Sustainability, and other nonsense

As we come to the end of a quarter filled with lots of exciting conversations about new ways to do things, I’m left with one major lingering question – where to start?

For one thing, I’d suggest doing away with the term “sustainable” altogether.

If we’re going to go to all of the effort about thinking about our problems in new ways, I think that should also include the way we talk about those problems, down to language. “Sustainable” has become a buzzword. Buzzwords are great for rallying agreement among those already in the fold, but they’re turnoffs for people who aren’t.

This is particularly troubling in the case of “sustainability”, because, while certain people are repelled by the word, there is often a lot more agreement about the concepts behind the word. 

I think about this a lot talking to my dad. He’s now 76, and pretty conservative and set in his ways. There is no resolving the argument when we talk about climate change using those terms, but when ask him if he thinks there could be negative effects to humans releasing excessive pollutants into the atmosphere, he says yes. We generally agree that emissions should be controlled and limited (although to different degrees), but, bring up climate change as the reason why you should do this, and the conversation ends. This is a different case, as I’m not proposing climate change as a buzzword to axe, (although not enough people understand what climate change really means) but it’s a great reminder of the importance of words. 

When some people hear “sustainable communities”, they hear restriction – the government (controlled by the United Nations or some other sinister international plot) coming to take your car, to tell you how to live your life. However, when you shift the conversation to one about what “sustainable communities” really mean in practice – more choices about types of housing, modes of transportation, and business opportunities – suddenly there’s wide appeal. That’s based in my definition, of course. What’s yours?


One thought on “Sustainability, and other nonsense

  1. Kristina,

    This is a great post and I think it touches on a really interesting subject of what specific words mean in different contexts, how they can be interpreted, and how the meaning of a word can change over time. If this subject of any interest to you I’d recommend that you check out two books:

    1) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams (May 16, 1985)

    2) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg and Meaghan Morris (Apr 22, 2005)

    I’ve got both. New Keywords sits on my coffee table at home and sometimes its fun to pick up and think about what we’re actually talking about.

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