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Earth centered, reader centered

Language for a sustainable world

TODAY, there is an undeniable urgency in saving the planet. The focus is on sustainability. Universities and colleges now offer courses and graduate degrees in it. Organizations large and small are rushing to develop sustainable practices. There is also a new way of talking about development, transportation, energy, agriculture, health care, and education.

in 1992, 178 governments of the United Nations adopted Agenda 21, which states:

"The major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, particularly in the industrialized countries. Developed countries must take the lead in achieving sustainable consumption."

Donella Meadows:
speaking for the earth

A new framework required

In 1994, environmentalist Donella Meadows in "Words for a Sustainable World," wrote of the need for a new framework for talking about progress, development, and the economy:

"Words make a difference. Words exclude or include, they wound or heal, they clarify or obfuscate or disguise. They set up patterns in our minds, and those patterns cause us to act, or not.

"Follow the rise and fall of words--glasnost, crack, e-mail, junk bonds, biotechnology--and you key into the evolution (or devolution) of history. Change words and you can change history. Which is why the word "sustainability" is so important. I work in a global community (that converses by e-mail) in which sustainability is the central word, the highest value, the guide to the future of humankind.

"But it's not a word you hear in the news. It is untranslatable into German, Russian, and many other languages. The words "sustainability," "sustainable development" or "sustainable growth," are beginning to bounce around the world, but they often cause confusion, especially in high places.

"Sustainability. The ability to sustain, to keep going, to provide for the long term. Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs-- that's how the World Commission on Environment and Development defined it in 1987.

"In practical terms sustainability means not cutting a forest faster than it grows, not pumping groundwater faster than it recharges, not catching fish before they've had a chance to breed, not dumping wastes faster than nature can absorb or recycle them."

Sustainable business language


Sustainable business: the focus is on people and knowledge.

Today, there is sustainable business language, a new framework for talking about business. It focuses not just on the survivability of a business or use of green technologies, but the importance of knowledge and talent.

Management expert Peter Drucker writes that, in this information age, workers are no longer a liability that reduces profits but an asset that increases them. But the value of that asset critically depends on learning and knowledge.

Stuart Shaw, in the Sustainable Business Forum, writes:

"There have been many who have talked about the need for and merit of a creating a new business language... The problem is this shared discourse is missing a key ingredient: people. It doesn’t make room for the creative potential of the knowledge economy talent within a business to compete. And this is crucial. ... And without doing this, it doesn’t change the system that got us into this mess in the first place."
sus·tain·able adj (ca 1727) 1 : capable of being sustained.
2 a
: relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged (~techniques) (~agriculture) b : of or related to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods (~society)

Sustainable education


Learning starts with the experience of everyday life.

The practices of everyday life not only affect the environment but they are also the key to learning about it.

Today in education, the focus is changing from tests and skills to the growth of knowlege. And knowledge starts with the experience of everyday life.

Writing in the New York Times, literary critic E. D Hirsch, Jr., writes that the drop in literacy scores since the 1970s was caused by a turning away from content. Hirsch writes:

"In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.

"Cognitive psychologists agree that early childhood language learning (ages 2 to 10) is critical to later verbal competence, not just because of the remarkable linguistic plasticity of young minds, but also because of the so-called Matthew Effect.

"The name comes from a passage in the Scriptures: 'For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.' Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer...

"Clearly the key is to make sure that from kindergarten on, every student, from the start, understands the gist of what is heard or read. If preschoolers and kindergartners are offered substantial and coherent lessons concerning the human and natural worlds, then the results show up five years or so later in significantly improved verbal scores."

Sustainable language and literacy


Tom Stitch's paper on contexual learning: grounding education in everyday life.

Earlier in these pages, we called attention to the great success of William Gray's Dick and Jane readers. It showed the benefits of relating textbooks to the everyday lives of students.

Literacy expert Thomas Stitch has written extensivley about the need for contextual education: using what learners already know to take the next step in knowledge.

A paper in Science Education, "Building a Sustainable Science Curriculum," says it is necessary for teachers to adapt courses to the realities of the students in the classroom. Especially useful are encourging the students' own inquiries and group projects to make sure all students understand the material.

The authors write: "...science in K-12 schools should be a part of the human quest and wonder for understanding the world, with science offering a way of knowing and doing that can help students reach a deeper understanding of their world."


Sustainable agriculture: starting where you live.

As we noted in this newsletter, many standard college textbooks are unnecessarily difficult for college students. A one-size-fits-all textbook fails to address the differences in reading ability, even among students in the same class. Putting students in touch with nature requires having books they can easily understand.

If all this sounds familiar, it goes back to the principles of Aristotle: we learn in terms of what we already know and understand. Modern brain research confirms this. Learning something new does not create new structures in the brain but modifies existing ones.

Building a sustainable future starts in the way we think and talk about everyday life.


Plain language in the news

White House tells agencies make it simple: http://tinyurl.com/8a42fm7

Law professor with a passion for straightforward language: http://www.legalnews.com/flintgenesee/1166665/

Shool district gives up emergency code words: http://tinyurl.com/7r7x6j2

New trends in business communications: http://tinyurl.com/7y79olv

Why candor is good business: http://tinyurl.com/822689y

Reining in payday loan fees: http://tinyurl.com/72k47ee

The legal rights of women in Vermont: http://tinyurl.com/7fftjsj

Using comics to teach linguistics: http://tinyurl.com/6t4nddc

Bosses told to use plain English: http://tinyurl.com/dxhkdds

Jargonbusters bring financial world to heel: http://tinyurl.com/6oggc5l

Spreading the word on health literacy: http://tinyurl.com/8ye4cr2

Australia Treasury's fount of gobbledygook: http://tinyurl.com/73h3g6g

The attack of fine print: http://tinyurl.com/7nbpyo9

Literacy and dental health: http://tinyurl.com/74jlx2f

Health literacy in Europe: http://tinyurl.com/7lnllhm

Health-literacy pioneer Sarah Boardman Furnas: http://tinyurl.com/86evmqp

Readability of health-insurance notices: http://tinyurl.com/798lbue

Health literacy no predictor of heart health: http://tinyurl.com/7d3bgzw

Call for civic learning: http://tinyurl.com/7nwek22