The Green Column #53

The language of meaning & the meaning of language: Sustainability

July 25, 2011—In this world of uncertainty, chaos, and sound bites, old words can impart classical meanings, or old words can be given new meanings, or new words can be created to have either old or new meanings. In the American English language the meanings, value, and understandings of language have become ever more challenging as living conditions change and as cultures and heritages become more intermixed and homogenized.

A recent local event provides graphic evidence of our new, contemporary habit of destroying perfectly good language, and using language to attempt to create fear and a tyrannical mood among citizens and neighbors.

DeWeese, president of an organization in the Washington, D.C. area that calls itself The American Policy Center, was invited to Lincoln to speak to a small group of local citizens about the “threats and evils” of sustainable development.

DeWeese wanted to have his audience believe that “sustainable development” is cover language for a United Nations-based international conspiracy, explicitly designed to deprive American citizens of their basic freedoms and their rights to land and property ownership.

To set the stage for such fear-based understandings, he apparently applied the practice evidenced on the Center’s web-page of changing the meaning and common use of words, from the language of more than fifty years of academic and professional practices of community development, into toxic definitions with implied and described negative consequences. Such words and phrases as “community development”, “historic preservation”, “public-private partnerships”, and “facilitators, visioning, consensus, social justice, environmental protection,” et cetera, are all, he says, part of the new language of sustainable development “using old words, with new meanings.”

This language, he claims, is proof that “sustainable development is the process by which America is being reorganized around a central principle of state collectivism using the environment as bait.”

DeWeese, and other critics of the contemporary search for maintenance and improvement of urban and community life on this planet seem either oblivious to or unwilling to accept the fact that conditions in this country, and in the rest of the world are changing. There are science-based facts and consensus notions that some of these changes signal imperatives for human response, if we wish to survive and prosper on this earth.

Environmental conditions are changing, socio-cultural conditions are changing, technologies are being invented, improved, and discarded. The economy and its future are different from any other time in history, and new public policies are being considered in response to all of the changes—all in the interest of sustaining a high quality of life for future generations of humans and all other species on the planet. The Luddites’ strategy has already come and gone as a failure to the improvement of human life.

(The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested—often by destroying mechanized looms—against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt were leaving them without work and changing their way of life. It took its name from Ned Ludd.)

Today our common community challenge is to accommodate change, while maintaining our basic freedoms and qualities of life in health, education, welfare, expression, association, economic opportunity, and good government, while protecting our life-sustenance relationship with the earth’s natural resources.

A local metaphor for the condition of the interaction of change and sustainability, and irrefutable truth for meaning and understanding comes to mind.

Have you ever thought of our marvelous Capitol building as a place of both change and sustainability? Have you noticed that it was designed to be seen in an exactly similar perspective from any direction? And yet, it never is the same from any two viewing directions—the architecture for each of the four entrances is different, the text of the sculpted messages on each façade is different, the landscaping in each quadrant is different. The weather and the natural light frequently change which gives each façade a different view in different seasons and in daily weather patterns. The city development has changed around the building over time (some complimentary, some not).

But, the net consequence of the building, its context and human interactions is that the capitol and the environs are sustainable—and the irrefutable truth is the continuity of the messages of the design and the art of their execution—giving consistent and common meaning to the narrative and the language of government in Nebraska.

I noticed a political cartoon recently that depicted a gentleman giving a PowerPoint presentation at a Climate Summit conference. His slide had bullet points on Energy Independence, Preserving Rainforests, Sustainability, Green Jobs, Livable Cities, Healthy Children, et cetera, while a person in the audience was standing, and saying, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

Each community must decide for itself what the true meaning of the language of sustainable development will be. Most likely, communities in this free democratic system will choose meanings that rest somewhere between the outside fear mongering against change, and the utopian nature of a perfect world.

For more on some of the imperatives of change, see this essay in The New York Times.

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