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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2003 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking

Word Magic
We know the world through words-and can change it with words, too.

By Senior Columnist Carl Frankel

Frankel-y Speaking

Somewhere in Orson Scott Card’s science-fiction classic Ender’s Game, a character says, “There are times when the world is rearranging itself, and at times like that, the right words can change the world.”

He’s right, and this is one of those times. You may have heard of the “butterfly effect”—it seems things are so interconnected that when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, it can produce effects in Alaska. Well, words are like butterflies, too. Release them into the air and amazing things happen. They flutter about and rewrite reality.

Words are hugely important. We live today in a war of words, although it’s probably more accurate to say we’re in a war of “reality tunnels” whose walls are built with words. One reality tunnel says the sustainability crisis isn’t anything we can’t handle. Then there are those (okay, us) who say, “Hold on, wait a moment. We’re tumbling toward social chaos and ecological catastrophe and this is a very big deal.”

The sustainability community has to win this war of words. It’s that simple. And this requires us to paint word-pictures that describe simply and evocatively—dramatically, even!—what our situation is and what we must do about it.

For some time now, I’ve been on the lookout for powerful word-pictures; in fact a couple of months back I asked some colleagues to share their favorite “says-it-all” phrases. Here is some of what came back to me. I’ll start with the tough stuff.

* Pollution-based prosperity. This reframes our economic system as something that doesn’t merely create pollution as a byproduct, but whose very success depends on pollution. There’s a radical implication here, that we have to re-design things at a very basic level if we’re going to reverse our current downward spiral.

* The suicide economy. An economy that needs pollution to flourish is an economy with a death wish. That’s what this phrase, which I first heard from the writer David Korten, tells us. The current economic structure is doomed, folks. And when the death throes come, it’ll be ugly.

* The industrial-age bubble
. Remember the tulip craze of the 17th century? Or the more recent dot-com bubble? Now think back on the last two centuries in western industrialized society, and imagine it as the longest-running bout of economic mania ever.

* Species holocaust. This one really gives me the shivers. Ever since the second World War, the word “holocaust” has conjured up images of death camps. “Species holocaust” suggests we’re doing something similar to the natural world. And it suggests something mighty distasteful about our moral culpability.

* Dark enchantment.
This phrase suggests we’ve been entranced by mainstream culture. We’ve been turned into zombies by all the hucksterism coming at us 24/7, by the endless voices telling us to “Buy this!” and “See that!” There’s a world out there and we’re destroying it. We need to wake up from our spell and realize this.
Now for some more positive visioning.

* Responsible globalization. Today’s globalization is a giant without a brain. It does its juggernaut thing, for better or for worse. “Responsible globalization” suggests things don’t have to be that way. The phrase doesn’t actually make globalization responsible so much as it makes us responsible. “Responsible globalization” is globalization shaped by humanity’s collective conscience.

* A world that works for all.
Let’s face it, “sustainable development” and “sustainability” have done a pretty pathetic job of capturing the public’s imagination. Can the vision of what we’re all striving for be captured simply and straightforwardly? I think it already has been, with the phrase “A world that works for all,” which is derived from language by the visionary design scientist R. Buckminster Fuller. I love this vision statement, not least of all because it’s in plain English.

And that’s critically important. Plain English. Clear and catchy slogans, that’s what we’re looking for. And if this sounds too much like Madison Avenue, so be it. We’re in a battle for hearts and minds here. We need word magic, and lots of it. Words that can change the world.

P.S. If you’ve got some word-magic you’d care to share, please send it to me at
cfrankel Maybe for a future column?

Carl Frankel ( is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and sustainable development.
His next book,
The Integral Way: A Path for the 21st Century, will be published this year.

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