The Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning


IzR 4.2013, Ed.: BBSR

Robert Kaltenbrunner
Mobilisation of social movement energies. From sustainability to resilience – and back again?


The impressive career of the term “sustainability” seems to have exhausted it. Apparently it can no longer mobilise to the extent which was the case 20-25 years ago. Do society and politics therefore require new “propulsion systems”?

Thus, for instance, a large project planned for two years has been started in the “House of the Cultures of the World” in Berlin recently: the anthropocene. It takes the thesis as a starting point that mankind has influenced nature much more strongly and durably than it wants to acknowledge. And that people and their activities are turning into a decisive factor also for evolution. The rigid dualisms of nature and culture, object and subject, body and spirit no longer function as well, and for this reason it is necessary to understand the connections still in a better way. How do climate, biodiversity, soil condition and migration paths interact, how far does the adaptability of ecosystems reach, where does the crash begin?

Although the anthropocene approach shows weaknesses in its capability to be operationalised, a new view of the issues is practised
here, which could point the way to the future.

Independently from this, a new “language of preparedness” has emerged, and resilience has become a key term in this new language. It labels the ability of a threatened unit to survive anticipated damages. Resilience can either be achieved through the abilities of systems to be as robust as possible when external shocks occur, i.e. to be damaged as little as possible or to reach the original state again soon, or to change their internal structures through their flexibility and to cultivate a constant condition of adaptability.

Not least due to evolutionary references and cross-references, resilience has turned into a fashionable term, but at the same time it has remained a heterogeneous field. The common core is and remains to consider the resistance of individuals or systems, which are able to preserve their ability to function in spite of impairments or traumas. But many overlapping issues and fuzzy boundaries
make a delimitation and clear classification difficult.

So far it largely remains open in the discussion how sustainability and resilience interact. Of course resilience could have a comparative advantage, because it makes it possible to think also about shrinkage, the unexpected or visions beyond the status quo,
whereas sustainability always has a perpetuation of the status quo, i.e. stability, as its aim. That modern urban policy continues to aim at simply extending the security measures that are already available today is therefore under close scrutiny. Would it not be advisable to estimate risks already as they approach and to prevent their emergence? However, since crisis-like events can nevertheless occur, one has to ask already in advance how one can overcome them with as little damage as possible. In this context the concept of resilience can really increase in significance – particularly as the explicit discussion of dangers and fears of loss concerns the incentive constellations of all protagonists.

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