Wednesday 11 May 2011

new metaphors for sustainability would need to range from "resilience" and "symbiosis" to "anxiety"

In the second of her two reports from the Staging Sustainability conference in Canada, Wallace Heim reports on the reactions to our latest project: "New Metaphors for Sustainability"

Staging Sustainability also marked the launch of Ashdenizen’s and the Ashden Directory’s project to find new metaphors for sustainability, with the first showing to an audience of our online DVD ‘By Another Name’. The video is of four people suggesting four very different metaphors for sustainability and is the first stage of our project. Over the next weeks, we will be asking many more people, and presenting their responses here and on the Directory.

Clockwise from upper left: Carolyn Steele, Zoë Svendsen, Ansuman Biswas,  James Marriott

At the conference, the video was looped for the duration of the first day and I showed it in a panel session on the second day. Fortuitously, there was a generous amount of time. I opted for a conversation with the people there rather than the paper I had prepared – and that was a much more interesting turn.

The prospect of finding a metaphor for sustainability was challenging. No impromptu metaphors were suggested, instead, there was discussion about what it meant to ask the question. Conceptualising it in that way goes against the habitual languages of accountancy, management and measurement. There was resistance from some to considering sustainability as anything other than a hollow idea bereft of novelty, motivation or consistency.

More people, though, enjoyed the problem and whether sustainability as a concept could be revitalised. The combination of metaphor and sustainability was intriguing, a chance to draw out buried emotional and psychological aspects. For one person, trying to live sustainably in rural Canada, the effort is one filled with anxiety, uncertainty as to his survival, and his metaphor would have to express that. For others, it made more sense to think of metaphors for ‘resilience’ or 'symbiosis'. Another contribution brought out the importance of ‘deep’ metaphors to one’s world view and sense of meaning, and the effects of not having, or losing those metaphors. Could a metaphor for sustainability be a 'deep' metaphor? There was talk of when ‘nature’ is a metaphor, and when it is not, on the stage, in the garden and in everyday life.

It was a good start. Special thanks to Barbara Sellers-Young, the conference co-organiser, who was generous in her support for the project and the video.

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