Question Marks Are to Sustainability as Coughs Are to the Flu

Source: Google Correlate

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Source: Google Correlate

Sustainability? Sustainability??? 

It seems the word has an unshakable bond with the question mark -- most recently confirmed by a little-known Google tool called Google Correlate, which lets you type in a word and spits out other words and phrases that people have Googled with the same pattern over time. 

Google's project started when some programmer types thought it would be cool if they could determine where influenza was spreading by analyzing Internet searches. It turns that out queries like “cough,” “sore throat” and “fever” are a great indicator of a developing epidemic.

As deputy editor of sustainability at Bloomberg, I had no choice but to ask this data oracle about the corresponding symptoms of “sustainability.” The top results include “kwh” (the abbreviation for kilowatt hour, a measure of electricity), “consume” and “21st century skills.”

And “question mark."

Why is my second-favorite sentence-ending punctuation mark correlated so strongly with sustainability? As a comic-book engineer points out in Google’s hilarious instructional cartoon “Uh, right, correlation is not causation. [Google] Correlate can only detect historical correlation, not explain it.” The deciphering is left to the rest of us. 

Could it be that at moments of doubt, people are increasingly turning to sustainability for answers? 

Could it be that companies and governments that are most sustainable are the ones that are constantly asking questions instead of pretending they know all the answers?   

Could it be that people just can’t figure out what this squishy 14-letter catchall, sustainability, is all about?  

In truth, it’s probably just a confounding coincidence. Still, for all the reasons above, I think sustainability professionals should embrace the question mark as their unofficial logo. The two were meant for each other. 

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

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