Sustainability and sustainable development are recognized worldwide as aspirational mandates for addressing climate change and achieving social justice. In December 2015, representatives from 196 nations gathered in Paris to hammer out a consensus known as The Paris Agreement: Next Steps. On January 1, 2016, the 17 sustainable development goals of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development went into effect. It is clear that sustainability and sustainable development remain among the most important watchwords of our time. But what does sustainability actually mean? The subtitle of a 2014 book on sustainability registers the authors’ exasperation with the ambiguity of the term: If it’s everything, is it nothing? The authors long for a single, unambiguous definition. But is this the right way to approach the problem?
Our project on global sustainabilities takes an opposite path. Proceeding on the assumption that sustainability is always actualized in a cultural and linguistic context, our project aims to gather cultural information about the linguistic and cultural translation (i.e., cultural implementation) of sustainability in the nations, regions, and languages of the world. This approach takes into account the fact that sustainability and sustainable development were first called onto the world scene by the publication of the UN-sponsored Brundtland Report on Our Common Future in 1987. In every nation and language party to the efforts of the World Commission on Environment and Development it was necessary to translate the terms. Since for most world languages there is no literal antecedent to the term, the idea of sustainability is typically conveyed by a neologism. Reconstructing the path to the neologism (etymology, connotations, tone, etc) as well as the course of its adoption in the target language is instructive for assessing how individual nations are responding culturally to the UN mandate.
It will not be surprising to discover that the term conceals a considerable diversity of meaning, connotation, degrees of acceptance and/or resistance. Gathering detailed data on the ways in which sustainability and sustainable development are being translated into world languages and cultures will allow us to take the temperature, so to speak, of the world’s culturally varied commitment to sustainability. Discovering recurring patterns of cultural and linguistic response may allow us to group nations for comparative purposes and may reveal effective strategies for encouraging acceptance within specific response patterns. The goal of this project is to establish an online database for the study of global sustainabilities. If you are interested in assisting us with the project, please consider responding to a brief online questionnaire.
Professor Simon Richter
University of Pennsylvania