Effective societal change occurs when communities discover and articulate their values and then find a voice, a language through which to communicate those values to society at large. Without a common language, we sound like babblers, perhaps the derivative of Babel, the biblical story told of where people were confused and conflicted because of the lack of a common language. In the absence of such commonness, little positive yet much negative can occur.

What is perhaps the most difficult challenge to the success of the green community is this problem of language. The plethora of terms, acronyms and generally referred-to concepts makes for a spaghetti bowl of confusion to any audience outside the domain of green. Yet it is this audience that matters most in our collective ambition to reverse human-originated destructive climate change.

In the enthusiasm to drive a better green consciousness, we have launched a fleet of a thousand small boats, each with a message and mission. Yet the value of synergy, unity and collective voice are lost, and the results are obvious. Fragmentation is the enemy of effectiveness.

Traveling extensively over the past eighteen months, visiting scores of architecture, engineering, construction and stakeholder organizations has been eye-opening and enlightening. More lessons and observations than can be recorded in this article fill my journal. But the one resounding observation is this problem of language that plagues the effectiveness of the green movement.

This year DesignIntelligence Research conducted a five-city series of Action Forums titled “From Sustainable, to Resilient, to Regenerative Design.” We visited with leading thinkers, designers, architects, educators, engineers and constructors from coast to coast. We met in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Boston and Seattle. We surveyed the audiences. We heard moving presentations. We debated, and argued, and shook our heads, and sighed, and documented our exchanges. We inspired participants and incited action. Yet over and over again, from place to place we encountered this problem of language.

When asked for definitions of green-centric words like sustainable and resilient and regenerative, without fail we heard differences, nuances, conflicting concepts and synonymous overlaps. No single audience came to a settled consensus. How might we understand this challenging disunity and resolve it? How can the green movement become pervasively effective as opposed to marginally so? We offer the following as a start:

As green thinkers and doers, we came together as a community to bear a reconciling influence through society upon the earth and its constituent systems. Some joined the community to fight against, others to fight for, but all joined to reverse the destructive trend and restore wholeness to the environment of our shared planet.

In many cases, people joined the community because they were triggered by an episode, an event or an experience that suddenly jolted them onto a different trajectory of thinking, speaking and behavior. These episodically generated converts are often marked by passion, energy and focus on action and immediacies. We value each and every one, for these passionate ones refuse to let us collectively fall into complacency or discouraged indifference. These members speak to our souls and move us forward.

Others joined the community through the process of incremental enlightenment. Over time and through various interactions, the truth of our human and environmental condition became increasingly clear and their intellect triggered affinity. Convinced of the problem and moved to make a difference, these members engage society on a relational and intellectual basis, hoping to enlighten others the way they were enlightened.

To be sure, there are more than these two categories of community members, but suffice it to say, they collectively have come together to make a difference.

Let me suggest a start at our collective values. What I encounter across the community resonates with me as the expression of three core values: Relationship, Reconciliation and Responsibility.

We are committed to relationship. Our relationship with the environment, the natural order, is at the heart of our value set. How we interact with and connect to nature marks the quality of our relationship not only with nature but with fellow humans. Perhaps the best thing any of us can do for one another is relate well with nature by honoring how nature produces life for all it encounters. A broken relationship with nature rarely yields life.

We are committed to reconciliation. That is to say, we desire a new alignment of relationship that sustains life while optimizing the human experience. Reconciliation is always about alignment and is inextricable from relationship as all healthy relationships are aligned, unified and connected.

We are committed to responsibility. Stewardship of all we’ve been given is a daunting responsibility, yet is our responsibility nonetheless. Responsible interaction with nature requires us to filter our decisions and action through the grid of responsibility. What will be our altered responsibility when we destroy, abuse and damage the earth? Is this the responsibility we want, the outcomes we desire? Absentmindedness far too often accompanies our decisions and we pay a dear cost for it. But we can make better choices! We can act responsibly.

Languages – Domain and Natural
As is common with most communities, a particular language arises supported by a specific glossary of terms, acronyms and usages. Every community has this distinctive. The scientific community, the information technology community, the sports community, even the farming community; they all have a language with which they communicate to one another. It is the language of their domain.

The consistent failure of the community in regard to societal impact is in its inability to bridge the gap between its domain language and the language of those outside its community. The language of the domain is odd and awkward to the ears of the natural language speaker. Likewise, an outsider struggles to communicate, to enter into this community simply because they are unfamiliar with the language. As a result, many an outsider stays on the outside either by choice or frustration. Therefore, the barrier to entry, to interaction, and ultimately to integration is language.

How the green community speaks to itself versus how it speaks to others is the challenge. The effectiveness, or not, of the green community to influence and impact society can be found in language.

When the collective voices and messages of the green community speaking natural language amps-up taking on volume, society pays attention. When the frequency of messages and interactions increases, society is faced with an undeniable, un-dismissible force.

Natural language that can be understood far and wide, presented in high volume, and with consistently increasing frequency is not readily turned off. Coupled with conviction, passion and fact-based messages, it becomes the stuff of transformation.

The challenges to the green community are clear:

• Moving from fragmentation to unity
• Agreeing to a common glossary from which to empower its language
• Translating its domain language to natural language without lessening its impact
• Developing powerful messages in natural language that capture societal attention
• Organizing for influence and impact

The gauntlet has been thrown . . . what will we do about it?


Dave Gilmore is the president & CEO of DesignIntelligence.

This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly, 3Q 2018 edition–our first “deep green,” all-about-sustainability issue. Sign up–it’s free!


Photos by Annie Spratt and Isai Sanchez of Unsplash.