The End of Sustainability

Resilience and the Future of Environmental Governance in the Anthropocene

Melinda Harm Benson and Robin Kundis Craig

The time has come for us to collectively reexamine—and ultimately move past—the concept of sustainability in environmental and natural resources law and management. The continued invocation of sustainability in policy discussions ignores the emerging reality of the Anthropocene, which is creating a world characterized by extreme complexity, radical uncertainty, and unprecedented change. From a legal and policy perspective, we must face the impossibility of even defining—let alone pursuing—a goal of “sustainability” in such a world.

Melinda Harm Benson and Robin Kundis Craig propose resilience as a more realistic and workable communitarian approach to environmental governance. American environmental and natural resources laws date to the early 1970s, when the steady-state “Balance of Nature” model was in vogue—a model that ecologists have long since rejected, even before adding the complication of climate change. In the Anthropocene, a new era in which humans are the key agent of change on the planet, these laws (and American culture more generally) need to embrace new narratives of complex ecosystems and humans role as part of them—narratives exemplified by cultural tricksters and resilience theory.

“Resilience is the new buzz word; everyone wants resilience for themselves and their communities, economies, and environments. Benson and Craig make a case that resilience is now a necessity in environmental governance, given how much humans have already altered global environmental systems. Sustainability—about preserving a balanced status quo—is not possible, and Benson and Craig offer a competing cultural narrative of resilience that can shape how we govern the environment. In an era in which political leaders are considering eliminating the USEPA, climate change policies, and public-lands protections, this book couldnt be more timely.”

—Tony Arnold, Boehl Chair in Property and Land Use, University of Louisville

“Benson and Craig beautifully illustrate that the capacity of society to address emerging environmental problems like climate change is directly related to our cultural narrative concerning our relation to nature. In doing so they move the dialogue from a question of tradeoffs and regulation, to one of reconciling humans and nature in a time in which we have come to dominate the planet—the Anthropocene. By offering an alternative to the polar opposite views of a doomed planet or one in which we can have it all that gridlocks U.S. political debate, Benson and Craig challenge us to take a third path that embeds a view of change and surprise in our cultural narrative through the concept of resilience.”

—Barbara Cosens, Professor, University of Idaho College of Law

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Updating Aldo Leopold’s vision of nature and humanity as a single community for the Anthropocene, Benson and Craig argue that the narrative of resilience integrates humans back into the complex social and ecological system known as Earth. As such, it empowers humans to act for a better future through law and policy despite the very real challenges of climate change

Melinda Harm Benson is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of New Mexico.

About the Author

Melinda Harm Benson is Dean and Wyoming Excellence Chair at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming. Robin Kundis Craig is a professor of law at the University of Utah Law School. She is the author of Comparative Ocean Governance, Environmental Law in Context, and The Clean Water Act and the Constitution.

Additional Titles in the Environment and Society Series