Wordy Words and the Wordy Nerds Who Use Them

A tourist out west once asked the some times Park Ranger and full-time author Edward Abbey what a particular plant was. Abbey became an accidental poet when he replied, “What it is, no one knows, but what it’s called is a Desert Rose”.

I’m not sure how this quote applies but it’s been on my mind as I ponder the words we use to describe green building, sustainability, resilience, and ecology. Words really matter and is is so often the case in this ever changing world the science is out-pacing the language.

“Green” is about a good a moniker as any but it is sorely lacking in many regards. One could (and some have) painted their buildings green and, quite rightfully, called it a green building. Was the paint a low VOC? Was it a McMansion on prime farmland?

Sustainable came along as a substitute sometime later. While it gets closer to the essence of what we are trying to do it is not, shall we say, a lovely piece of language. As the saying goes, “How’s your marriage?” If the answer is “sustainable”, you might hear the lament. “Sorry to hear that.”

Resilience is the latest word to stand for what we intend. It passes the marriage question better but, again, not the prettiest word in the lexicon. I do believe it better speaks to the inevitability of change that people, plants, animals, cultures, and buildings face but in some regards it overshoots the mark.

Which begs the question, how do sustainability and resilience differ. How are they similar. After spending some time with these words it occurs to me that the differences are more telling than the simularities.

Sustainability implies an intention to keep bad stuff from happening. Resilience implies that you can’t really do that and you might be better served preparing for change than attempting to prevent it.

I once read a quote once that says it well.

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats until the river changes. Teach a man to adapt to an ever changing environment and he’ll never go hungry”.

Compare this to the old saw.

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he spend all his weekends in a boat drinking beer with his fishing buddies.”

But I digress.

Both expressions rest on a basis of energy efficiency and durability.

Both expressions also incompletely or inaccurately describe the green movement.

So where are the poets on this? We need better language, more apt descriptions, and more articulateness in general to communicate this complex reality to folks not familiar with the critical work we’re doing.


Steve Farrell