An A-Z of Sustainability Words and Concepts

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screen shot of word spy web site

The last few posts have offered a lot of complex information and ideas – now it’s time for a bit of fun!

Often, change agents find themselves grappling with how to express ideas, and in particular, to find language which articulates concepts that are not mainstream, or are so new that the words don’t yet exist.

The Word Spy is a great site curated by Paul McFedries, and is useful for discovering new words and phrases entering the language, across a range of categories such as culture, business and science.

I’ve compiled an A-Z of words and phrases from The Word Spy (excepting a few, marked with an asterisk *) spanning a range of environmental, social and communication topics that could be useful or relevant to sustainability change agents in their work.

Some you may have already heard of, some might make you laugh, some might give you exactly the phrase or concept you need in your next presentation or article. Example citations of each entry can be accessed by navigating through to The Word Spy site.

Warning: if you are a connoisseur of words, a lover of lexicon, there is a fair chance you might disappear into this site for some time.

AApocalypse Fatigue

Reduced interest in current or potential environmental problems due to frequent dire warnings about those problems (related: Threat Fatigue).


Design and manufacturing principles and practices that mimic natural materials or processes.

CClimate Po*rn

Extreme or alarmist language or images used to describe the current or future effects of man-made climate change.


The tendency to think or act irrationally in certain situations, despite having sufficient intelligence.

As discussed in a previous post, having an intellectual understanding of something is no guarantee of a ‘rational’ reaction.


A person who discounts or ignores societal or environmental problems because they believe that intelligence and technological prowess make humanity exempt from the natural processes that govern other species.


The use of floating debris to study ocean currents (blend of flotsam and metrics).

GGreen Scamming

Making a group or product appear more environmentally friendly than it is (see also Greenwash).

HHurry Sickness

A malaise where a person feels chronically short of time, and so tends to perform every task faster and to get flustered when encountering any kind of delay.

IImpossible Hamster *

Invented by the new economics foundation to explain why we can’t have perpetual growth on a finite planet.

JJoy-to-Stuff Ratio

The time a person has to enjoy life versus the time a person spends accumulating material goods.


The direct and indirect influence that kids have on their parents’ purchasing decisions.


A person who is pathologically driven to make money.

MMouse Race

A lower-stress lifestyle that results from moving to a smaller community or taking a less demanding job.

NNature Deficit Disorder

A yearning for nature, or an ignorance of the natural world, caused by a lack of time spent outdoors, particularly in rural settings.

OOne-Handed Food

Food that is small enough to hold in one hand and is not messy to eat so that it can be consumed while driving or working.

British celebrity chef and healthy food activist Jamie Oliver has spoken out about the need for caution with relying on ‘one handed food’ as it tends to be fast food.

PPeak People 

A time when the world’s population reaches a maximum, after which it steadily declines due to reduced birth rates or global shortages of energy, food, and water.


Strategic Questioning is the skill of asking the questions that will make a difference.

RRevenge Effect

An unintended and negative consequence of some new or modified technology.

SSeason Creep

Earlier spring weather and other gradual seasonal shifts, particularly those caused by global climate change.

TTobacco Science

Science that is skewed or biased, especially toward a particular industry.

UUrban Miner

A person or company that extracts metals from discarded electronics.

VVampire Power *

The electricity consumed by electronic and electrical appliances while they are switched off, but in standby mode.


The area that a person can comfortably or conveniently cover on foot.

Derived from the term ‘watershed’ (the area from which a region draws its water source) and later ‘foodshed’ and ‘airshed’.


A modern form of folklore in which anecdotes, lists, jokes, sayings, and urban myths are propagated via photocopied documents.

Xerox? Sounds a bit retro in this era of smartphones and social media. However it is very much a method of storytelling and cultural transmission of memes (units of cultural information, ideas, stories, sayings, images).

YYardsharing *

An arrangement between people to share skills and gardening resources; space, time, strength, tools or skills, in order to grow food as locally as possible (see also LandshareLandshare Australia)

Z – Zombie Lie

A false statement that keeps getting repeated no matter how often it has been refuted (example: ‘there is no scientific consensus on global warming’).

Only words that have appeared in a published capacity are included in The Word Spy, so although McFedries welcomes offers of new words and phrases, they must have a printed or online example that can be cited.

About ten years ago, I coined a word out of frustration that there wasn’t one for the situation I was trying to convey:

disgreenimation: requiring meticulous analysis to verify the environmental credentials of “green” products or services, while not applying the same or greater level of rigour in assessing the environmental impact of all other products or services (from discrimination, and green, signifying environmentally friendly).

It is listed on Unwords, and although it appears to have other citations, the words used in the definition are exactly those I used in an email and then on a discussion forum.

Do you have any useful or interesting terms you have coined for your work, because they didn’t exist and you needed to invent them?

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  1. […] practical techniques and tips in 5 Ways To Rescue Groups Gone Bad, How An Offers and Needs Market Helps Build Sustainable Practice, 3 Tips for Effective Sustainability Conversations, 5 Strategies for Working With Black Hats, How to Map Assets and Expose Real Wealth for Shared Futures and the (partly) tongue-in-cheek A-Z of Sustainability Words and Concepts […]

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  3. […] But I do not agree with holding anyone to a rigid standard that the rest of society is not being held to, because they have dared to speak out. It is ‘disgreenimation’! […]

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