Sustainability topics: Efficiency vs. Resilience

Sustainability is a broad topic, and one I’m very passionate about. The debates on peak oil, renewable energy, conservation, and other topics are fascinating to me and I’m actively working to do more to live the ideas I talk about.

One of these ideas concerns the difference between efficiency and resilience. The current push in society runs very strongly toward efficiency: doing more with less. Using resources efficiently means creating as few opportunities as possible for them to sit around waiting to be used. For example, manufacturing processes strive to match supply with demand so that there is just enough of a product available and no extra stock sitting on shelves unsold.

Efficient processes make sense because we are trying to reduce waste and only use resources when the need is there for them. The problem with this strategy is that if something goes wrong, the whole system falls apart. When production is centralized, it allows for more control of the process and more efficient use of resources, but if a hurricane hits the area and the power is out, production stops completely. Efficient designs like this work great, as long as nothing goes wrong – and of course, it’s not a matter of if something goes wrong, but when

As an example, there are many discussions in the renewable energy field about how a relatively small area of the desert, covered in solar panels, could provide power for the entire country (or world, as the case may be). However, this reliance on a centralized source of energy is problematic. If the distribution system were disrupted, power could go out across a huge area, which would be enormously damaging. Or, consider hybrid car batteries and LED bulbs, both of which use rare earth metals which are currently mainly being produced in China. While these new technologies are very energy-efficient, they rely on source materials that are centralized and vulnerable.

In contrast, resilient designs have the opposite focus from efficient ones. Resilience is the presence of unused resources: building in more capacity than is actually required. Bridges are resilient, not efficient: a resilient bridge is overengineered, so it can handle stresses like increased loads, severe weather, or infrequent maintenance, without collapsing. Despite the fact that the bridge may never encounter these situations, it is still built this way, because the potential cost of not doing so (the bridge collapses) is much higher than the cost of overengineering it. Resilient design reduces the severity of a disaster, whether by making it less likely to occur or by reducing its impact when it does occur.

So, building resiliency into systems means they are less vulnerable, but the downside is they are more expensive at the beginning. As with bridges, the comparison has to be made: is the increased cost worth the decreased risk? At present, it’s hard to make the argument for resiliency, with such a strong focus on efficiency. It costs much more, so it’s not often espoused, despite the reduced risk. It’s harder to think of the long term benefits of building resiliency into systems when it requires acting against one’s short term self interest.

So while it would certainly be nice, and more efficient, to cluster solar farms out in the desert and use them to power the country, it isn’t particularly sustainable. The idea of sustainability is to create systems that endure, even through disasters. It does us no good to create a power grid that will work great until it doesn’t. Similarly, we can’t rely on one source for rare earth metals to power our batteries, because if that source dries up, so do our fancy green cars.

Unfortunately, it’s a hard argument to make. When everyone is focused on doing more with less, the idea of purposely building in inefficiency is seen as counterproductive. It’s easier to implement the concept of resiliency on a personal scale. Growing a garden in the backyard, cooking meals at home, and learning to sew are all inefficient uses of your time: there are others who can do those same things for less money and less time than you, and you can spend your time specializing as well. However, it ensures that if something goes wrong, you can still have food and clothing available: you are less efficient, but less vulnerable as well. Think like Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files books! He drives his old VW Beetle specifically because it is inefficient, since that means it is less vulnerable to failure when he uses magic around it.

So! How are you making your life more resilient? Is this an idea you’ve heard of before?


– H




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