I admit to a long and growing angst over the misuse of the word “sustainable” and its derivatives. In fact I am well known for making a big song and dance every time the topic comes up. I am sure my friends and colleagues groan whenever the issue arises. They are good enough to humour me. Even those who may say I am cynical often share my concerns – and every year the abuse gets worse. So this year we inaugurate a new Transition Town High Wycombe Award. It is the “LA-LA Sustainability” – the Laughable Abuse of Language Award (Sustainability).
I probably wasn’t aware of just how our beautiful English language had been so distorted until we started the Transition Town High Wycombe in 2008. Back then our first exercise was to help the Wycombe District Council with its “Sustainable Economic Prosperity” Consultation. Clearly we thought this was very suitable. Who isn’t interested in sustaining our economic prosperity? However we were quickly to learn that not everyone shares our definition of the word “sustainable”. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary tells us that this word means to “maintain continuously”. The phrase “sustainable development” (if not itself an oxymoron) has typically been defined as the activity that we do today that does not prevent future generations from undertaking the same activity. So, for example, if driving cars consumes all the oil and steel in the world then our children’s children will not have cars. This is unsustainable.
From 2008 until today we have seen this wonderful concept twisted to mean whatever short timescale people want it to mean. One would have thought that the operative word here was “continuously”. However in political terms anything that is sustainable is quite literally anything that lasts until the next election or any time period mandated by Whitehall. This can be as short as only 16 years. Current Council thinking tends to stretch as far as 2026. One might think that the world can go to hell in a handcart in 2027 but as long was we can struggle through to the year before we will be fine. Somehow. This would lead to only medium-term measures that always assumed today’s trends would continue into the future forever. Hence no long-term strategic thinking would enter the debate. No vision is required. To this manner of thinking there would be no need (for example) to preserve an agricultural sector for food production around High Wycombe. The original consultation document suggested that we should turn over agricultural land & buildings to recreational, tourism and small enterprise purposes. In a world of rising food and commodity prices it wasn’t clear whether we should laugh or cry….
Next came the 2008 Sustainable Communities Act. This was intended to empower local communities to become more durable. The precise definition remained vague but the Act specifically says it should promote the “improvement of the economic, social or environmental well-being” of local people. The Act doesn’t define “sustainable”, ie, there is no idea as to how long a community needs to sustain to qualify. Interestingly the Act does attempt to define the term “local”.
We wrote to all our Councilors back in 2008 to encourage them to submit a proposal under the act. WDC did so in consultation with local groups concerned about M40 road noise. They called upon the Highways Agency “to take action to permanently reduce road noise through re-surfacing, improving sound barriers and implement speed and night time restrictions between junctions 3 and 8”. There was no new money involved but the idea was to move it up the priority list. In this case, although we share the concerns of local residents, we have questioned if this really was the most suitable suggestion? Afterall, the communities along the M40 may well sustain with or without an M40 motorway. Might the fate of local bus routes be more of a key factor? Might not a new generation of electric cars be slower and quieter? Would an electrified transport system need a lot of new wind turbines along the M40 corridor? If so would local communities use the Act to empower themselves to prevent the wind farms on the basis of noise? The mind boggles. The meaning of the act could be so broadly interpreted that it became perfectly possible for local communities to conjure up their own demise in its name.
So, to highlight the problem, we have created the tongue-in-cheek “LA-LA Sustainability” award. And this year I am very proud to nominate the University of Gloucestershire in their Job Advert for a “Sustainable Flood Memories Research Assist”: http://bit.ly/hGs4f8 (paying up to £29k a year, pro rata). According to the ad “The main objective is to research the relationships between local, community level sustainable flood memories (with its associated watery sense of place, shared flood heritage, folk memories of flooding, and local informal flood knowledge) with community resilience to flooding and future flood risk.” Now, our apologies to Professor Lindsey McEwen (and “Applied Scientists” everywhere) as we do not dispute the value of studying how communities should survive flooding. However, we would argue with the mind-boggling abuse of the word “sustainable” in this instance. Exactly what is a “sustainable flood memory”? Indeed, what is an “associated watery sense of place & shared flood heritage”? This comes in a week when student protestors rioted at the thought of paying £9k a year on tuition fees. The Universities told us they needed the money….
Does anyone need more money to study a “watery sense of place”? How about a reality check? What about an economic sense of purpose? What about common sense? Is there a whole field of study somewhere where people sit around and dream up new-speak? Is this an Orwellian attempt to reinvent our language such that we can justify the public funding for studying the “bleedin-obvious” (as Basil Fawlty used to call it)? Is there such a thing as a sustainable flood? Surely common sense tells us to move to higher ground?
We’ll get back to the successful job applicant in three years and have them explain how what they have learnt will be of use of a world of increasing flood-risk. We expect to be impressed.
Do YOU have a better example for the LA-LA-Sustainability awards? Please send us your nominations to email@example.com. A free one-year subscription to the best offering.