Sustainability Not So Sustainable 

True meaning of words are continually eroding

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The lecture was scheduled in a cheerless auditorium at the University of Utah on a Thursday afternoon. It seemed as if some of the overhead lights had been disconnected to save electricity, but interest in the lecturer, Dr. Richard Louv, was undimmed. A surprisingly large crowd had gathered to hear Louv, the author of the book Last Child in the Woods, promote a “New Nature Movement.” In his 2005 best-selling book, Louv contends the wired generation’s estrangement from the outdoors contributes to its endemic problems with hyperactivity, obesity and depression.  “Nature-Deficit Disorder” he calls it.

Louv’s lecture keynoted a symposium called Exuberant Sustainability, sponsored by the University’s Office of Sustainability. So I was startled when the first words he spoke disparaged the noun “sustainability.” Louv said that the word has been watered down over the years to the point it suggests a kind of stasis. “We need more than stasis,” he said. “We need to produce human energy—health, intelligence, creativity, joy—through nature.” A re-conceived environmental movement, sustained by a fresh crop of nouns and verbs, would do it. Conservation alone would not.

I doubt that those in the audience who had devoted themselves to “sustainability” in one way or another were pleased to hear that the six-syllable word had become unsustainable, but I think there isn’t any among us without their own “sustainability” problem. We all have a tin ear for clichés. We adopt words and phrases like we buy Nikes. We buy the shoes that appeal to our fashion sense, convey status and cushion our soles. Then we wear them until the tops fade, the tread wears thin or a fancier pair catches our eye.

That’s pretty much how we adopt new words. The difference is that worn-out shoes are discarded; worn-out words are not. We cling to them mindlessly, well past the point that they have any real value. Geoff Dyer, a columnist in The New York Times, calls them “the verbal equivalent of the undead.”

You don’t have to look too far to find examples of zombie words and phrases. If you have been around little kids and their helicopter parents lately, you have heard “Good job!” ad nauseam. It’s what parents say when their kid kicks a ball, draws a dinosaur, uses a napkin, gets a C+ on a book report, or urinates in a toilet instead of his diaper. There is nothing a kid does that is too mundane not to warrant a sprightly “Good job!” from mom and dad. I calculate that long before a child reaches puberty, “good job” will have become so devalued it will be bereft of meaning. In the kid’s mind, “good” equals “banal.” The concept of good/better/best? Lost forever. And can you imagine the anguish resulting from the kid’s first encounter with “not so good” or “bad”?

“Waste, fraud and abuse” is another example of a phrase that refuses to die. It is resurrected periodically in speeches about cutting the federal budget without eliminating popular programs. Of course it is a canard, but it resonates here in Utah, where the federal government is viewed in the same way a junkie views his dealer. When I hear a politician claim that a crackdown on waste, fraud and abuse will generate enough money to fund a favored program, I understand what is really being said: “Despite the need for belt-tightening, I support all the programs my constituents like, but I have no idea where the money will come from to pay for them.”

Bless his heart!

Now there is one to ponder. And while you are at it, give some thought to “God bless you.” After all, they have subject and verb in common. About the only time I hear “God bless you” anymore is when I give money to a panhandler. What he is really saying is thanks, so it is a calculation on his part to solemnly invoke God. It makes me a little uneasy because I find it insincere. “Bless your heart” is a more common expression and a good deal less weighty. (I tend to equate it with “for crying out loud.”) According to the Urban Dictionary, “bless your heart” comes from the South, along the Gulf of Mexico, and it means: “You are an idiot, but I like you and care about you, so I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Strictly speaking, then, you should never find “bless his heart” in a sentence with “Orrin Hatch” or “Mike Lee.” But you could find such a sentence here in Utah, because “bless your heart” means, well, “bless your heart,” for crying out loud.

Heartfelt sentiment has suffered mightily in our endlessly looping conversations. In many instances, sentiment and sincerity have been debased. Consider the plight of “I love you,” arguably the most significant three-word construct in our language. Not only have we managed to collapse it into the wretched “luv ya,” we have taken to ending telephone calls with a perfunctory “luv ya,” thereby demeaning speaker and listener alike. How many more “luv ya’s” will it take until “I love you” is lurching alongside “have a nice day,” “the ball’s in your court,” “stop and smell the roses” and “bassackwards” in the throng of the verbal undead?

Dyer speculates that single words may age better than phrases. I think of “awesome” and “cool,” and I’m not so sure. But it seems likely that “sustainability” will go quietly to the rest home where it will wile away the hours playing Scrabble with “counterculture,” “coevolution” and “cybernetics” in the rec room. Who knows? “Nature-Deficit Disorder” may prove to be long-lived. And it might save a generation of kids from Ritalin before it becomes unsustainable. 

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