Dropping the "S" Word

by Mark Dowie


Every January I select a word to eliminate from my vocabulary for a year. It

is generally a long one that has been recently injected into common usage, a

once ordinary term, given an exotic new meaning by semantic faddists. It then

becomes a buzzword, so over-used, so exploited and so ambiguous that it loses

meaning. Once selected, I try hard not to use the forbidden word in any way

for any purpose. I'll think about it perhaps, or write it in quotes, but never

utter it loud while I'm awake. This year my choice is "paradigm" . That's only

the second time I've written it since January, I swear. And I wont say it

aloud until next year, by which time I am hoping that its excessive and

obnoxious overuse has ended. I have already selected next year's word --

"sustainability". Can hardly wait 'til New Year's.


From the moment it was first used in an ecological perspective, allegedly by

Gro Harlem Bruntland, prime minister of Norway in 1987, "sustainability" and

its attendant adjective: "sustainable" -- as in s. development,

s.agriculture, s. trade, s. fisheries, s. yield forestry, s. communities,

s.markets and s. profitability -- has evolved into the most befuddled concept

in contemporary discourse. The only thing one can be certain about someone

else's definition of sustainability today, is that when stripped of its

details, self-service will be found at the core.


I think it was the President's Council on Sustainable Development that pushed

me over the edge, beginning with Clinton's request that the council recommend

"a national sustainable development action plan that will foster economic

vitality." Seemed contradictory to me. By the time the council's pompous,

heavily compromised report reached the public, "sustainability" had been so

thoroughly battered, over-defined and bereft of meaning, that I had already

lost respect for the word (and the council). The report clearly reflected our

massive national confusion over the very concept of sustainability.


I dont mean to slight or ignore friends and colleagues who haggle over

environmentally correct definitions of sustainability. I just dont care to

participate for a year; simply because my own definition, should I find one,

would almost certainly become as ideologically convenient and self-serving as

theirs. So I retreat from the conversation and concentrate on environmental

problems and processes that are ignored while the "s" word is being bandied

and abused. For my discourse this year I prefer topics with real unambiguous

names like ozone depletion, pesticide residue, The Three Gorges Dam, and

environmental racism.


All these problems are directly related to a sustainable future, I know. But

they will not be solved, stopped or reversed, solely by advocating something

as vague and subjective as a sustainable future. In fact the reverse is more

likely. Only by struggling directly against things like environmental racism,

ozone depletion and big dams can humanity ever approach anything like

sustainability. Striving for a sustainable future is a piecemeal project,

requiring discourse and activism. Sustainability, however it's defined,

simply cannot be achieved in the absence of a broad-based, well organized,

scientifically astute and appropriately militant environmental movement.


By "militant", incidentally, I do NOT mean spiking trees, shooting cows,

destroying bulldozers or sending letter bombs to timber executives.

Appropriate militancy calls for non-violent confrontation of whaling ships,

demonstrations at Monsanto headquarters, product boycotts and tying up the fax

machines of Senators Young and Murkowski with common sense arguments against

logging national forests. An it means NIMBYism -- not drawbridge NIMBYism that

forwards environmental assaults to other communities, and exports hazardous

substances to other countries; but proud, cooperative and heavily networked

NIMBYism, which asserts that protecting backyards and neighborhoods from

environmental degradation is not some sort of moral defect.


Militancy also calls for environmentalism to be seen as a matter of justice,

whether for species threatened with extinction, women (who are so grossly

underrepresented in the leadership of National environmental groups), or

people of color disproportionately victimized by toxic pollution. Justice has

to be the common thread that ties all the disparate and querulous

environmental ideologies, organizations, NIMBYs and ecologies together. There

is nothing else that can bind them.


What should be clear by now to thoughtful greens is that without social and

economic justice, there can be no environmental or ecological justice, and

thereby no sustainability. If one community becomes "sustainable" at the

expense of another, is the biosphere better off? The same can be asked of one

corporation, one industry one nation or one hemisphere. Unless a significant

number of humans stand actively against all degradations, wherever they occur,

global sustainability simply wont happen. Thus people who regard it as

something that serves only their interests, whether regional, bioregional,

corporate or hemispheric, are misdefining sustainability. It's an

all-or-nothing proposition. And until it's seen that way by those who use the

word, I wont.


(these sentiments notwithstanding, please check out the Sustainability Consciousness
Conference at Esalen Institute)