Mother Earth Monday – Words Matter


Sustainable, Organic, Permaculture?

From the title, you are likely wondering if I got my topics confused and am writing about… well, writing. No. While that topic will be in among my writing, what I am referring to here is not about making your words count in writing endeavors. Instead I am trying to convey just how tricky a matter it is when you use a word about your earth-friendly practices.

Let’s take a simple one like ‘sustainable’. Okay. A practice which is capable of being continued indefinitely without the system degrading. Great. You are sustainable in how you are doing things. Two major issues. First is that even things like organic may not be sustainable. Worse is that the word doesn’t mean the same thing as I outlined here to everyone. Monsanto listed themselves as being a sustainable company according to their website. That is right, the people who create GMO seeds that can’t produce viable seeds from the grown plant are openly claiming that they are sustainable. I don’t frequent their site, so maybe they got enough complaints that they removed it by now.

If a simple word like that can be so broadly used, what of more complicated words? Permaculture. God help us here. The person who termed it has said it was a blend of Permanent and Agriculture. In reality, it is more like Horticulture than Agriculture. The man who creates the word defines it one way and names it another. Go figure. Ignoring that however, we then must look at its application. Its original use is something like scientific method. A set of ways to observe and apply that lead to improved systems. Over time, it has taken on all sorts of variations. Some are very scientific, some are naturalistic and some people apply it as a variation on New Age spirituality.

If I say sustainable Permaculture, you are going to read into that more than just the word itself. Based on your experiences, you may think I mean a permanent self-perpetuating food forest, a Monsanto seed laden polyculture or a hippie commune. Short of defining everything in a document that is worthy of a congressional bill, there is very little you can do to avoid people reading their own experiences into what you are saying.

Your best bet is to start off without leaning on the words that are highly recognizable. Focus instead on the meanings and then after establishing what you mean, only then do you apply the words to what you mean. In this way you can reach a much wider set of ears. That neighbor who hates all that ‘hippie crap’ may be more than willing to listen closely as you explain the technique you used to keep the cabbage worms at bay during a bad year.

I try to lean lightly on terms like these. I use them, as is obvious to anyone who has been reading, but I try to do so in a way that opens up rather than sections off. If I use the word, I try to use it in a way that also explains it as I perceive it. I wish you well in your own workings with the world around you. The next time you get eyes rolling because you used a word without context, remember that you might have avoided the reaction entirely by simply explaining without boxing it into a term.

What are your thoughts?

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