The language game of sustainability

(Found this the other day, originally drafted in 2009)

 “It is in the spirit of the age to believe that any fact, no matter how suspect, is superior to any imaginative exercise, no matter how true.”
Gore Vidal


Anyone working in the field of sustainability will have had the experience of being asked to explain what it is they do. Very often, the individual asking the question will ask a subsidiary question, along the lines of ‘So what do you mean by sustainability, then?’

Even among those who would describe themselves as involved in sustainability – whether as researchers, practitioners, policy makers or otherwise - it is a not uncommon experience to spend some time with any given interlocutor debating what you mean by sustainability compared to what I mean.

Many of us, weary of such debates, have learnt the art of agreeing, at the very beginning of any given seminar or workshop, to park such questions and get on with the matter in hand.

Were such a state of affairs to exist in some other domain, it would surely be a source of something between bemusement and alarm.  How would we feel, for example, if our doctors or physicists or accountants were not clear on what it is they do, or were unable regularly and coherently to explain it?

That such a state of affairs appears to be the case – and my assertion that it is the case is based upon more than ten years’ research and consultancy experience during which time I have, quite literally, had more meetings than hot dinners – poses two basic questions:

  • is there something inherent to ‘sustainability’ that makes such a situation inevitable?
  • does it matter?

In addressing the second question, some sort of normative proposition is required: it only matters if there is some sort of objective which is or is not being achieved.  In the case of sustainability, a conceivable objective would be that ‘sustainability’ should be widely understood – but this would be almost entirely tautological.  A rather more useful, but inherently political objective would be something like: any and all decisions taken with sustainability in mind would be more likely to culminate in sustainable outcomes – such as reduced environmental harm and reduced social inequality – so we would like sustainability to be incorporated into decision-making processes.

If this were indeed an objective – and it is indeed close to the objective of, say, the UK government’s sustainable development strategy – then it seems likely that confusion or dispute over the very meaning and ambit of the term ‘sustainability’ would be something of a problem.

That is, yes, it would matter.

Conversely, if the objective were couched in terms of outcomes – that is, the focus was upon (in this instance) reduced environmental harm and reduced social inequality – then the significance of any confusion around ‘sustainability’ would be more contingent.  That is to say, the problem posed by ‘sustainability’ would only exist if use of the term actually blocked progress; and would not exist at all if, should it be deemed necessary in any particular setting, the term were not used because perfectly acceptable alternatives were available.

That is, no, it wouldn’t matter.

Turning to the first question (“Is there something inherent to ‘sustainability’ that makes such a situation inevitable?”) it may be – for example – that ‘sustainability’ is so multi-faceted, so complex, that any attempt to reduce it to a single term inevitably condenses meaning to the point where the meaning is obscured or lost.  Conversely, it may simply be that ‘sustainability’ is a relatively new word that has not yet had time to permeate in a manner that would make it a simple part of the currency of normal language.

Resisting the first possibility are the examples of other disciplines – medicine, physics, maths, say – which could lay fair claim to being multi-faceted and complex, yet seem to have rather less difficulty maintaining their meaning in either day-to-day or political discourse.  Resisting the second possibility is the fact that ‘sustainability’ as a term referring to some matrix of environmental, social and economic issues is at least twenty years old and is virtually ubiquitous in international, national, regional and local policy and strategy documents.

A synthetic and pragmatic possibility may then arise; namely, that there is something about language itself, and its function as a medium of social exchange, that could help to explain both why a term such as ‘sustainability’ appears rigidly elusive and whether or not that makes any difference.

Language as a Medium of Exchange

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has suggested that the ‘self’ can be understood as a ‘centre of narrative gravity’.  He proposes that the philosophical problems of identifying who and what an individual actually is can be resolved at the level of language: a self is the person with a set of stories or narratives about themselves that refer to the same person.  These narratives will be many and various, and potentially conflicting.  They will change over time, and new narratives will both be a function of existing narratives and will cause revision to those existing narratives.

The complexity of the situation can be resolved through analogy to the physical notion of centre of gravity.  In actuality, each and every part of a body has its own mass and, by extension, its own gravitational attraction.  In practice, these innumerable forces resolve into a single concept – the centre of gravity – which is the theoretical point at which all the components and forces of a body ‘resolve’.

