Sustainability is subjective

The subjectivity of sustainability is a truth which is not easily recognized. Many people have visions of a utopian, carbon-negative society. But between each of those people, each vision will be slightly different. And if those people are from different cultures and different career backgrounds, the differences in their visions will be greatly magnified to the point that they will likely contradict one another in certain aspects.

In Sustainability from the Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, this idea is explored, using the differences between languages to contrast industrialized Western society with the developing societies in Guatemala. They introduce their article with the phrase “Sustainability is an English word”, a point that largely goes forgotten. Not all languages have an equivalent for this word, and even if they do, the meaning is notably different when taken into the context of the language.

Sustainable translates into Spanish as either sostenible or sustentable. Though these words all refer to the same concept, they are not completely synonymous. This is a problem, since this means that when a person says that something is “sustainable” in English, the same meaning will not be carried over to Spanish when they say that it is “sostenible”, even though the translation is correct.

But this problem becomes much more obvious when looking at a language and culture that is completely unrelated to the West. The article uses the example of the Mam language. They have no word for sustainable. The closest the authors found was the term tanquib’ela, which referred more to being a part of life, surviving in it. But, as the article also states, this word has no mention of the future; only of being present in life.

Tanquib’ela and the concepts carried around it in the hills of Guatemala are incompatible with the image of sustainability that Western society prefers. The people living there have little clue as to why they are being pushed toward sustainability, since they do not truly know what it is. And this problem is typically not recognized when we talk about sustainable development for these cultures around the world. Often, the people living in developing cultures are uncertain about accepting change, so communicating the advantages of sustainability is necessary to expedite their development. But since sustainability is a concept that not all cultures have, they will too be uncertain of it, and may not understand why it is so important.

Therefore, as described in Sustainability, the goal is not just proper communication. It is to cultivate the growth of sustainable practices, not just with words, but with leadership and action. Only then will there be followers in the way of benefiting the world.

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