The Language We Use Really Matters

language

One of my regular commenters, Boudewijn, wrote me after I posted the last entry. He picked up on the postscript where I mentioned a different way of placing flourishing into context. You can go back one post to see this, but I also copy his comment below:

Thanks for your post. It reminds me of your article of which the title said: “Sustainability needs to be attained, not managed.” Here sustainability seems like the quality of a system that can be attained, like equality and beauty can be described as qualities of a system. In your definition of sustainability, however, it becomes the ‘possibility’ of flourishing. Now flourishing becomes the quality of the system, and sustainability refers to the possibility of ’attaining’ this quality.

You seem now to integrate ‘possibility’ and ‘attaining’ into one word, ‘attainability.’ And you seem to want to replace ’sustainability’ with this new ’attainability’(?). It is confusing me a little, something language often does to me. For instance, you cannot replace the term sustainable as it is currently being used with attainable: ‘Attainable living’ doesn’t make much sense. As you say, it has to be connected to flourishing. So ‘living that makes flourishing attainable.’ The same goes for ‘attainable design,’ ‘attainable systems,’ etc. They don’t make sense. ‘Design that makes flourishing attainable’ and ‘Systems that promote the attainability of flourishing’ make more sense.

I’m looking forward to your thoughts about how we can actually use the term ‘attainability’ in everyday communication.

Very challenges comments. First let me respond with a quick answer to a couple of your questions and then respond in depth. Rather than write a didactic response, I have created an imaginary dialogue between you and me. It goes on quite a bit, but as I wrote, I found it important to set the context for my recent suggestion about substituting attainability for sustainability.

The quick response
It is just as important to use the related words, attainable and attainability, correctly as it is for sustainable and sustainability. In both cases the word absolutely demands some reference to make sense. I now think it will be less confusing and mystifying to use attainability referring to flourishing than sustainability, but see the dialogue below. The need to change the current reality is much clearer with attain and its derivatives. To attain something is to act such that whatever condition or item, presently missing, you are seeking will become present. In deterministic systems, this relates to some linear relationships between the actions taken and the outcome. For example, if I study hard and do well on my exams, I will graduate, that is, attain the status of a graduate or alumna.

In the complex system we inhabit, there is no such linear or deterministic connection between our acts and the outcomes. The best I can ever do is make statements like, If I do this, the possibility, not probability, of what I want to show up appears to be greater. Attainability, as I see it, is a description of a system where this possibility can be reasonably, but not precisely, lurking in the background. As in the case of sustainability, we can lessen the impacts of what is holding the system back from producing our desired output, say flourishing, but these actions are largely different from those we would take directly to raise the possibility of flourishing,

As you say, these words sound strange, but if used properly can be very powerful. Sustainability has become, unfortunately, to mean preserving the status quo by lessening the impacts our normal behaviors have on the environmental and socioeconomic context of our modern societies. The fact that the system is failing is ignored. It seems to me to be a lot harder to hide this fact using attainability. The absence of something is quite explicit and clear. You can’t use the word for long without someone asking, “Just what do you want to attain?” The answer I would give is quite simple, “Flourishing!” But if I substitute sustainability, it leads to confusion and all sorts of mischief. Let’s continue with a dialog that goes much deeper into the questions you ask.

A much longer dialogue
I am, these days talking a lot about sustainability. So people like you often ask me, “Just what do you want to sustain?” “Good question,” I say, “Flourishing.” Then you say, “But it isn’t around here at present, so how can we sustain it? “Good question,” I think to myself, but you follow quickly with, “If you can’t tell me what you are doing about sustainability, I am going to take my business elsewhere to a company that preaches sustainability” I say to myself, “I still don’t quite understand what my customers are calling for, but I will give them something that sounds like the right thing.” I begin to tell the world, “I am lightening the load I create on the earth and the human condition.” “Maybe you are,” you think, “but I only see the world continuing to deteriorate. We can’t even keep doing what we have been doing for some 400 years,”

I pause and ponder your last statement. I do agree with it no matter what I am supposed to think and say. “Our aspirations for human environmental well-being are slipping away,” I say. “Rather than trying to sustain the current system, that is, the cultural norms and structures, wouldn’t it make sense to figure out what is keeping us locked into a malfunctioning system,” I suggest. “Sounds right,” you say. (Thomas Kuhn, standing in the shadows, chimes in with, “You need a new paradigm, friends.) “That makes sense,” I say, “but shouldn’t we first begin by recreating the vision out of which this paradigm, we call, modernity evolved.” “That does sound like a more effective way to go than to keep putting Band-Aids on the current world system,” you respond, and start to look a little less troubled.

