New metaphors for sustainability: why we started

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Wallace Heim writes:

We began thinking about metaphor and sustainability when we noticed that there weren’t any strong or imaginative metaphors for the concept, or ones that we could easily use in conversation. Metaphors are pervasive in human thought and communication. ‘Sustainability’ stood out as an anomaly, a common concept with many definitions, but no metaphors.

So in April, we asked four people to suggest a metaphor and we filmed their responses. We weren’t looking for ‘the’ metaphor. We were experimenting to see whether it was possible to think metaphorically about sustainability, in all its promise, its limitations and paradoxes.

Since then, we’ve added 14 more metaphors, (18 if you count everyone in the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home), and will add another 6 through November and December, here on Ashdenizen and collected on the Directory.

Too, we’ll be posting comments on the project itself, which for some contributors was challenging; for others, playful; and for others, a delicate expression of meaning taken from their everyday life.


“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

ashdenizen is edited by Robert Butler, and is the blog associated with the Ashden Directory, a website focusing on environment and performance.
The Ashden Directory is edited by Robert Butler and Wallace Heim, with associate editor Kellie Gutman. The Directory includes features, interviews, news, a timeline and a database of ecologically – themed productions since 1893 in the United Kingdom. Our own projects include ‘New Metaphors for Sustainability’, ‘Flowers Onstage’ and ‘Six ways to look at climate change and theatre’.

The Directory has been live since 2000.

Go to The Ashden Directory

New metaphors for sustainability: water on a fire – helping turn the page – a child asleep – the family – failing better

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home is two adults and three children living in Everton, Liverpool. They talked together about sustainability, and here are their metaphors for our series. 

Neal (aged 10): The world is big plank of wood and it’s on fire. The only thing to save it is water. Sustainability is water – that’s what it is.

Gabriel (aged 8): It’s a big round book, the world is a big circular book, but it needs help to turn the next page, it can’t do it by itself so we all have to help the big book turn its next page. That’s sustainability – helping to turn the page.

Sid (aged 3): (Sid was asleep on the couch when we asked him. That struck a chord with us. Sustainability is Sid asleep, rapid eye movements, visceral dreaming, thoughts shooting round his brain, wiring and rewiring the connectors in his head, trying to sort out what happened today ready for some sort of tomorrow. But his body mass seems to rest, refuel. It digests its food, slowly, carefully, puts things in place biologically, mentally, spiritually even so that when he wakes up he’ll have a good chance at getting what he needs and be in a good enough mood to share what he has with his mates at the nursery.)

Gary (aged 39): A family is the best metaphor I can think of for sustainability. Not the family that the Pope, in Croatia in June, said was in the midst of ruin under the new atheism of secularisation, but the queer family, the radical family, the family that depends – indirectly – upon the reproduction of itself with difference. That’s what having kids has been for us. They are us, with difference. You don’t need to be a biological parent for this to happen, though. It happens through friendships, encounters and love affairs.

It’s the indirectness that is crucial. Indirectness is at the heart of all family-making, and sustainability has an element of indirectness about it. I won’t actually suffer climate chaos in Bangladesh or the terrible local effects of the Alberta Tar Sands extraction, except indirectly. That’s partly what makes it so tricky to get hold of. How can everyone act in all-powerful acts of solidarity with massive numbers of people? The indirectness is what stops us.

But we have to embrace the indirectness, like we embrace the difference that is produced in our own kids every day as they grow into and away from us. Embracing indirectness is the only way to be happy in the long-run.

The relationship between me and my kids is the best metaphor I have for sustainability. Maybe because it’s not even a metaphor but a living, loving struggle.

Lena (aged 36): sustainability is allowing difference, allowing impossible encounters to take place and surprise you. sustainability is being naughty. sustainability is getting out of the box you are in, getting out of networks you belong to, seeing beyond your own group. sustainability is travelling the world, learning a new language, but a really new language, a new method, a new skill. sustainability is beyond the local. sustainability is the provocation that stops you being righteous.

fail. fail again. fail better. go for the impossible.


“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

The editors are Robert Butler and Wallace Heim. The associate editor is Kellie Gutman. The editorial adviser is Patricia Morison.

Robert Butler’s most recent publication is The Alchemist Exposed (Oberon 2006). From 1995-2000 he was drama critic of the Independent on Sunday. See www.robertbutler.info

Wallace Heim has written on social practice art and the work of PLATFORM, Basia Irland and Shelley Sacks. Her doctorate in philosophy investigated nature and performance. Her previous career was as a set designer for theatre and television/film.

Kellie Gutman worked with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for twenty years, producing video programmes and slide presentations for both the Aga Khan Foundation and the Award for Architecture.

Patricia Morison is an executive officer of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, a group of grant-making trusts of which the Ashden Trust is one.

Go to The Ashden Directory