“Sustainability is an English word.” This statement is so obvious that the problem it poses is often ignored, but that problem is exactly what the speaker from the World Health Organization wanted his audience to face. It was November 2015, and the Latin American Congress of Nutrition was gathered at a conference titled nutrición para el desarollo sostenible. The United Nations’ sustainable development goals had just launched with the promise to incorporate global challenges of climate change into its agenda to improve health metrics, and so “nutrition for sustainable development” seemed a fitting theme. But sustainable translates into Spanish as both sostenible and sustentable, the former connoting a capacity to be maintained over time, the latter a sense of being reasonable. “Which meaning do we want?” the speaker asked.
At Doña Marta’s house in highland Guatemala, the effects of the recent global-policy focus on sustainable nutrition were striking. Giant silver silos that a development project had donated to protect her corn without the need for chemicals filled her yard. Another project had given her goats for milk, also showing her how to use their feces as fertilizer and their urine as insecticide. The most dramatic push toward sustainability could be seen in the global development community’s desire to change what women fed their children. “The future is at stake,” USAID representatives had said to a group of mothers when dropping off the monthly packets of U.S. surplus corn flour, red beans, and a nutrient powder that came with a recipe for pancakes. “Your children need nutrients today, so they can have a better tomorrow.”
The three of us were at Marta’s house to learn about the social lives of sustainability. But because sustainability is an English word, we were running into problems (see Mol 2014; Gluck and Tsing 2009). Sustainability was everywhere: in storage bins and supplements and shit. And yet it was nowhere. Marta, along with others in her community, was unfamiliar with the term. It didn’t much matter if the word chosen was sostenible or sustentable, either. Marta lived and dreamed in the language Mam.
We worked together with Marta on the term sustainability for a while—co-laboring, to use Marisol de la Cadena’s (2015) term for a collective effort to attend to spaces of difference. We slowed down when we came across tanquib’ela, which back-translated into el ser en la vida; de vivir; de sobrevivencia, and then, being in life, of living, of survival. Marta, who was a midwife, which meant that she was a gardener and farmer, told us that she had spent her life on this work, helping her community nurture their fragile, precious babies as they grew. Tanquib’ela was less an end to seek than an orientation to living that allowed her to plant when soils were ready, protect her crops from heavy rains, and attend to the pain of birth. Tanquib’ela, being in life, was her life. But this did not imply the destination-oriented future of modernity’s progress or the never-satisfied longing of industrial capitalism, where futures are financial instruments.
It was difficult to speak across categories and worlds, but one thing was clear: though the future in Marta’s languages may not be out there waiting to be developed, she was still worried about what lay ahead. The kind of progress that had arrived was stratifying reproduction in a broad sense, saddling particular groups of people with the responsibility for this new global future in the process of being made (Ginsburg and Rapp 1995; see also Colom 2015). With this responsibility came worry that development projects left their children vulnerable, and worry about how they themselves would grow old when so many young people were gone. As U.S. surplus corn came rushing in to feed them, family after family returned this gift with their sons and daughters, sending them on the dangerous journey north in pursuit of survival. All around us people were struggling with the problem that the “will to improve” (Li 2007) the global future was inciting a good deal of the damage that people had to rebuild their lives around.
In co-laboring through sustainability with Marta’s community, we found that some people worked to protect their farmland from encroaching markets. Others focused on securing continuous wage labor. Some worked to maintain (mantenerse) their lives, while others spoke of cultivating an openness to change. This variation helped us face a challenge of ethnography: amid the stratified reproductions of global development, the reproductions of our translations are stratified too. The shift between tanquib’ela, mantenerse, surviving, or improving the world is not innocent, but forecloses some worlds while attending to others. The challenge we faced was not only a matter of moving between English, Spanish, or Mam. Whereas a lexicon may elsewhere be units of meanings, the anthropologist’s lexicon might be better conceived as a repertoire of care-filled practices that follow the conversion of spoken concepts into unspoken activities and back into words again. Engaging in the practice of the lexicon requires the skill of asking—and sometimes not asking (see Pigg 2013)—about how words are done and what they then do.
Sustainability (and, we might add, becoming and emerging, since these terms often go hand-in-hand) may too easily connote the progressive transition of a singular, causal system, leading us toward the project of developing a better future that has long been modernity’s destructive lure. In this time of the Anthropocene, many are reworking the b/orders of human and nature. Meanwhile, we might also pay attention to whose practices of time and space dominate the discussions and whose go ignored. The aim is not to define our terms. After all, while words are powerful, they are also fluid. The objective is rather to care for the stratified reproductions between not-so-global global languages and the various strategies of world-making that, for example, Indigenous and Latin American peoples have cultivated for generations. Sustainability is a sign of our times, we are told. But there is a reason to be cautious. For while we are surely coeval, our times remain neither singular nor evenly shared.
Colom, Alejandra. 2015. “Forced Motherhood in Guatemala: An Analysis of the Thousand Days Initiative.” In Privatization and the New Medical Pluralism: Shifting Healthcare Landscapes in Maya Guatemala, edited by Anita Chary and Peter Rohloff, 35–49. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Ginsburg, Faye D., and Rayna Rapp, eds. 1995. Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gluck, Carol, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, eds. 2009. Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Li, Tania Murray. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Mol, Annemarie. 2014. “Language Trails: ‘Lekker’ and Its Pleasures.” Theory, Culture, and Society 31, nos. 2–3: 93–119.
Pigg, Stacy. 2013. “On Sitting and Doing: Ethnography as Action in Global Health.” Social Science and Medicine 99: 127–34.