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Unconsumption for Depletists
Katie Kurtz, 15 Dec 06
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As the holiday season bears down with the force of a rolling snowball, anxiety over what to do about unwanted gifts may already be setting in. Over at Murketing, Rob Walker (author of the Sunday New York Times Magazine's "Consumed" column) has started a thread about what to do with stuff after it's used up. Rather than thinking of this as recycling or reusing, Walker refers to it as unconsumption – how to get rid of something after its use has expired. Unconsumption may not be the best neologism – it seems to imply not consuming in the first place – but it does offer a new way to frame the issue. Introducing unconsumption into the language and to a particular audience (Murketing explores topics related to advertising and marketing) might help more people embrace the principles the word seeks to promote.

This idea underpins the motivation for students at the Ontario College of Art & Design's Think Tank to coin the word depletist.


1. An individual or group demonstrating apparent negligent or reckless disregard for the environmental consequences of their actions.
2. An individual or group that exhausts non-renewable resources and rejects positive environmental strategies.

They point out that there are no antonyms for racist or sexist: you're either racist or not, sexist or not. They wanted to find a way to apply the same linguistic logic to environmentalism. They note that:

In psychology we find that the amount of time between action and effect is directly linked to how strong a connection we form between the two. When it comes to environmental issues the cause and the effect can often be a lifetime apart, which forms a very weak link between driving your SUV and global warming. This word can be used as an effect. Calling someone a depletist, which is undesirable, can be used to shorten the time between doing something that harms the environment (cause) and the effect (being called a depletist) which will strengthen the bond.

This year's Think Tank is focused on ways to make environmentalism the norm. They began by exploring ways to make environmentalism hip and sexy but ended up settling on approaching the problem from the opposite direction. With its whiff of depletion and ring of elitist, depletist has the makings of an effective epithet. Hurling epithets at the opposite camp isn't always the best way to sway the unconverted. However, Think Tank has taken the time to very carefully frame this tactic in the context of how the words racism and sexism helped establish the opposite position as the norm.

Regardless of how squarely either of these words hit their target, both are necessary in terms of encouraging a broadened conversation about what we call things and how something is branded. So what are ways to reclaim "environmentalist" as a positive label rather than the pejorative it has become in the past few years? Or is this even necessary anymore?

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"So what are ways to reclaim "environmentalist" as a positive label rather than the pejorative it has become in the past few years? Or is this even necessary anymore?"

These are good questions to explore, Katie.

Personally (which is to say emotionally) I'm torn, because ceding "environmentalist" seems to mean accepting that we got outmaneuvered by the linguistic contortionists of the neocon movement. I'm not willing to do that with "feminist," for example...but I have to acknowledge that getting the humanist goals of feminism across to people who've bought into the "femi-Nazi" stereotype has become really difficult...never mind getting through to people about the real discrimination and targeted violence that women still face.

But thinking strategically in the case of "environmentalism," this is an opportunity to create a new language for promoting sustainability, a language that can be more effective than that of the old school, deep green environmental movement. It's pretty clear that vocabulary has reached about as many people as it's going to -- perpetuating it suggests that taking care of the environment is something OTHER than taking care of our own prosperity, health, and happiness.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 16 Dec 06



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