After a short pause, you add, “How would you describe the kind of a world you think would worth seeking to create?” After a long pause, I throw out the concept of flourishing. “Wow,” you say, “that really sounds good. I think I heard it talked about in my Aristotle class back in my undergraduate days. “Yes, I reply, Aristotle did have a word, eudaemonia, we reasonable translate as flourishing.” “So, that’s how you picked the word,” you ask. “Not really,” I answer, “flourishing picked me.” “It came out of my mouth completely unexpectedly during a personal training exercise in which we were asked to tell our classmates what possibility each of us could bring to the world. When my turn came, without thinking, I turned and said to the audience, “I am the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the planet forever.” So there it is. Still quite a mouthful and in need of continuing explanation and clarification. Sustainability became attached to this choice of flourishing later, but has remained an awkward and reluctant partner.

You reply, “Wow, I always thought this idea came from years of philosophizing.” “No,” I say, “but it was soon clear that the idea of both possibility and flourishing could lead us away from the circularity that sustainability has pushed us into. How could we get what we want by sustaining the very system that was failing us? I remember this quote, said to come from Einstein, defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But I kept using ‘sustainability’ as the name of what I hoped other folks would envision as a flourishing world.”

You jumped in saying, “It hasn’t turned out that way, has it?” “Not at all,” I reply, “but the idea of flourishing has crept in to business and other talk as the right end or vision. Sustainability, however, has gotten in the way.” “I know,” you say, “but do you really think attainability will do any better.” “Yes, I do,” I reply after a long pause. As said at the beginning of this conversation, it will be difficult to use this word in ordinary talk without leaving a clear sense that something is presently missing. I think people will be quicker to stop and make sure they agree on what is to be attained before rushing into action.”

I continued, “You were concerned that its usage would continue to be problematic, after all what does attainable business or attainable development mean?” My answer to you is simple, “It means nothing at all, so let’s not use it that way. It would be best simply to start talking about flourishing without attaching it tightly to either sustainability or attainability. Flourishing is categorically distinct from these two words. Flourishing refers to an observable quality found in or emergent from the system, most importantly the Earth. Either “-ity” refers to a characteristic of the system. Actors, operating in alone or in small coordinated teams, should simply call there normative efforts, flourishing strategies or flourishing programs, and never, flourishing products or flourishing businesses. Flourishing must be used always as an end, a vision, and always as a noun, not some modifier.”

“Boudewijn, you questions about the words are very germane, and if we are to avoid the current misuses of sustainability we must be very careful. I have been guilty myself in this regard. It is not “sustainability” that is a possibility; it is flourishing. It is only and always only a possibility because the earth’s system is complex, and any outcome of complex systems is always only a possibility. The very definition of complex means that outcomes cannot be predicted with the same kind of certainty can compute for deterministic systems.”

You pointed out in your comments, “You [John] seem now to integrate ‘possibility’ and ‘attaining’ into one word, ‘attainability’.” “Yes, Boudwijn, I was not clear. I am still used to talking in the same way as I have done with sustainability as the possibility of flourishing, but as I said, there is a category error here and I hope to correct it in the future. I have started to gloss over this problem by concatenating sustainability and flourishing by using hyphens: sustainability-as-flourishing, but this remain problematic as would attainability-as-flourishing. But that won’t answer your concern.”

