From education to employment

The language of sustainability and why it matters

We will have all noticed how the language we use as a sector keeps changing with policy drives and fads. I remember writing bids, reports or strategies that went to our funders or to the local authority, making sure that the right amount of popular jargon was in use, there to impress upon decision makers that I understood full well what their priorities were, that I was up-to-date with what mattered.

It?s like playing a game. Words are used to secure funding to keep our organisations going. So one day it may be all about collaboration and partnership which may easily be substituted with competition and best value the next. We have become so adept at that game that we have forgotten we are playing it. It is only recently, in the context of sustainability, that I have paid close attention to this. Largely because suddenly documents and bids are splattered with words and phrases such as “sustainability”, “ensuring we are more sustainable”, “resilience”, “saving the planet”, “zero carbon” or “ green economy”. Someone may argue that this is all semantics and is not really important but I think the language we use is of paramount importance because it shapes what we pay attention to and how we see the world. However, how I interpret the world and particular words will likely be different from every single reader of this article. There will be some who oppose what I say, whereas others will agree. Each party will think they are right. As sustainability is essentially about the survival of our species and our society as well as the survival of other species and communities i.e. ecosystems, I think we need to pay more attention to the meaning of the words and stop sprinkling them about like confetti at a wedding reception. Let?s start with sustainability itself, although that is easier said than done as even here we are confronted with a range of options that are used as if they were synonyms and therefore interchangeable. We have sustainability, sustainable development, education for sustainable development and in more corporate environments corporate social responsibility and shared value.

A frequently quoted definition is the one by the Brundtland Commission from the 1980?s which says “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This definition deeply connects sustainability and development. The question that arises is how relevant this definition is in countries such as Great Britain, France, the USA, Canada, Japan, Germany and all the other highly developed nations today about thirty years on from when the definition was first written. According to an article in the Independent in November 2009, which reports on the findings of the Global Footprint Network “we are demanding nature?s services – using resources and creating CO2 emissions – at a rate of 44 percent faster that what nature can regenerate and reabsorb”. If everyone lived like North Americans we would require 5 planets, if everyone lived like the average Middle European it is 2.5 planets. Bluntly we are living on credit of the planet and also we are stealing the fair share of all the nations who are actually living within the capacity of the planet to cope. And straight away we have encountered another problem of definition and that is what does development mean. Dictionary definitions are sometimes different from how we use a word and the concepts it conjures up in our minds. Development in a Western sense, and may I ask what Western means, is frequently about economic growth. And what happens when this economic growth becomes uneconomic as Herman Daly, professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and former senior economist for the World Bank, argues so plausibly?

So as long as we use these phrases like sustainable development, economic growth, skills for growth unquestioningly and as if they were unquestionable we are perpetuating a certain worldview, certain values and actions that have produced our current unsustainability.

When we look at dictionary definitions of sustainability we will find that it derives from the verb to sustain. According to the American Heritage Dictionary sustain means to keep in existence, to maintain; to supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for; to support from below, keep from falling or sinking; to support the spirits, vitality, or resolution of, encourage; to bear up under, withstand. So if we interpret sustainability in this sense, we may want to ask what is it that we want to keep in existence and to maintain? Oftentimes when we talk about sustainability, we hear mutterings of saving the planet. Do we want to keep in existence planet Earth? This would imply that we have influence over the existence of the planet. Arrogant or what? The planet has seen the comings and goings of many species, including previous human species as well as of whole civilisations. We can therefore safely presume that the planet would survive the collapse of our civilisation and even the extinction of homo sapiens sapiens. So what is it that we then want to sustain and keep in existence?

John R. Ehrenfeld says “Sustainability is the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the life forever.” He moves away from using the word development in conjunction with sustainability and talks about flourishing, which implies that life will be worth living for but not necessarily be dependent on economic growth. The big question is what do we need to change in the way we live in order for 7 billion people and for animal and plant species to flourish? We rarely consider the sheer number of people that need to be fed, watered and sanitized each and every day. London is home to over 8 million people – if each of them eats three meals a day, we require 24 million meals a day. Each person drinking 2 liters of water and on an extremely conservative estimate consuming another 98 litres of water, Londoners alone consume 8 billion litres of water a day and this does not include the indirect water consumption such as is necessary to produce the food we eat.

There are many other ways how we can define sustainability. Whenever I hear myself think “more sustainable” I scold myself for the wishy-washy sentiment. Less bad is not good and more sustainable does not mean sustainable. I am asking myself what does zero-carbon actually mean? Is it possible? What would it look like? So I think the most important part of education is to ask questions, to question the unquestionable, to investigate our intentions and values, our worldviews? It is about asking what does this actually mean, why would we want it, in whose interest is it, who suffers by this definition and who profits? So next time you write a strategy, a bid or report ponder carefully about the jargon and words you use – question and choose them wisely.

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can also follow Andrea on Twitter Change that Matters is running workshop on Sustainability in the Curriculum on 9 December 2011 – for details and registration please visit

(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)

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