A centre of narrative gravity is thus the aggregate but not average outcome of all the stories we tell to ourselves about ourselves.

New narratives – new notions of who and what we are – will be mediated by our existing story set.  A story that is utterly inconsistent with our existing stories will stand little or no chance of being adopted; a story that fits more easily and comfortably with the existing centre of gravity will, ceteris paribus, stand a higher chance of being taken on board and integrated.

From the opposite end of the spectrum, Nobel-prize winning author Elias Canetti conjectured that a society could be understood as a group of individuals that had a set of shared myths.  That is to say, the means by which people belong to a particular culture or clique or tribe or nation is through the medium of having a set of shared stories, or narratives.  Language – both oral and written – is the medium through which such stories are transmitted.

Eliding these two perspectives presents the notion that societies are built upon from individuals that have common stories; and individuals have stories within them that are societal.  An individual’s centre of narrative gravity includes stories that are the means by which they belong to their society; a society’s myths include the centres of innumerable individuals’ gravities.

Consumerism as Narrative

In this kind of conceptualisation, we could imagine modern western culture as comprising a sustained, broad, inclusive story centred on consumption.  This is a story than enables each of us to belong to our culture (it is a shared story, a shared language); and is a deeply held, personal story, incorporated into our centre of narrative gravity, our sense of self.

Using the on-line tool Wordle, the main headings of this story can be represented thus:

 In the face of such a story – embedded as it is within each of us, positioned as it is as the means by which so many of us belong to our culture – ‘sustainability’ is a narrative too far.  It is a concept that may work intellectually, but does not align with the prevailing narrative thrust that characterises our being.  We can reject the earlier assertions: sustainability is neither too complex nor too young; it is, rather, the wrong kind of story.

Sustainability as Narrative

More precisely, sustainability is the right kind of story, but the totality of the story immanent to it conflicts at a deep level with the prevailing narratives.

Using Wordle again, the sustainability narrative could be:

The simple introduction of ‘sustainability’ cannot possible carry with it the totality of the story implied by such a picture.  An altogether larger process of change is required.

What is also revealed is the possibility that the single term ‘sustainability’ has no particular value as the means by which a new narrative could be constructed.  It matters not, in the story as a whole, precisely which terms – health, well-being, enoughness - are those that carry most currency in which exchanges within society. 


What matters – surely – are the outcomes that are implied by sustainability.  The objectives of reducing environmental harm, reducing inequalities, reducing ill health, stress and injustice, these are things that should be our concern, not ‘sustainability’ in some broader and vaguer sense.

Sustainability may well work as a technical term, as a means of obliging researchers and policy makers and academics to attend to a broad range of issues in a more joined up fashion than they might otherwise do; but its function as an agent of change in ‘hearts and minds’ is profoundly compromised by the functioning of narratives in a language game.

The prevailing narrative of consumerism has a broad set of interlocking concepts that powerfully resist the message currently embedded within the term ‘sustainability’.  If the outcomes associated with sustainability are to be achieved, an altogether more extensive and persuasive set of narratives, capable of providing a new means of social belonging, are required.


Anonymous said…
Really useful stuff, thanks. I often want to introduce myself as a 'sustainabilityIST' but that's not a word (and hopefully never will be - its a shocker!). For ease, I usually fall back to 'environmentalist' but with a nagging sense that that is far too narrow a definition of who I am professionally and personally. As a 'sustainabilityIST' I am labelling myself as being concerned with and a champion of all the things in your second wordle. On a day to day basis it is impossible to work on all of these issues simultaneously (as an individual or an organisation). I only work on a subset of issues and as my career develops I journey gradually from one to another. Currently I work on community development and inequality in London, but I have worked on international development projects, environmental education in primary schools, postgraduate Climate change education and spent 4 years as a PhD student of education for sustainability.
But, I've always been a sustainabilityIST. I specialise in particular areas in the knowledge that I can't work on everything all of time, but that my work is mutually beneficial to the work of my fellow sustainabilityISTs, who I have to trust to do a good job. SustainabilityISTs are bound together by a vaguely shared set of values, mostly (to use the Common Cause framework) intrinsic values, who recognise that 'there are no single issues', but that we have to focus our personal efforts on only one or two and trust that as a collective all the issues will be dealt with. Right now though, there are clearly not enough sustainabilityISTs!

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