Selling sustainability to a world grappling with poverty, hunger and climate change should be easy. Yet we make it hard when we sell it as an abstraction. We make it hard when we don’t tell a convincing and credible story. We make it hard when the language we use sells sustainability short.

The words we use matter. When Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz speaks, people listen. And when he declared in an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper this month that the “climate crisis is our third world war1,” he joined an army of commentators in declaring war on an invisible enemy in a “conflict” without a front-line. But war evokes violence, destruction and chaos, when sustainability requires peaceful cooperation, nurturing and order. As the planet heats up, so does the debate around the language we use to describe the sustainability challenge.

If, as US cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues, we are significantly influenced by central metaphors in our lives to explain and understand complexity, is “war” the right word to describe the challenge of tackling global warming? Like Stiglitz, I have resorted to this military metaphor. But it increasingly strikes me as missing the target. So, unilaterally, I have declared war on words that sell sustainability short.

By focusing on the dystopian threat of destruction rather than the opportunity for self-preservation, the metaphor of war conjures up images of armies unquestioningly following their leaders’ orders. As Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg has shown, we need citizens to challenge the status quo, to question and demand change, to hold their governments to account and to make sustainability happen.

The words we use matter. “It’s not climate change. It’s everything change,” the novelist Margaret Atwood wrote in an essay in 2015. Atwood questioned the use of the term climate change because everything and everyone will feel its impact.

Journalists know better than most, how language can shape and influence debate. As a result, The Guardian newspaper has updated its style guide2. “Climate change….is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation; use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead.”  

The reality may simply be that the “war on climate change” is what George Orwell called a “dying metaphor3.” It has lost its impact through repetition. If that’s the case, it may be time to bury it once and for all. Perhaps then we will find a more sustainable metaphor.

One thing is clear, it’s time to declare war on words that sell sustainability short.

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