“We have allowed ourselves to be defined as consumers rather than citizens too long.”
— Larry Robinson, in his book “Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.”

Robinson is a psychotherapist concerned about the implications to contemporary culture of “mistaking our metaphors for reality.” Because the prevailing metaphor for our culture is, in his opinion, the computer — a machine of our own design valued most for efficiency — we’re losing touch with ourselves. We humans are sensual, curious and creative. We’re “soft, protean, organic beings, not mechanical components,” he says.

In his own field the Language of the Machine is pervasive. The health care industry refers to patients as “health care consumers,” and organizes itself around “treatment goals,” “standardized protocols,” “measurable outcomes” and “cost-benefit analysis.”

Robinson wants us to reestablish our connection with the more-than-human world, to “reanimate” it and “restore its soul.” He says we have a fundamental need for nature, and that the world “needs us to belong to it, since it is only when we inhabit a place that we care for it and assume responsibility for it.”

Of course in a branding context, creating metaphors to believe in is all in a day’s work. We live for those moments when we manage to connect in visceral and relevant ways to clients, customers and consumers. I would argue that in our world the Language of the Machine is arcane. There is nothing human about, so it is of little use. Speed and efficiency are assumed. So is exceptional service. It’s harder than ever, and increasingly less effective, to position ourselves around industry-inherent performance measures. We’re simply expected to perform exceptionally well, whoever we are and whatever we do.

It makes sense to me that the Language of the Machine prevails in business. And I agree with Robinson that it’s unfortunate and counterproductive when that language seeps into our conversations with the people we serve. But what’s most compelling to this writer about Robinson’s perspective is what he has to say about responsibility.

In the Language of Business, “responsibility” is spelled s-u-s-t-a-i-n-a-b-i-l-i-t-y. This too makes sense. What business wants to shine a light on its “responsibility initiatives?” Because sustainability ranks high on the collective corporate agenda, vast numbers of very smart people are spending inordinate amounts of time analyzing, contributing to, shaping and otherwise advancing the Language of Sustainability. This is especially remarkable because sustainability initiatives often run counter to short-term business interests.

Robinson says, “if we regard the world only as a place we are visiting, we have little interest in protecting it.” He winces at the word “consumer,” calling it “a designation that encourages passivity and helplessness.” At the heart of the concept of sustainability is a sense of connection and partnership that does seem to challenge head-on the notion of consumerism, at least as we currently understand it. It’s this writer’s opinion that, as the Language of Sustainability evolves and really begins to infiltrate corporate cultures, we will see businesses start to differentiate themselves effectively using a whole new vocabulary that takes us well beyond the current Languages of Machine and Business. Perhaps in the Language of Sustainability, the word “cost” will be spelled i-n-v-e-s-t-m-e-n-t.

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