A few months ago I wrote a series of posts about “beyond sustainability”—decrying (or at least bemoaning) the flabbiness and vectorlessness of the term (as Braungart, Ehrenfeld, McDonough and others have been wont to do), the erosion of its essential and once provocative value. Perhaps it’s a kind of linguistic inflation, rendering each word worth less even as it become more popular. Or perhaps it’s something about the very concept the word entrains, of a world of stasis, without evolution, innovation or delight.

So I pledged to go cold turkey, to eschew “sustainability”—at least the word—for a week or a month, I forget how long. It doesn’t matter, really, since I failed utterly.

It was a failure born partly out of failure of discipline; I got lazy, as I reached for better words, more compelling turns of phrase, and reverted to habit when I didn’t find them quickly. And it was partly born out of the challenge of landing something meaningful with conversation partners who have learned, over past decade or so of successes, to listen for the S word.

What do I prefer? Well, I like regenerative. A lot. (A bow to Bucky and Bob Rodale.) I like its subtle invocation of life force, creativity and possibility. Restorative is ok, but seems to face backwards. Flourishing (thank you, John Ehrenfeld) is potent, and fecund, but seems to take a lot of explaining. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Tell me: How do you speak about this world we’re trying to bring into being?

Comments to "I’m just not able to do it. I’ve tried. I can’t. Can you?"

  1. Gil Friend

    August 3, 2013

    Oh, and this:

  2. J.T. Brown

    August 4, 2013

    Hey Gill,
    Have you taken the word “Thrivability” out for a test drive?

    “Thrivability is the act of thriving or prospering. It thus goes beyond simply surviving [or sustaining] Thrivability also envisions a vision of sustainability (using a abundant and sustainable way of living) within this act of prospering.”


    Cheers, -JT

  3. Jean Russell

    August 6, 2013

    Well thrivable, of course.

  4. Gil Friend

    August 6, 2013

    Thanks Jean & JT. Yes, I like it (and completely forgot about it when I was writing). Doh.

  5. Linguistically, sustainable is not a very inspiring term. Few if any companies are completely sustainable. And even if they were, they have only climbed back to a status quo (if someone told you that through a lot of hard work and perseverance their marriage is now sustainable, you would not be very inspired). Also, stating that your company is less unsustainable than it was is not especially motivating.

    Where context permits, I like to use the term benefit or beneficial (i.e. does the environment and society benefit from your existence). In fact there is now a growing movement of 798 corporations in 27 countries who have submitted and passed a 3rd party review of their benefits to the environment, community, workers, and governance practices (Certified B Corporations).

  6. John Ehrenfeld

    August 13, 2013

    Words do matter. Here’s something Confucius said about them. From a recent blog post (between the asterisks).

    **I was reading a review of a set of essays by Simon Leys in the New York Review of Books (August 15, 2013) when Confucius jumped right out of the page. Leys is an expert on Chinese history among other interests. Here’s what caught my eye.

    When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,’ that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained (in Leys’s translation):

    If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language has no object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.**

    The problem today is not is what is to be sustained-flourishing, thriving, love or whatever-but with the word itself. It is not a special tool above its normal use as any word–to coordinate action, as long as everyone is on the same page.

    What it is not is as important as what it is. It is not recycling or what was generally called greening. All this meaning of sustainability is little but a disguised attempt at action so that the world will continue to allow us to do what we have become accustomed to doing. For businesspeople and politicians, that means continuing (economic) growth. Confucius would point out the impossibility of such growth forever and perhaps even right now when we are using more than one Earth.

    Please keep trying. Sorry to be late with my thoughts. Thanks for the continuing mentions.



  7. Guy Dauncey

    October 11, 2018

    I use the phrase “harmony with nature”, as my goal

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