“A new language and approach is emerging…it lives amidst the current tension that exists between nature and technology and within what’s both simultaneously possible and desirable. It’s at its most powerful and purposeful when we remember that we are nature too and that we are capable of evolving again.” – Helen Storey (2014, online)
We need new narratives: a new language to talk about sustainability. This statement echoes across the words of key environmental thinkers and designers, who are generally quite concerned about where we are and how to ensure that where we are going will be desirable both for ourselves as well as for generations to come. Our current modes of living are not sustainable simply because we are consuming or polluting our resources faster than the natural processes that support them can be replenished. So we find ourselves “trapped inside a runaway narrative” (Hine and Kingsnorth, 2009a), which is, for the most part, off-putting and uninspiring. This familiar ‘doom and gloom’ scenario begs the question – what actually is sustainability? I could propose an array of definitions, however, as Ehrenfeld (2015, p.57) bluntly states, because the term sustainability “means whatever suits the speaker, it means nothing at all”. How can we therefore amend words that have become empty or, at best, untrustworthy? This essay investigates whether we essentially need completely new ones.
A couple of years ago, design theorist John Wood (2013a, online) noted, “By deliberately coining new words, some innovators have managed to bring about positive opportunities for change.” He also cautioned that “If we confuse the ‘impossible’ with the ‘unthinkable’ we may deceive ourselves and become passive and pessimistic.” (Wood 2014, online). So the words we use are important: they shape our reality – positive or otherwise. After all, “because we have language, there is no limit to what we can describe, imagine, and relate” Maturana and Varela (1992, p.212). Why would we use negativity to describe our future, no matter how bleak certain social, political or natural phenomena may seem, when we can choose to propose a positive alternative? We just need to be more creative. Consequently, my only prerequisite is that these new words are either positive or otherwise encouraging; not in a delusional way, but in the same way that Ann Thorpe (2014, online) describes design activists as being generative rather than resistant: “They most often try to bring about change by generating positive alternatives to the status quo.” I am happy to say that this is already happening – and in many ways this piece of writing itself is a celebration of both writers and designers who are forging an exciting path to our future as we speak.
“This new concept, thriveability, focuses on a vision of collaboration and abundance where, instead of seeing ourselves separate from nature, we become an integral part of natural systems and embody qualities such as empathy, compassion, and creativity to guide our actions within the human community” – Rick Medrich (2010, online)
In conclusion, I would like to highlight another new word that I discovered only today – ‘thriveability’. The reason I am already in love with it is because one can explain and describe it without mentioning the sustainability agenda at all (see Medrich’s quote above) and yet fundamentally, ‘thrivability’ is exactly what sustainability is all about. If we are going to not only survive, but also thrive, as a human race, despite the plethora of messes we have gotten ourselves into historically, then we will need a new language to talk about this future, and not dwell on the past. As we have seen, the problem with sustainability is that it is, more often than not, only discussed in a context where we flog ourselves with all of the unsustainability that is going around. It is still by all means necessary to highlight these problems, as I have done through mentioning some of the misuse of common terms such as ‘green’ and ‘eco’, especially as we need to root out Greenwash and see it for what it really is. But the step that comes next is infinitely more exciting – we are human at a time when we are about to face the largest ecological and therefore social shift of our entire existence as a species, so we better learn how to talk about it optimistically, otherwise we will never survive it. These new narratives will transcend not only the current language of sustainability, but time itself. If our words flourish to become actions that significantly change the course of history, then they will be used to talk about it for generations to come, which is a notion of upmost quixoticy in itself.