Environment, ecology, sustainability, conservation, green. For decades these words and a handful of others have anchored the movement for a more sensible treatment of land, water, air, and nonhuman life. It’s hard to picture where the effort to protect nature would be without these words.
They are often used interchangeably, one word being picked over another for some reason — or for no reason at all. Environment is the most general but also the most politically charged. We say ecology when we’re trying to sound like we know something about science. Sustainability is a vague term that describes a way of living that we think we need to work toward. Conservation generally signals the protection of land. And there’s green, which, more often than not, refers to something you can buy.
And so on closer examination, the terms are not as interchangeable as one might have thought. Is an ecologist part of the sustainability movement? Is someone who goes out of their way to buy green products an environmentalist? Are the environmental and the sustainability movements even pursuing the same goals?
Who cares, you may say. We don’t have time to fuss around with nuances of language while the world goes up in flames. And after all, none of the words are bad for the Earth — all act as a gateway, an entry point to a world where the well-being of nature, or the well-being of one’s grandchildren, is more important than the economic bottom line and being comfortable.
The reason to care is that we need terminology that invites everyone into the effort to transform the way we live on the planet — people of all economic means, all political persuasions, all ethnicities, and all nationalities. Speaking at the October 2007 Bioneers conference, activist and Orion advisor Van Jones presented the crowd with a moral challenge. “As this movement moves from the margin to the center of politics, from the margin to the center of culture, from the margin to the center of the economy — who are we going to take with us, and who are we going to leave behind?”
Does the environmental movement’s terminology take everyone with us? If sustainability means buying a $26,000 hybrid car, or shopping at Whole Foods (“That’s a whole paycheck for anyone outside of Marin County,” said Jones), then sustainability is not taking everyone with us. If environment means saving land and natural resources first and figuring out how people are going to make a living later, then that’s not our word either.
It is significant that Jones described his challenge not as a strategic one, but a moral one, because, more and more, morality is what the work of saving the planet is all about. For many of us, human morality and the survival of the planet are now one and the same. The only way to transcend the morass is through love of nature, love of our neighbors, love of family, and the recognition that the needs of all are one and the same. The fact is, we are only going to get serious about the challenges that lie ahead when each of us arrives at a deep and abiding understanding that to do anything else is downright wrong. And everyone needs to be invited to participate in that process.
Whatever word we finally arrive at that sums up a new model for how we live on the planet, it has to reflect a grounding in peace, justice, health, and spirituality as well as in science, policy, and economics. Whatever this movement is, whatever you call it, however you describe it, however you try to bring more people into the fold, it will only succeed if people know and believe in their hearts and souls that it is not just the right way forward, it is in fact the only way forward. We are in need of a good word. Got any ideas?