The Propositions Prepositions of Sustainability

prepositions

The prepositions used in conjunction with words like sustainability, care, or love tell us a lot about the speaker or writer’s understanding of and commitments to the word being referred to. We can take a lead from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that juxtaposes three prepositions in “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Let’s start with sustainability and think about the differences between business of sustainability, business about sustainability, or business for sustainability. Business by sustainability doesn’t make much sense.

The first is the possessive use of of and is used to tell us that sustainability has some sort of business attached to it. Unlike Lincoln’s usage, sustainability doesn’t possess anything except the intangible possibility of flourishing. But when firms talk about the business of sustainability, they seem to imply that they are doing what sustainability requires them to do. We, the business firm, know what sustainability is and we are working, along with marketing all the unnecessary and harmful widgets we produce, to bring sustainability to the world. I doubt that actions under this rubric will do anything to create sustainability

The next, about, doesn’t mean surrounding in the spatial sense like “There was a strange radiance all about her.” Rather, it tries to convey a feeling of attention to as in “Our business strategies are all about sustainability.” Since in almost all cases, the business hasn’t a clue about what sustainability is, this usage is merely an attempt to look good and be one of the crowd.

For conveys a sense of directedness or connection, and suggests a positive connection between the first noun and the second. Business for sustainability suggests that the business is committed to produce sustainability as in businesses for [making] profit or for [manufacturing] shoes. The for doesn’t have to be exclusive; businesses can claim they are for both sustainability and for shoes. Most do not, however, understand and appreciate the intricate interrelationships between the two. Making shoes (positive for the business) produces other outcomes (negative for the world). Because the negatives always come along with the positives, it’s quite a stretch for any business to claim it exists for sustainability.

This little lesson in grammar is meant only to alert you always to pay close attention to the exact words a business uses to connect itself with sustainability. Note that in the last sentence with means some actual connection whether material or immaterial. It’s not the same as for, which conveys only a sense of direction.

I see literally hundreds of uses of all of these everyday as I peruse the business and sustainability media. They are all part of telling little white lies, and in some cases, lies located in the green portion of the spectrum. No firm can be of or about sustainability, The best they can do is be for sustainability in the sense that they support the idea of sustainability, just as most of us are for justice or peace, but do little or nothing to bring them to life.

The same confusion surrounds preposition’s use in reference to care, a central concept relating to sustainability. Care by suggests that care is being delivered by some entity. Care by Al’s Garage identifies the place to go for tune-ups and the like. Care of refers to the object of care, and like the previous case, implies that care belongs to that object. I take care of my automobile or my mother in whatever way care should be delivered to them. Care of is owned by the object.

Care about refers to some feeling that the subject experiences. I care about you is a subjective expression of my feeling toward you. This way of speaking does not mean that I am doing anything about my feelings. In our “having” culture, it is often taken for granted that caring about is enough and that no caring for is needed. All I need to do is provide all the symbols that the culture associates with caring. This is why so much of our lives together is inauthentic and without much satisfaction, if any.

Care for somebody or something, say a tree, is importantly different. The preposition for denotes a directedness, intentionality, or connectedness between the caring subject and the object being cared for. Caring for can be, but not necessarily is, authentic, coming from the sense of connection and an understanding that caring-for is at the existential heart of being human. The source of care is the subject, not the voices of culture that are always impinging on the body.

Words have a funny way of coming alive in our actions, even tiny, little words like these prepositions. By listening to the prepositions being used in what you or somebody else, for example, a business, is saying, you can expose their understanding and authenticity in matters like sustainability, caring, or love, and in other actions. The words tell you whether the actions come from a concernful connection or from a response to a “should” from someplace other than inside one’s body. Our speech, like any other act we do, springs from habits buried in our cognitive system. Our speaking habits are very strongly fixed, but, with reflection and practice, can be changed. You would be amazed at what practicing using for instead of about or of will do to build authenticity. Businesses need to drop the prepositions altogether and start speaking about themselves as “sustainability businesses.” In spite of the grammatical clumsiness, it’s a lot clearer way to convey their authentic care of, about, or for sustainability.

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