Zap!: 'Sustainability' Means 'Deep Strategy'

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Courtesy XKCD.com.

The first obstacle to launching a news website about sustainability is the word "sustainability." It's the embodiment of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's observation that news stories in this arena lack appeal: "If it isn't boring, it isn't green." In fact, if you rearrange the 14 letters in "sustainability," they declare: "Banality: It is us."

There must be a better word, right? When I first met Michael Tackett, managing editor for government in Bloomberg's Washington Bureau, he asked me: "What does a sustainability editor do?" I responded with what seems like the right answer, "He drowns the word sustainability in a bathtub."

Environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben wrote in a 1996 op-ed: “’Sustainability’ was born partly in an effort to obfuscate, to paper over the tension between the fact that societies are over-exploiting the planet's physical resources and the fact that everyone seems reluctant to stop this rapaciousness."

I meet very few non-practitioners who think "sustainability" is a reasonable word to call anything. Architect and environmental thinker Bill McDonough asked me rhetorically in an interview several years ago, "Who wants to be 'sustainable?'" He stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry. "You don't want to be sustainable, you want to grow!" The Oxford English Dictionary defines "sustainable" as "capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level" -- not an inspiring call for investors. ("Sustainability" doesn't have its own definition.")

We tried, hard, to launch a news site with a more sonorous title than "Sustainability." Naming the site became a parlor game that carried on for months. It was fun, and friends and family enjoyed playing the name-the-site game, too. My wife, Karen, patiently endured these conversations until one night at a friend's house she ended the conversation, slapping her hand on the table in mock indignation and saying, "Enough! Just call it 'Zap!' It's short and memorable. Zap!"

My own working title for the site was Arthur. In the 1964 movie, A Hard Day’s Night, a reporter asks Beatle George Harrison “What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?” His answer: “Arthur.” The joke was that the Beatle mop top in 1964, sort of like sustainability in 2011, was new and there was just no good name for it.

We did not call this website Zap!, or Arthur. Nor did we call it anything on a list of 50 possibilities I sent to colleagues last fall. Deputy Editor Tom Randall's winning name for this blog -- The Grid -- was one of the finalists.

In the end our best attempts to drown "sustainability" in a bathtub all failed because, dag nabbit, the word, leaden to the tongue and ear, is nonetheless buoyant. As a writer, you expect that language is malleable. Language is a tool, and if it doesn't work right, you adjust it until it does. But you can't here. Against all reason, against the will of writers, public relations professionals, politicians, CEOs and normal, successful God-fearing people, the English language has selected these six syllables. A vast swath of S&P 500 companies devote a page on their websites explaining just what "sustainability" or "responsibility" means to them. That's helpful, because it probably doesn't mean anything to you.

Sustainability is such a broad concept that any word would encounter the same inadequacy. What other single word could mean something so universal, like “deep strategy” or "readiness to thrive in 21st century global business conditions?" Sustainability by any other name would smell as sweet.

Visit Zap! at www.bloomberg.com/sustainability for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business.

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