Language is More Than a Tool

Last week this series focused on some of the roles we take on and those facets of ourselves that we highlight to get our job done. This week I am thinking about the words and phrases that we use that tell others what we believe in and the roles we represent.

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Language is a powerful tool in the arsenal of transmitting ideas. As a language development specialist, I spent my teaching career thinking about: how to help students learn language and how to help other practitioners teach it. Working with teaching credential candidates, I’d often compare the teaching of science to teaching a second language. For many, science is a secret language hanging out in the open. How often have you heard someone say, “it’s just a theory?” or “I have a hypothesis…” when what they mean is, “I have an idea,” an untested, unsubstantiated guess?

We need a decoder ring to understand that when words are used in the context of science, they have very specific meanings. Even within the world of science, disciplines add their own nuance to the same words, making it challenging for scientists from different disciplines to truly understand each other. Urban ecologists have been called interdisciplinary translators who can bridge the language of disciplinary experts. This got me thinking about the word sustainability. As you know, I’ve been having a series of conversations with thought leaders in the field and have asked each to define sustainability. What they’ve said can be loosely grouped into different silos:

Sustainability is a process, an evolving concept. This started as a simple focus on quantifying and minimizing our effects on the environment – milestones in water and energy use. But now, sustainability may be more like a fitness regime. We started with checklists to complete and milestones to reach, but these tools have become limiting. Now we realize there is no goal number on the scale to reach, but rather a change in lifestyle – a set of values to follow, a bar to move down- and upstream as companies solve problems that once confounded us.

Sustainability is a framework for decision-making,  a set of guidelines to balance wants and needs for the present with quality of life for the long-term. Decisions may be framed as answers to powerful questions like, “are we creating a world our children will want to live in?” or as a bottom-line balance sheet, like “are we giving more than we’re taking?” Either way, sustainability isn’t intended to be a competition that people can lose, but rather a common way of thinking that drives people and organizations to learn new strategies for making impactful decisions.

Sustainability is a movement and some say it has a perception problem. Controlling the narrative is about language. Sustainability is often seen as something for those who can afford it. Yet, there is power when the faces of sustainability reflect diversity of location, economic status, and educational background. It’s a movement succeeding when living sustainably happens in our midst and it doesn’t look like a sacrifice. The act of doing creates a unique story – footprints along a path that others can choose to follow. We can learn from the other movements and borrow useful tools, techniques, and approaches. We can learn to collaborate where there is intersection of purpose, and avoid pitfalls that others have stepped into. We can show the sustainable world emerging from an organizational perspective, integrating solutions that create a new norm or baseline.

Stepping back to see the full picture:
Described by some as “sustain-a-babble,” the ‘s-word’ has become politically burdened. It’s overused, it’s mushy, and people aren’t always sure what it really means or how to do it. Do we need to find a new word for what we are doing or reinforce what this term represents? Those I talked with disagree. What do you think?

We live in cities and cities are structured locally. They are the engines of change in the world and dimensions of change impact each other. The question of sustainable cities moves beyond doing some “thing”—performing urban acupuncture on a building or a neighborhood—and becomes a matrix of the challenges addressed by the solution put forth. It’s complex.

In a world where the hottest new job is Chief Sustainability Officer, maybe what’s really needed is a Chief Translation Manager. Whether sustainability is a concept, a framework, or a movement, what I’m hearing is that it’s only the beginning. More to come in the next in this series.

Which definition describes your way of thinking? Maybe it hasn’t been captured yet. Thank you to those whose ideas, innovations and unique perspectives are captured above:

Antonia Graham, City of Huntington Beach
Ben Stapleton, LA Cleantech Incubator
Brian Falls, Palisades Capital Partners
Cassy Aoyagi, FormLA Landscaping
Chris Forney, Brightworks Sustainability
Daniele Horton, Verdani Partners
Evan Feitelson, Hebrew University
Evan Marks, The Ecology Center
Heidi Creighton, Buro Happold
Jennifer Berthelot-Jelovic, A SustainAble Production (ASAP)
Joel Ann Todd, HPD Collaborative
John Marler, AEG
John Onderdonk, Caltech
Mary D. Nichols, California Air Resources Board
Maya Henderson, Kilroy Realty Corporation
Mike Bennett, Office Depot
Sara Neff, Kilroy Realty Corporation
Schoene Mahmoud, LMU-Center for Urban Resilience
Stephanie Pinceti, University of California, Los Angeles
Stephen Ashkin, The Ashkin Group
Uri Shamir, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology

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