By Donella Meadows
–January 6, 1994–
Back in the 1970s when my feminist friends said they felt excluded by the word “man” — as in “the future of man” — I thought they were making a fuss over nothing.
But it was easy enough to say “people” or “humanity” instead of “man,” so I did, and gradually my gender-deafness turned into sensitivity. I feel more a part of the future of humanity than the future of man. The words “policeman” and “workman” and “Congressman” screen me out, while “police” and “worker” and “member of Congress,” however awkward, invite me in.
Words make a difference. Every public relations person knows that, every general who calls killing civilians “collateral damage,” every industrialist who is “creating jobs” rather than making profits and “downsizing” rather than uncreating jobs. The builders of garbage incinerators insist on calling them “trash-to-energy converters.” Conservatives replace the mild word “regulation” with the fearsome-sounding “command-and-control.” The unborn person is a “baby” to those who want to prohibit abortion, but a “fetus” to those who want abortion to be legal.
Words exclude or include, they wound or heal, they clarify or obfuscate or disguise. They set up patterns in our minds, and those patterns cause us to act, or not. Follow the rise and fall of words — glasnost, crack, e-mail, junk bonds, biotechnology — and you key into the evolution (or devolution) of history. Change words and you can change history.
Which is why the word “sustainability” is so important. I work in a global community (that converses by e-mail) in which sustainability is the central word, the highest value, the guide to the future of humankind. But it’s not a word you hear in the news. It is untranslatable into German, Russian, and many other languages. The words “sustainability,” “sustainable development,” or “sustainable growth,” are beginning to bounce around the world, but they often cause confusion, especially in high places.
Sustainability. The ability to sustain, to keep going, to provide for the long term. Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs — that’s how the World Commission on Environment and Development defined it in 1987. In practical terms sustainability means not cutting a forest faster than it grows, not pumping groundwater faster than it recharges, not catching fish before they’ve had a chance to breed, not dumping wastes faster than nature can absorb or recycle them.
Sustainability is linked to survival. It is also linked to the making of money, and that means that people with “sustainability” in their vocabulary can be annoying. They see farming practices that erode the soil and ask “How long can we keep that up?” They hear of a development plan that depends on depleting an oil deposit and wonder “What will we do when it’s over?” They point to whatever is coming out the smokestack or the drainpipe and ask “Can we be sure that’s harmless?”
The honest answer to such questions is often “We haven’t the slightest idea. We haven’t asked, and we don’t want to.” That’s equivalent to admitting that many current economic activities are unsustainable — which is why the word sustainability is not popular with the powers that be.
Just as the use of gender-neutral language makes you aware of how words can be used to put down women, the use of sustainability language tunes you in to words that illuminate short-term gain while distracting attention from long-term consequence. “That’s progress,” we say, as we pave over fertile fields. Everyone knows you can’t stop progress. “Technology” is a magic incantation that will clean up any mess, and if technology won’t do it, “the market” will. The most powerful, thought-stopping word of all is “growth.”
Growth is our icon, our mantra, our grail. We sift through the economic indicators, looking, hoping, for signs of growth. We support NAFTA and GATT because they will bring growth. Our town could solve its problems, if it could attract more growth. Environmental regulations should not be allowed to slow growth.
Growth of what? For whom? How long can we keep it up? What will we do when it’s over? Can we be sure it’s harmless?
It is a step toward precise thinking to say “man” when you mean a male, “woman” when you mean a female, and “person” or “human” when you mean both — and it’s a way to root out prejudicial thoughts that are no less oppressive for being only semi-conscious. Similarly, it’s a step toward precision and sustainability to say “growth” when you mean an increase in physical size and “development” when you mean, as the dictionary says, “to realize the potentialities of, to bring to a fuller, greater, or better state.” Development means to get better, growth means to get bigger.
That kind of precision dethrones “growth” and turns it into something you might be either for or against, depending on what is growing. Growth of food for the hungry is good, as long as the earth can support it. Growth of fishing boats in an overfished territory is a disaster. A light bulb that gives the same light using one-eighth as much electricity means negative growth worth celebrating.
The planet Earth develops, diversifies, evolves. It does not grow. The same must ultimately be true of the human economy, if it is to be sustained on and by this planet. Sustainable growth is neither desirable nor possible. But sustainable development, providing more services to human beings while putting less load on the environment, is entirely possible, if we develop the words to talk about it, understand it, act on it, and bring it into being.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994