Thoughts on grammar at the World Water Forum

Ken Cline

I have developed an adjective-noun problem.  I wrote in an earlier entry that “words matter.”  I was thinking about that even more today.  It wasn’t even because we have been discussing the wording of proposed statements late into the night or that I have been spending time with Rachel (for whom  English grammar is a contact sport).  No, I was just sitting in a presentation listening to people talking about the “green economy”, “green growth”, ”sustainable development”, and “sustainable hydropower.”   This has been a week chock full of these kind of terms.  And they aren’t so bad; a green economy is better than a black or brown one and I understand why some would see these phrases as a great step forward.

But I can’t help but thinking that with all of these terms, the emphasis (sometimes silent, sometimes not) is always on the noun – economy, growth, development, hydropower.  It explicitly says that these are the things that we want, but we will try to temper their impact, thus the adjective.  To the extent that these phrases contain a vision, the vision seems to be only contained in the noun (with a little qualification added on).  As a result, the much celebrated Rio +20 conference this June is focusing on the (green) economy, not justice, not health, not the environment, not well-being.  The economy is important and green is my favorite color for economies and lots of other things.  But that is not my vision, that is not my emphasis and if we are going to bring together 50,000 people around an important vision – I want a different noun front and center.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on grammar at the World Water Forum

  1. In a recent meeting where we were talking about bay management Frenchman Bay partners was chastised for using the word conservation and told we should substitute the word development by the state planning office. It was almost given to us a a scolding, as if conservation as a main driver, even if you were looking for ways to link development with conservation, was just not allowable. I feel your pain.

    1. This is a central problem. The resistance to reframing around anything other than development and its cognates is profound – that framework seems, for its advocates, to be rooted in self-evident tautologies and questions about it seem to them profoundly irrational and which they view as either charmingly romantic but quaint or, when pushed in a serious way, they view as irresponsible to the point of being immoral or insane.

      ONe of my favorite attempts to deal with this is still Gustavo Esteva’s “Regenerating People’s Spaces” which is in Towards a Just World Peace: Perspectives from Social Movements by Saul H. Mandlovitz (Paperback – Jun 1987). In part this is because Esteva goes at the reframing in a systematic way — refusing to adopt any variation of “alternative” or “human” or “green” or “sustainable” or other kind of “development” for reasons that are clear and that are explicitly tied to the rejection of the other pieces of the paradigm that frame the rationality of development as a tautology — including the notions of the nation state, the national economy, GDP, the modern individual, and the consumer society. And he does it not in a misty eyed utopian way but with a very concrete and systematic kind of alternative paradigm and set of social practices in mind — rooted in the communal practices of Mexican peasants living in their home villages in Oaxaca and in their transplanted extentions of those communities in Mexico City, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
      Those peasants have been consistently marginalized, abused, disempowered, and subjected to cultural genocide by Development for a long time and have learned the hard way that their traditions of living in communities in natural landscapes with the plants and animals with which they and their cultures have co-evolved is not possible under the regime of the centralized nation state pursuing elite goals of increased GDP through macroeconomic growth strategies.
      But their strategies of resistance and survival — like the ones Esteva advocates — are not to make war and overthrow the government to establish a new regime. They are strategies of “grassroots postmodernism” to use a phrase from a later book of his. Decentering, deconstructing, seeking alternative forms of conviviality and collaboration and hospitality and adaptation. And keeping a warm and cheerful good humor in doing so.
      I think that in approaching Rio+20 — and the Maine State Planning Office — one of the things we need to do is to practice an attitude of maturity and wisdom that can laugh lovingly at the less mature, arrogant, self-preoccupied, obsessive-compulsive attitudes and assumptions of the folks who are still in the Development frame. To loosen them up by insisting on using many different nouns in talking about our collective projects (conservation, health, education, happiness, athletics, art, good food, loving relationships, successful families, strong communities, resilient forests, fisheries restored to levels comparable to the 1600’s, rivers we can drink from directly, . . . at least one, at least in Maine, . . . )
      AND when these Development framed folks question our sanity and insist on some version of “green, sustainable development” we should smile and laugh and crack some jokes. “Oh right . . . Development — like what Goldman Sachs is investing in . . . ;-) ” Or “Oh yes! Development! Of course everyone who is rational wants, Development that will continue indefinitely, infinitely, enormously, stupendously, exponentially, as something immortal and divine . . . in the long run. but in the short run, couldn’t we just agree to have some security to get us safely started? Security in housing, education, food, water supply, health, climate, species diversity, . . . ? Once we have some real security in these things then, by all means, lets have an immortal and exponential economy that grows like the piles of rice grains on the chess board of the Indian mathematician who, as his reward for doing the King a service asked only for some rice — the amount to be calculated by providing one grain for the first square on his chess board, two for the second, four for the third, and so on till all the squares had been run through with a doubling of the pile for each. (But we should perhaps take a caution from the fate of that math whiz — who lost his head in asking for so much ;-)”
      Of course the way I have written this out ends up sounding pretty cynical and agressive and off putting . . . the tone is not at all right. The humor should be one centrally grounded in a sense of shared humanity, so that it springs from a sense of sharing, of laughing at OUR selves — and springs from that educative framing of “feel, felt, found” in which you can genuinely and lovingly say to someone advocating Development that “I know how you feel. I felt that way when I . . . but what I found was . . . ” And then they take a deeper breath and smile . . . and then laugh with you at ourselves.
      What gives me some serious hope for the future is my strong sense that a bunch of the young people at COA and elsewhere whose lives are in brackets along with the Earth have got some great gifts for humor and can make Rio+20 and other such events into real Circuses that will get people to reframe things in fundamental ways.
      I look forward to learning and loving the new jokes and pratfalls and pranks they will play that will get everyone laughing and get everyone talking diffrenlty and get everyone to go home and cultivate their gardens.

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