Sustainism & a Neologism Manifesto

Peter Jones Media Ecology, Strategic Foresight

Why are neologisms sometimes effective, and sometimes not? Why do they work when they work?

Neologisms are plays on words that coin a new expression, usually as a mashup of ideas in current circulation. They work well because, like sound bites or advertising slogans, they compress the currency of our concerns into a memorable meme that travels between people and across boundaries. They tend to stick, and at their best, help us imagine new possibilities suggested by the mashup or phrase.

The term sustainism expresses an ideology of sustainability.  This is one of several turns of phrase in play just today.

John Thackara, whose work I admire and advocate, tees up a critique on Design Observer: Ultra Modern. Disclosure: I have not read the book he skewers, Sustainism Is the New Modernism: A Cultural Manifesto for the Sustainist Era But I have the read comments on the review, which is about as third-order as you can get. And I’m intrigued by the reflexive fussiness of language rectitude that spills from the mediasphere.

In the spirit of McLuhan, I’m interested in the expression in the medium, and not the content, even though it probably matters.  Thackara doesn’t particularly like the neologism sustainism, and I’m on board with his leaking boat metaphor:

The word sustain — whether attached to an ism, or an ability — speaks too much, to me anyway, of bailing out a leaking boat as it drifts towards a waterfall. It’s got to be done, but it’s not a joyful prospect.

Sustainism is rather like a butterfly collection. Many of its specimens are renowned, and some of them are beautiful — but they are also — how to put this delicately? — lifeless.

Almost all the comments agree with John, and they stick it to “sustainism” with increasing gusto. But the post is about the concept of elevating the sustainable to the level of “the modern.” Modernism was a secular aspiration across global boundaries. Our advanced societies strove for it, and arguably never really lived the vision it inspired.  Does sustainability offer a similar aspiration?

But the word I turn upon is not the turn on sustaining, it is the other word of our era, manifesto. We don’t need another manifesto. (“We don’t need to know the way home – All we want is life beyond, Thunderdome.”) It is the unbearable lightweightness of manifesti that drops off the edge for me.

Perhaps we need another, better neologism, one that sticks and holds the attention of cynical citizens in a failed democracy. You know which one …

As the American way of life slips away, or is stolen by those now gaming all of its institutions, and the Arab street rises in country after country to “win their future,” any manifesto seems rather thin. They are written excuses from one’s mother for not actually being there in person to deliver on the action the manifesto claims to inspires. A good neologism is perhaps better for our attention-addled times. Like Truthiness. Fact-Free media diet. Democrat-ish.

There’s nothing wrong with coining a neologism if it suits the times and purpose. How else will we drive some variety in our waning vocabularies? Marshall McLuhan would be 100 this year, and he constantly coined new turns of phrase.  As Jamie O’Neil said in the McLuhan Remix project:

McLuhan described “the medium is the massage” as a “collide-oscope of interfaced situations” i.e. a series of preexisting concepts that were juxtaposed and combined in interesting ways. His famous puns, aphorisms and neologisms served to open up new possibilities for his concepts because he realized that “precision is sacrificed for a greater degree of suggestion.”

Who are to judge really? If we trust the author, do we not all share in the interpretation of the new form? Why are we not all creating new verbal forms? Is it so crucial to always make perfect sense to the listener? We are being precious to insist on such icy clarity in a media ecology dominated by Twitterists.

I agree that sustainability is merely bailing out the boat, it is a (Herzberg) hygiene factor, not a motivator. Yet the boat must be bailed, and done before we can sail.

Two years ago at the Business as Agent for Word Benefit conference the group I ended up in spontaneously,  synchronously, hit upon the same realization that sustainability was, well, like eating your spinach. In seconds we coined the term thrivability as a response. Like a gift of collective mind, no one person at the table of 8 could own it, it rushed forth. We went online to register the domain name, figuring the word was original. We were not the first. We got and placed a Ning site on it, which still exists, mostly inactively I”m sorry to say.

We found thrivability was also synchronously in play – that year – by now-colleague @NurtureGirl whose Thrivable site had just started up. From neologism to emerging cultural theme, words happen, in this case both suggestive and precise.

I dearly hope we are not in an era of sustainability in the way that we were – or were never – Modern.  Yes, we need to be sustainable, we also need to pay our debts. Those are not new visions for humanity. But there is a neologism that might be a vision. The story of how it happened suggests there is more than weird coinage at work.