“No, it won’t, you say, will we have to fall into these long phrases I mention in my comments.” Let me finish with this, “For a while, I believe the answer is yes, if we are to avoid the problems that have arisen with sustainability. We have to avoid the category error, flourishing is a quality, similar to beauty, we can observe, while the ‘ities’ apply to the system out of which flourishing arises. The nature and state of the system determine whether the possibility for bringing the desired quality present is there or not. So, I think it is OK to talk about the possibility of flourishing, but not make it the predicate of the subject, attainability. I believe we know how to change the system such that flourishing can be attained or at least made possible. And if we are successful in getting that far, then we can start to talk about ways to keep it present. That’s what sustainability would properly be all about. And finally, we can talk about design for flourishing, but unless that sits nested in some sort of design for attainment, we won’t get very far. We have to make fundamental changes to the system as well in we way we run its parts. We shouldn’t even begin to talk about attainable business or attainable design.”

| | Comments (2)

2 Comments

Boudewijn said:

Thank you for your response. I appreciate it a lot and gives me new things to think about. I will have to process it by reading it a couple more times. Below I will not respond to all of what you say; I guess I'm just digging a bit deeper, maybe in another direction again. I hope that's not bothering you.

I'd like to talk about flourishing and how it might be perceived as something psychological and not environmental. We can speak of flourishing in terms such as flow, peak experiences, and 'the good life'. These notions are all related to human beings, their lives, their experiences; their feelings. Let's say, at some point in the future, the possibility of flourishing has been 'attained' all over the world and people experience flourishing on a regular basis; they live good lives. Now the challenge is to sustain the possibility of this flourishing. There is a problem, however: Resources are running out and climate change is likely to cause catastrophic events.

You might see where I am going. We might be flourishing at some point in the future but at the same time not be able to sustain our lives because of ecological limits. Thus, flourishing seems to deal with the lives of people, not with the underlying natural resources that might be required for our ways of living. And this latter part was what sustainability was about in the beginning. It was about natural resources; it was about 'sustainable yields'. I sometimes feel that talking about flourishing leaves out this notion of sustainability.

That's why in my thesis work I tried to include both challenges: 'Living the good life' and 'living within our ecological means'. The first deals with flourishing; the second with what sustainability used to be all about. It might seem that 'living within ecological means' is only one of the many prerequisites for flourishing, and therefore not worth mentioning separately. I'd respond that talking about flourishing can make us overlook the ecological limits we face. That's the importance of 'sustainability' and its first meaning. The problem remains of course, that the word has lost its meaning.

The thoughts I outline above are sometimes a bit in conflict with the things I read in your book and on your blog. I wonder if you see the conflict and if you have ideas about how it could be resolved. Are there any of my thoughts that you disagree with? What's your way of connecting environmental issues to flourishing? Perhaps the care structure you introduced provides the answer; as flourishing entails taking care of yourself, others and the world?

Again, my apologies for deviating from the initial subject. I guess, since 'flourishing' is the key word (and not necessarily attainability or sustainability), I focused on that. All the best,

Boudewijn

ma.e said:

I'd like to challenge a few of your statements here. First, I agree that sustainability is not a destination, it's not something to be attained. A flourishing future certainly can be the goal, but we will achieve that through sustainability. A flourishing future will be a target that is always in motion. It will always change. For example, if we shift from fossil fuels to [most kinds of] renewable energy [as we know them] then we will eventually be applying stress to altogether different resources, like "rare earth" minerals or maybe even silicon (one of the most abundant elements on earth!). You also mention that sustainability is an exercise in preserving the status quo, but again I disagree. Can you argue that many of the most important innovations of our time have not been done in alignment with sustainability, i.e. producing more energy or performance with less resources, producing more food on less land, etc. Sustainability is all about innovation and following the moving target. That's why I prefer to think of sustainability as a business philosophy, strategy, or mindset, similar to Six Sigma or Kaizen. Constant improvement. Every system at some point in its life cycle will have opportunities for improvement. There are organization that have internal process improvement specialists and many engage consultants for the purpose, but the most effective, the most agile, are those that ingrain the philosophy throughout their organization. A sustainable system is simply one that attempts to monitor the target of a flourishing future in light of the information available, and adapt.