When jargon becomes unsustainable

Good afternoon. I'm glad you were all able to join me here for a brief presentation on some of the key issues that will be affecting us in the medium term. Since our organisation was founded in 2002, we have aimed to provide clients in both the private and the public sectors with real-time analyses of structural capabilities and help them to interface these with logistical support. Since 2007, we have increasingly recognised the importance of sustainability as a key component of our best practice. Previously, "sustainability" was a technical term applied in the environmental sciences to those ecosystems that achieved high levels of diversity and so were able to withstand negative impacts - but that all changed with the full assimilation of environmentalism to what passes for mainstream political debate.

It's academic

Our sustainability group has dated the precise moment at which environmentalism ceased to be sustainable outside the party-political context to some period between the publication of the Stern review in October 2006 and the installation of a wind turbine on the roof of David Cameron's Notting Hill home in March 2007. Some have argued (Parris, Procter, Phelps et al, "Sustainability and Metonymy in Post-Millennial Meaning", British Journal of Ephemera, volume nine, August 2010) that the sustainability of sustainability itself, far from being a vicious circle, is a virtuous one and that some sort of perpetual motion machine could be built using this principle - one that would deliver a sustainable energy supply at minimal cost.

Others disagree, pointing out that simply because district councils have sustainable public transport provision, sustainable vandalism prevention and sustainable dog-waste schemes, it doesn't mean that sustainability can be sustained, given the reductions in government spending overall.
One thing is beyond dispute: "sustainable" is the mot du jour. During a recent PMQs, I heard the Prime Minister employ the term in all its variants - nounal, verbal, adverbial and even conjunctive - no fewer than 375 times, while the so-called leader of the opposition even managed an inspired example of tmesis:

“If the honourable member honestly believes that I give a sustaina-fucking-able-shit, then he's sustainably mad." To which the Prime Minister rejoined: "Sustain yourself, dear." Whereupon the opposition benches erupted, waving order papers and chanting over and over again: "Sus-tain-able! Sus-tain-able!" in a manner strongly reminiscent of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

When I stood up this afternoon to address you, I myself wondered whether it would be possible to speak on this subject at length without some form of sustenance - which is why I'm taking frequent slugs from this Vimto that's been liberally admixed with vodka - but the truth is that, once you begin talking about sustainability, it's possible to go on for a very long time.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to join a field trip last year that journeyed to an isolated plateau in the Venezuelan jungle. Hacking our way up a vertiginous precipice through sustained undergrowth as dense as purple-stemmed broccoli, we came upon a strange, lost world full of jargon and buzzwords that time had forgotten. Here, ongoing situations and consumer demand frolicked in sylvan glades of "minded".

I was amazed at the diversity of these lexical throwbacks and unsheathed my digital recorder, determined to capture them for posterity. But, then, disaster struck! A jejune member of our party uttered the S-word and, before we knew it, sustainability was crawling about the place in such profusion that the entire semantic system was undermined and became . . . unsustainable.

In so many words

In conclusion, then, when we look forward to 2012 and consider what sort of strategies may be sustainable, given emergent trends, we need to bear in mind that sustainable can mean any - or all - of the following: maintainable, supportable, viable, self-supporting, justifiable, defensible, expedient, deniable, larger (as in the expression "sustainable profits"), smaller (as in the expression "sustainable rates of emissions") and the same (as in "sustainable growth"). So long as we remain absolutely clear about this, I feel certain that a way of bullshitting that we've all come to revere will remain, in the medium term, sustainable. Thank you, Jeremy. l

Next week: Real Meals
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Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.