Magazine article Earth Island Journal

What's in a Name?

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

What's in a Name?

Article excerpt

Sustainability. Few other buzzwords have so perfectly surfed the zeitgeist of our new century. Environmentalists, of course, have adopted the word to explain the challenge of balancing human consumption with the carrying capacity of Earth's ecosystems. Corporate executives like sustainability, too, not just as some kind of green-washing tagline, but as a way of talking about how a company can grow without growing too fast. In government and academic circles, the word development rarely appears anymore without the adjective "sustainable" in front of it. Sustainability has become what linguists call a floating signifier--a word that has different definitions for different people. Like any big concept, sustainability accommodates a range of meanings.

Photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia producer Douglas Gayeton was on a publicity tour in the early aughts promoting his book, Slow. Life in a Tuscan Town, when he realized that although everyone was talking about sustainability, few people seemed to understand what it meant. Determined to clarify the concept, Gayeton launched a project called "The Lexicon of Sustainability." The idea, he says, is simple: "People can't be expected to live more sustainable lives if they don't even know the most basic terms and principles that define sustainability."

To hone the definition, Gayeton has focused on the subject of food. Over the course of three years, Gayeton and his wife-collaborator Laura Howard-Gayeton traveled the United States to photograph and interview some of the leading farmers, chefs, and activists promoting a sustainable food system. …

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