OPINION | Ancois de Villiers: Sustainability and resilience are not just buzzwords in conservation

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The Haarwegskloof Renosterveld Reserve.  Photo: Wessel Wessels
The Haarwegskloof Renosterveld Reserve. Photo: Wessel Wessels

The paradox between the use of the terms sustainability and resilience re-emphasises the complexity of reality and how difficult it is to address environmental challenges, writes Ancois de Villiers.


World Nature Conservation Day, observed annually on 28 July, is another opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the sustainability and resilience of natural resources for our communities to live and thrive.

The terms sustainability and resilience have become quite popular in discussions on environmental issues. Indeed, they are often used in close proximity or interchangeably at times. 

Experts have extensively reviewed, debated and sometimes even questioned the meaning of sustainability and resilience, how they relate to each other, and whether they are still useful and not just hollow buzzwords. It is important not to conflate these terms, as they address complementary but different approaches to conserving natural resources. This matters because it determines what we want to achieve with conservation, how to achieve these goals, and how we will judge our success. 

Balance of economic growth with resource limitations

Sustainability is commonly defined as meeting human needs with enough economic, social, and natural resources without depleting these resources over time. It considers not only these utilitarian concerns but also the role of power, equity, agency and attitudes in decision-making and institutions managing natural resources. Therefore, themes in sustainability science focus on balancing economic growth with resource limitations, as well as social and technological transitions to promote innovation and address social justice issues. 

On the other hand, resilience refers to the ability of a system (which provides resources) to bounce back from unforeseen shocks. It originated in the field of ecology with a strong focus on ecosystems, but over time has included more social dimensions such as the importance of learning and innovation. Themes for resilience research tend to focus on disaster management, climate change, and social networks. 

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These basic introductions already indicate some notable differences between sustainability and resilience. As paradigms, they also influence different approaches to policies and programmes.

Sustainability assumes reality in terms of stability. Policy and programmes based on these assumptions focus on planned desired outcomes to improve resource management, support traditional knowledge systems and community development, and promote environmentally-friendly behaviours such as recycling.

In comparison, resilience regards reality as chaotic, unpredictable and nonlinear. Therefore, the outcomes of an initiative cannot be specified beforehand. As an alternative, this paradigm informs policy and programmes to focus on supporting the functioning of a system, particularly processes that enable learning, reduce vulnerability to shocks, and build capacity to deal with change. 

These differences can come across as conflicting positions, but this apparent paradox only re-emphasises the complexity of reality and how difficult it is to address environmental challenges. In practice, the best results are gained when resilience and sustainability are implemented together, by reinforcing their commonalities and building off on each other’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, sustainability has been criticised for being hackneyed, ambiguous and too politicised, whereas resilience is considered as relatively more conceptually robust and less controversial. However, resilience (in its classical ecological interpretation) has a blindspot of overlooking the influence of politics, values and other social aspects in managing natural resources, which sustainability does incorporate (at least in its original framing). 

The "coalescing" of sustainability and resilience recognises the need to manage for both stability and flexibility. In terms of addressing the practical needs of a community, sustainability and resilience represent two questions for development, namely, "What do we want to protect and conserve, and to keep from changing?” and “What do we want to adapt and change into something new, and maybe better?". 

Integrating different disciplines

It is part of a general trend among environmental initiatives to integrate different disciplines and role players for a more diverse and multi-dimensional approach to conservation. This is quite an ambitious aspiration, and indeed, implementing this integration is difficult. Even if all partners support and agree to collaborate, the initiative could still fall apart because of inherent differences in values, worldviews, aims and how to approach problems, as shown in a case study by conservation biologists and anthropologists trying to address conservation challenges in Central Africa.

Particularly in the contested spaces of South African landscapes, focusing on building a constellation of informal and formal relationships among different groups and individuals could be a more effective approach to stewardship than seeking (or enforcing) a unified consensus among stakeholders with often opposing goals and values.

Despite how muddled the meaning of sustainability and resilience has become, they are still helpful terms to help us distinguish and understand essential but different aspects of how we manage the environment. Being clear on the differences, and working with these differences, could provide a more nuanced approach to the often-messy challenges of conservation.

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Without such clarity and frequent reflection on what we (and others) mean with these terms, they could devolve into mere tag lines. This could overlook the much more intricate nature of the relationship between ourselves and the environment.

Ancois de Villiers is a PhD candidate in the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology at Stellenbosch University, and the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. With support from the GreenMatter Fellowship and NRF-Nuffic Doctoral Scholarship, she is exploring the psycho-social dimensions of transforming landscapes through the rehabilitation/restoration of natural resources. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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