Resilience Theory as an Approach to Sustainability Analysis

By Michael Burns.

Published by The Sustainability Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The world’s oil-based energy economy has significant sustainability implications for a range of globally distributed, multi-scaled social-ecological systems. These systems are typically highly complex and comprise many social and ecological components that are linked by, and interact through, non-linear processes and feedback loops.

Although complexity does not preclude the use of predictive techniques for analysing system sustainability, it does impose limitations in this regard. The application of resilience theory transcends some of these limitations. Resilience is defined as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to still retain the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks. It relates to the ability of a system to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a different state controlled by different sets of processes. Where critical thresholds are exceeded, resilience theory can elucidate the adaptive cycles through which the release, reorganization, exploitation and consolidation of resources occurs, along multiple pathways, in the process of system transformation. Human foresight and ability to intervene can control, to some extent, system resilience and/or direction of adaptive change.

In this paper we apply resilience theory to explore some of the dynamics within the oil-based energy economy that have sustainability implications for two selected classes of social-ecological system. One class is defined in terms of its oil consumer, developed country context and its functioning at a global spatial scale; the other class is defined in terms of its oil producer, developing country context and its functioning at a local spatial scale. We speculate on the current stability landscapes of the selected systems and, through a largely theoretical approach, extend this to include some of the possible states into which they could transform as a result of key drivers. In doing so, we consider a number of social, economic and ecological system attributes that would seem to be important in terms of determining system resilience and the potential for adaptive transformation.

Keywords: Resilience, Sustainability Analysis, Oil-based Energy Economy

The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp.19-32. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.107MB).

Dr Michael Burns

Researcher, Sustainability Science Research Group, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Stellenbosch, South Africa

Mike Burns has an academic grounding in ecology and environmental science and holds a PhD degree in this field. He has more than 25 years of working experience in research and environmental management, mainly within the coastal zone. Over the past 10 years he has served as a lead environmental consultant to the oil and gas sector throughout Africa as well as for other extractive industries. Dr Burns has been responsible for the design and implementation of numerous large integrated environmental projects for the oil and gas sector. In this regard, he has interacted with many of the large multinational oil companies as well as financial institutions such as the World Bank. Some examples of projects he has managed include: the environmental component of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of the Angola LNG project; the World Bank initiative aimed at privatizing the hydrocarbon-fuelled power generation sector in Mauritania; capacity-building initiatives in environmental assessment and management in a range of African countries; and compilation of the national oil spill contingency plan for Cameroon, which is linked to the Chad-Cameroon pipeline project. The science that is infused into consultancy activities such as these significantly differentiates his work. His most important professional attribute is his understanding of both the objective and subjective vectors (science, economics, human values) that influence the oil and gas sector in Africa. It is with this understanding that he is currently making a significant contribution to an enlightened understanding within the oil and gas sector of its contribution to sustainable development in Africa. Dr Burns is currently a senior researcher in CSIR’s newly established Sustainability Science Research Group.

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