Sustaining the Power of Language for Change


Fred First
Fred First

New words or phrases we hear clearly. They gain our attention, rising in the radar of common language and conversation. Again and again on the news and at the local coffee house we hear them, and they are for a while the buzz.

But then, exploited and hyped and marketed and morphed into jingles to sell us something, we take note of them less and less and the thrill is gone: we see mouths moving but no longer is the volume at audible levels for the words to reach the thinking parts of our brains.

Sustainable and sustainability are words I would not want to grow weak and empty in this way. I find them arising often in what I read and think about. In the vast breadth of their meanings, they are words like just or justice. They have great portent for our day and we hear them often, but they suffer from having an enormous circumference and they lack adequate single-word replacements.

In its frequency of use in our common language, sustainability is newly popular. In biology class, it is well worn. In the operation of organisms and organic systems–habitats, ecosystems and biomes–the matter of sustainability has been part of what determines continued existence.

In the same way that death is easier to define than life, “un-sustainable” is perhaps easier to understand than its counterpart, and examples are easy to find: A body without enough calories or water over a span of time is unsustainable as is an animal population that exceeds the carrying capacity of its accessible range.

A civilization (and the history books are full of them) that is overtaken by prolonged heat or cold, drought, flood or soil loss becomes unsustainable when it cannot adapt quickly enough to the changes. When a species becomes unsustainable, it goes extinct. So unsustainability, while a distinct possibility for towns, states and nations, is not on the table, no matter which side of the political spectrum we come from.

There are a hundred nuances of meaning for sustainability, but here’s my favorite because it brings another essential word into the mix: justice:

“Sustainability represents an idealized societal state where people live long, dignified, comfortable, and productive lives, satisfying their needs in environmentally sound and socially just ways so as to not compromise the ability of other human beings from doing the same now and into the distant future. It is, in effect, an attempt to merge development and nature conservation efforts in a mutually beneficial way for the common good of the planet’s present and future generations alike.”

Sustainability as mission supplants the “me” with the “us” for generations to come, and includes in it the long-term health of the planet in our lives as citizens and neighbors. It is ecology married to economy, dynamic equilibrium at every level of life and enterprise. With that in mind, it will be both wise and necessary to operate in such a way in all aspects of every society. We simply must, as our global human enterprise of late has been unsustainable on many critical fronts (fresh water, fuel, soil, ocean fisheries and food among others) and great change will come whether we’re passive or active in that future.

Can we chart an intentional, sustainable future for the towns and villages of southwest Virginia? What would it mean as a matter of intention and purpose to satisfy our own needs in environmentally sound and socially just ways? That will remain for future conversations that take care to protect the power and meaning of a useful word and an urgent but well-worn concept – new for our times but eternal in application.

By Fred First
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