Brain Gymnastics for Sustainability, Lesson 7: Language Matters (Part I)


How many times have we heard phrases along the lines of:

Charts, charts, charts
-“Consumer confidence showing signs of recovery”
-“We need to balance economic development with environmental protection.”

-“The Consumer Price Index rose 0.2% while the Producer Price Index was down 0.3% due to a drop in core energy prices.”
-“This design will have the least impact on the site.”
-“Until consumers feel secure and begin spending again, consumption will remain flat and the economy will be struck in neutral.”
-“How can we continue development while minimizing the effects on habitat and infrastructure?”
-“GDP numbers from the Commerce Department showed anemic 1% annual growth.”

Words Carry Meaning

Words Carry Meaning

Words carry meaning. Let’s take a look at a few of the ones from above:
“Consumer” and “Consumption”: I cannot pinpoint the year in my lifetime that the media and politicians started referring to Americans overwhelmingly as “consumers” rather than “citizens”, but the implications are telling. Firstly, it is an assertion or an acknowledgement that capitalism has superseded democracy as our primary defining characteristic as a nation. Secondly, it gives a connotation that Americans are a black hole or the “grave” in the “cradle to grave” process: That somehow our highest utility is at the end of a production cycle in consuming end products with no output other than generating waste.

Flowers from Rocks
We can’t achieve sustainability if we see and label ourselves as end consumers in a linear process. I would argue, instead, that people need to be “participants” or “producers” in a perpetual, cyclical process of transforming resources for productive good. If our products (and services) are to be remade into the framework of “Cradle to Cradle” as McDonough and Braumgart would have it, then people become agents of resource “throughput” to care for their needs and provide for the needs of the next agents in the process (whether it be birds, microbes, trees, manufacturers or neighbors).
This isn’t hard to conceive of in practical, everyday terms. Do we “consume” personal computers or are they a tool with which we generate productive outcomes? When we buy a shovel to work a garden or a wrench to fix a bicycle or a PDA for work purposes, we are acting as “Producers”, not “Consumers”. It is too bad that the “Producer’s Price Index” is already taken. Still, it would influence our self-perception if the “Consumer Price Index” was renamed to something even benign such as the “Participant’s Price Index”, indicating that we are valuable participants in a continuous flow of productivity. “Citizen’s Price Index” seems more empowering, but it’s maybe too early to further confuse democratic rights and responsibilities with economic actions (For more on the truth that every purchase transaction in our lives is a vote for someone and their policies and values, see “Bringing America Back”.).

It is a given that many if not most of our personal purchases are more consumptive in nature than productive, and that needs to change. But if we change our language, it facilitates a different view on our purchases. If we see ourselves as producers or participants, we might actually think a bit more before making that $0.99 Store purchase of cheap, non-durable kitchen utensil or leaded plastic kids jewelry for the next birthday party. We might think more about buying more organic fruit and composting the leftover skins to enrich soil organisms and the productivity of our landscaping.

Fresh Roasted Coffee

One Stop on the Resource Flow Cycle


Achieving sustainability requires tremendous effort and change on many fronts, from what we value to what we produce, to how we design and produce it, to how we utilize it and where it goes. And it also involves how we label ourselves and the perceptions that promotes. Let’s start finding substitutes for “consumer” and “consumption” to describe ourselves and our purpose in the economic system.

More next time on “Balance”, “Less Harm”, “Lower Impact”, “GDP” as our measure of self-worth and well-being, and the better idea that we can “Align” the three legs of the sustainability stool to generate regenerative good that exceeds the sum of the inputs.

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~ by Mick Dalrymple on September 2, 2010.

One Response to “Brain Gymnastics for Sustainability, Lesson 7: Language Matters (Part I)”

  1. What a lovely post. Words are powerful indeed.

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