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Sustainability, resilience, adaptation, and transformation: tensions and plural approaches

Laura Zanotti, Department of Anthropology & Center for the Environment, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
Zhao Ma, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources & Center for the Environment, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
Jennifer Lee Johnson, Department of Anthropology & Center for the Environment, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
David R Johnson, School of Industrial Engineering & Department of Political Science & Center for the Environment, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
David J. Yu, Lyles School of Civil Engineering & Department of Political Science & Center for the Environment, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
Morey Burnham, Idaho State University, Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminology, Pocatello, ID, USA
Courtney Carothers, University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, USA

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-11642-250304

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Abstract

This article focuses on the debates among resilience, sustainability, adaptation, and transformation concepts. The conceptualization and application of sustainability and resilience thinking in the human-environmental interactions, social-ecological systems, and global environmental change literature remain dominant, which provide a common interdisciplinary and policy language where research in socio-environmental systems can converge. Yet, the lack of clarity and multiplicity among and between these concepts and paradigms allows them to continue to be widely adopted in different sectors of society. Drawing on five case studies from different geographical locations, these diverse applications of resilience, sustainability, adaptation, and transformation are explored from disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives. The diversity in the operationalization and use of the concepts and paradigms can result in applications that undermine goals of sustainability or resilience when a particular resource is prioritized over others or is applied in a way that results in inequitable outcomes. Findings from the cases reinforce the importance of being explicit about the spatial, temporal, and institutional boundaries drawn because proposed solutions will vary in their effectiveness if attention to scale, stressors, worldviews, and actors are not addressed holistically. We suggest the ongoing adoption of sustainability, resilience, adaptation, and transformation requires clear and explicit definitions, that draw from decolonized methodologies, goals, in-depth analysis of potential unintended consequences, and situated understanding of how these concepts and the associated paradigms are embedded in particular contexts.

Key words

adaptation; human-environmental interactions; interdisciplinary; resilience; social-ecological systems; sustainability; transformation

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087