The limits of sustainability and resilience frameworks

Lessons from agri-food system research

Authored by: Sarah Rotz , Evan Fraser

Routledge Handbook of Sustainability Indicators

Print publication date:  June  2018
Online publication date:  June  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138674769
eBook ISBN: 9781315561103
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter compares and contrasts resilience and sustainability indicators (SIs) and considers how each conceptual tool may build and enhance one another. The first section outlines the origins, utility and constraints for both SIs and resilience concepts. We begin by exploring how scholars have defined and applied each concept over time and reflect on the theoretical and methodological critiques of these definitions. We show that both concepts struggle with specific, and at times intractable, issues of comparability, scale and clarity. From here, we review scholarly attempts to address these critiques and assess the ways that SIs and resilience can be effectively integrated into contemporary research. We end this section by emphasizing that concerns over political subjectivity still loom large for both concepts and thus consider the extent to which systems and programs that claim to improve sustainability and resilience are actually doing so, and on whose terms this is being done. Key questions include: how do we examine characteristics of resilience or sustainability within systems that are fundamentally unsustainable or non-resilient? Further, is it useful to engage in such measurements when the system itself is dysfunctional? In the next section we use a case study from agri-food research to reflect on these questions and explore whether such frameworks are able to measure resilience/sustainability in ways that meaningfully attend to larger social and political-economic issues. Here we focus on issues of conceptual framing, definition, appropriation and theoretical utility – as they often remain outside the scope of resilience-sustainability analysis (Cote and Nightingale 2011, Anderies et al. 2013, Reid 2013). Specifically, our data show the ways in which these aforementioned issues disincentivize livelihood sustainability and ecological resilience at the farm-scale. A key challenge that this case reveals is how fundamental systemic factors determine and limit the ways in which resilience and sustainability can be defined and legitimized. To close, we consider the utility of SIs and resilience for our study and illustrate various conceptual and programmatic tensions, as well as possible ways forward.

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