Dropping the "S" Word
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 won't 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 don't mean to slight or ignore friends and colleagues who haggle over environmentally correct definitions of sustainability. I just don't 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 won't.