacities in human systems.

Over the past 30 years in my work with Inuit and Dene people in the Arctic, I have experienced the merging of sustainability with resilience in a cultural context. Both of these cultures emerged through the experience of their elders and ancestors as hunter-gatherers living on the land.

In the middle of the last century, for a variety of reasons, they were forced to move off the land into settlements controlled by governments, the Hudson Bay Company and the churches. There they experienced difficulties with addictions, the ravages of the residential schools, family break-ups, and the attacks on their culture and way of life. For many individuals and families, the transition from life on the land to life in settlements was very difficult. One First Nation person with whom I work refers to this period as “the time of darkness.” In spite of it all, they have managed to preserve their cultures.

The foundation of their cultures—their sustainability—has been the transmission of values based upon their relationship to their land. These values have been interpreted and passed on by their traditional elders.

These elders, however, know very little about the application of these values to the modern life of schools, agencies, economic systems and new forms of governance. So we have seen the emergence of “young elders,” many of whom lived on the land as children. As they grew up, they came through “the times of darkness.” They received educations, worked for modern companies and governments, and became aware of the challenges facing their families and communities.

These young elders committed to the values of their traditional elders and ancestors. They see these values—such as “respect for the land”—as universal, spiritual principles that transcend time and are even more relevant today than in the past. They seek guidance from the remaining old elders as they struggle to help their families and communities interpret and adapt the traditional cultural values to a modern society. Their old ways have become a living culture giving them resilience to carry on.

As I listened to Meadows talk about resilient sustainability and thought of the work of Hollings and Gunderson, I could hear echoes in my mind—the voices of traditional elders in so many community meetings repeating over and over their mantra: “Learn from the land.”


[1]Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Will Behrens, III, Limits to Growth (New York, Universe Books, 1972).

[2]Launce Gunderson and C. S. Holling, eds., Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Washington, D.C., Island Press, 2001)