Andrew Nikiforuk, one of the leading environmental thinkers/columnists in Canada who often speaks to environmental themes in  the Comox Valley has recently posted an article on The Tyee titled Against ‘Sustainability’ and Other Plastic Words in which he argues that “The word sustainability, were it up to me, would be extinct, wiped out, kaput.”

According to Nikiforuk, the word sustainability has been so co-opted that it has gone beyond meaningless/overused drivel to a kind of “tyranny” in which governments and business use the word to mean/promote perceptions and actions that are the opposite of any environmental ethic the word once implied.

Nikiforuk notes that “sustainability” now means just about anything other than the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources– supporting long-term ecological balance. “Economists promise ’sustainable economies’…Miners promise to dig more sustainable holes and foresters propose to mow down old growth trees more sustainability.” Indeed industry has commandeered “sustainability to greenwash any new development—regardless of its social and environmental consequences.”

Much of what Nikiforuk argues about the “plasticity” of the term Sustainability is blatantly and unarguably true, however Nikiforuk’s arugment begins to unravel when he mentions George Orwell’s views on “plastic words”–words like love, justice, peace, freedom…

Orwell was NOT arguing that because state and corporate interests can corrupt the meaning of such powerful words that they should become “extinct, wiped out, kaput.”  Indeed, Orwell argued in “Politics and the English Language” and implied even more forcefully in “1984” that some words express meanings that we cannot allow state and business interests to own them. Orwell argues that to destroy the word is to corrupt our ability to understand the meaning. Thus giving up our vocabulary to the manipulation of vested interests will lead to a 1984ish world where our very thoughts/our ability to think is controlled by vested interests ability to control the language. While Nikiforuk worries about the co-option of the word sustainability, there is no word that comes into common usage meaning anything like sustainability that will not be co-opted for commercial, industrial, political use in camouflaging their destructive intentions—they’ll take it all. 

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten…The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that…Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now.”– An excerpt from 1984

Thinking of Orwell’s arguments for not allowing really big words to be defined away by corporate/political interests, I began to wonder about sustainability: what if sustainability has some inherent, intuitive, irreplaceable meaning that speaks to/comes from our intuition, our hearts, our deepest understanding of our place in the universe?

What if sustainability is no more the inspiration for the domination of nature and conquest of people than 1984’s Truth was propaganda; or the Ministry of Defense–the department of war? What if Sustainability is about nurture of ourselves, our fellow humans, our children and our bountiful/endangered Earth?

Our economic, social and political institutions need to be replaced and rethought not only because they are unsustainable and unjust, but because they foster a consciousness that keeps us from connecting to the deepest truth of the universe—that all of life, all of existence is an inextricably connected, mutually sustaining dance of creativity.

In 1984 Orwell argued forcefully and graphically that there are big words like Democracy, Freedom, Love that evoke an understanding of who we are and what we do in such a fundamental way that we simply cannot abandon them to the limiting definitions of authorities whose goals have narrowed to social control and the defense of a privileged few.

According to Orwell, allowing Democracy to become simply the tyranny of a plurality, is to lose the concept of the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals; to allow  Freedom to be limited to free from–as in a dog is free from lice—is to eviscerate our understanding of political and intellectual freedom. I don’t think he would agree with Nikiforuk about the merit of making Sustainability kaput.

In Orwell’s Big Brother world of 1984 the understanding of Peace became the study of war; the Ministry of Truth was solely concerned with the production of propaganda. Peace and truth, as we understand them, were, simply, not comprehensible in Winston Smith’s world. Today the same narrowing of language to corporate/political interests is anything but fiction! Preston Manning  told a Fraser Institute sponsored conference on economic opportunities in Canada’s healthcare delivery, that as long as the debate was about privatization, “we” can’t win, but if “we” can change the language to offering consumers choice, then, he said, the entire healthcare system is “ours.” Ours—meaning profit hungry corporations like the American health insurance industry.

Sustainability wasn’t a big word in Orwell’s day but it is a big word today. The concept is so big it has yet to be adequately defined. It’s a word so germane to who we are and what we do as individuals and society that almost everyone tries to define or contain the meaning. Under heavy pressure from the US, the United Nations Committee on the Environment, The Brundtland Commission, tried to steer the concept toward meaning ever escalading trade which doesn’t have any obvious and immediate environmental impacts.

Many would agree with Nikiforuk that the word Sustainability has become so abused and ambiguous that we should stop using it to describe policy based on social justice and healthy ecological systems, but I like it precisely because it evades definition (corporate and state control) by speaking directly to our intuition—our hearts. Instinctively we know something larger than words about Sustainability because we can relate in a heart-felt way to the core concept to sustain; it evokes caring and nurture—nurture for ourselves, our fellow humans, our children and grandchildren, for our beautiful, bountiful and threatened Earth.

To me it seems that the news these days is almost all bad–retreating glaciers, unprecedented hurricanes, the unprecedented  extinction of species, disappearing fish stocks; terrorists killing with small bombs and nations killing with shock and awe; greed and corporate interests pursued as though they were higher goals than justice and compassion—all a consequence of a pervasively soulless materialism, a inescapable corollary of our inability to understand neither our embeddedness in this living planet, nor our inherent connection to one another.

Daily I become more convinced that something fundamental has gone wrong. We can’t fix this mess with a carbon tax nor international courts that meet out justice to losers in the battlefield  but ignore the contempt of the world’s superpowers for basic human rights.

We’ve reinvented war as a chronic condition of human existence; we’re cooking our atmosphere, poisoning our oceans and decimating our forests, yet what do our political and business leaders talk about as goals for humanity?—growth of all the destructive things we have been doing; a space ship to Mars, “Blackberries” in our hands and televisions in our cell phones, more jobs to produce more products to satisfy previously unknown needs, extended free trade agreements.

While Nikiforuk worries about state and corporate co-opting of Sustainability, it becomes increasingly obvious to me that the hurdle we have to clear is the idea that self-interest and profit will ultimately rescue us from the consequences of a blinding greed that obscures our understanding of what sustainability really means.


Norm Reynolds