Ten days ago I told you “I’m just not able to do it. I’ve tried. I can’t. Can you?” —and wrote about my challenges with using the word “sustainability”—and with giving it up!  I recounted some explorations with options like regenerative, flourishing and thrivable, and asked, “how do you speak about this world we’re trying to bring into being?” Well, it seems I struck a chord, since I got more response to that mailing—and more thoughtful response, both technical and evocative—than almost anything I’ve written to you.

JT Brown and Jean Russell reminded me that I forgot “thrivable,” a recently trending favorite. Alli Starr and others like “resilient.” Julian Crawford put in a vote for the circular economy, and highlighted the work of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. Jim Schulman is “sticking with the “S” because you can use it to ask questions:  i.e. how (to what degree) is this policy, design, practice, etc. sustainable? Measuring regenerativity seems harder.” (I disagree, but more on that another time.) Warren has “tried to avoid any meeting or event where people want to ‘define sustainability’.”

George Mokray favors “working with natural processes to expand the biosphere.” Guy Dauncey says “a vision of humanity and our future economy being in full harmony with nature works pretty well for me.” Shama Alexander favors “roots thinking, because it is the connective piece that grounds a plant or tree to the soil providing nourishment.”

Alexander Carpenter “suspects that the best way to talk about sustainability is to talk about other matters entirely, like thermodynamics.” Doc Hall says “I’m convinced that any term selected will not work without a lot of explaining; tough when many people want to feel acquainted with a subject after an elevator speech or a two-minute video. That’s hopeless when one is trying shift a lifetime of assumptions and thought patterns. Most words conjure some image from the past. No words conjure something never seen before. That can only be done by comparisons with something known. A lesson from some of the Japanese terms associated with lean is that they had no prior meaning in English. Learning the definition of the term required absorbing something new. Pharmaceutical wordsmiths have long experience with this, coining product names like Flixmoxaflab, slightly suggestive, but meaning nothing specific in any language. However, their intent is merely uniqueness and marketability, not extensive explanation. Marketing just implants a set of impressions; directions for use are not in marketing language. Bottom line: I don’t think there is a short cut to extensive explanation.”

Jane Byrd sees it all as a matter of “designing freedom—including the freedom to exist in the face of the disruptions ahead.” And Anita Burke wrote:

sustainability is a tool for trying to communicate in a way that business can hear the expression of love
flourishing is the experience  when love is manifest
thriving is the way we feel when love is all there is
restorative is the magic of love
regenerative is the outcome of love… as it is the only thing that we give that multiplies…

I have no doubt we’ll continue this exploration, and this struggle. “It’s only words”—but the words we use have a powerful effect on the possibilities we’re able to see.

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