The Depletist Project

So as I’m sure (or at least hope) those of you who frequent the Squeeze blog have heard of the project Lewis Nicholson’s 4th year think tank has begun. Robin encouraged me to start a blog about what we are up to, and to give those of you familiar with the project an update on where we stand and where we are planning on going.

In our think tank class we are examining the question “How can we make environmentalism the norm?” We spent the first few weeks discussing many possible ways of trying to tackle this question (as you can see on our forum). Coming from an advertising background, my mind jumped straight to the idea of branding. I think we can all agree that environmentalism could do with an image overhaul. How can we make it cool and sexy so that everyone would want to be associated with it. We soon realized that it’s a bit tricky branding a concept that doesn’t really belong to anyone, making it tough to keep a coherent brand message. I just finished reading Flock and Flow by Grant McCracken (blog) and in his book he writes about brands that had lost all meaning, which had remarkably been brought back to life by those in-the-know (hipsters). He reasons that once brands have lost all their meaning they are essentially empty vessels whose meaning is waiting to be formed. We explored the idea of trying to strip environmentalism of all it’s meaning and associations thus giving it to contemporary environmentalists to reshape into something new, but again, when this is not a product that you have control over trying to strip the word of it’s meaning is an impossible task (and possibly in this case undesirable).

This is where it gets interesting. When your first idea doesn’t work, try the opposite.

There are a few words that pop into my head (and more often then not slip of my tongue) when I see some one idling alone in their Hummer downtown, but they always felt much to generic to have the impact I desired. Calling the driver an asshole (although momentarily satisfying) never felt adequate in describing my feelings. There is a need for this word.
When you hear someone say something derogatory about someone’s race you don’t feel at a loss for what to call them. They are racist. We need a word that can be used in the same tone as racist, but in an environmental context.
Because branding environmentalism didn’t work, we found ourselves going down a much more interesting path of trying to brand the opposite.
In our research we found that the word racist didn’t even exist until 1933 (it was not in an english dictionary until 1936). We found this very surprising. We found that the idea of racism has been around for a very long time, but it wasn’t until 1933 that we had a tool to define this form of thought / action. By no means can the word racism claim responsibility for the drastic transformation in our society since it’s introduction, but I think it’s fair to argue that it was an essential tool to the civil rights movement. It gave activists a tool to label those who were against their cause. It gave that thought a life. Now there was a concise definition for what the civil rights movement was fighting. The villain now had a name.

We have named our villain.

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.

The interesting thing about words like racist and sexist is that they have no antonym (other than generic words like tolerant). This leads us to believe that they are the exception. Either you are a racist or you are normal. We want to do the same for the environmental movement. Either you are a depletist or you are normal.

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 shortening the time between doing something that harms the environment (cause) and the effect (being called a depletist) which will strengthen the bond.

Robin asked me something that sounds very familiar to what I hear in my advertising classes. Now that you have this idea, how do you actually change behaviour?

Good question. We are still trying to figure this out, and there really is no easy answer, but here is my attempt at one, for now any way. It is very subtle, but since the word has been formed I’ve noticed that it has effected my behaviour. In the past when I would do something that I knew was bad for the environment, like getting my coffee in a styrofoam cup as opposed to my thermos, I would be conscious of it, but it ended there. Now when I do it, the word depletist pops in to my head, there is nothing ambiguous about what I am doing now. I am being a depletist. It is the same feeling I get when I think a sexist or racist thought, I regret it immediately and feel guilty about it, and because of those feelings, the thoughts never become more than just thoughts. We all make conscious efforts to not come across as prejudice. I think the same will happen with the concept of depletism. We may still have a depletist thought, but hopefully the guilt associated with the thought will stop it from manifesting itself. Also, looking at the word racist, we see that the word was necessary to form laws and policies to fight it, now we have a word to use in forming environmental laws and policies.

To recap, our class has created and defined the opposite of an environmentalist. Our hope is that it can be used as a tool against those who fit the definition (which currently applies to practically all of us). We hope that it will become an essential, yet invisible, tool in the environmental movement, just as the word racist was in the civil rights movement.

It took 33 years from the first time the word racist was used until the UN created the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Now you know where we are, now let’s talk about where we are going.



We are spending the remainder of the semester trying to come up with innovative and meaningful ways of introducing the language into culture. One example, that has been posted on a few websites already is the package we created for the guests who attended the Juice conference at OCAD a few weeks ago. The package contained a five dollar bill with the definition on depletist printed on it. The concept was that we were giving the recipients two tools. One being the word, the second being the money. In the package we quoted Joel Makower “Every time you open your wallet you cast a vote – either for or against the environment.” By placing the definition on the money we forced the owner of the bill to think twice about what they were buying. This was also a great way to spread the word, while at the same time creating no waste. We also created stickers with the definition printed on them (which were sized to fit into your dictionary), and to continue with the mandate of no waste we printed instruction on how to add the word to your computer’s dictionary on the back.

We are continuing to look for smart ways of getting the word out, please comment if you have any ideas.

We are also going to be spending some time documenting the spread of the word. We hope to create a case study of how a word becomes part of our language. I am posting all the links on tagging them with the word depletist, feel free to do the same. If you have any information about the spread of the word that you think we would find interesting please post a comment or get in touch with me. To share what I know about it’s spread thus far…There are 31 unique google hits, up from zero a week ago. It is in the Wiktionary. It is posted on blogs across Canada (from Toronto to Victoria) It was posted on Core 77 design blog. There are now two videos on YouTube. Robert Ouellette (a Juice speaker and editor of Reading Toronto) introduced the word at a United Nations Symposium on sustainable design in New York to some of the worlds most influential academics and politicians, and he reports that it was well received. Mary Jane Braide, who was in attendance at Juice, passed the word on to some of her colleagues at Bruce Mau Design and they intend on using it with some of their environmentally minded clients. Greg Van Alstyne (currently a Professor and Researcher at OCAD and former Director of The Institute Without Boundaries) mentioned to me that he used the word at a new media conference in New York over the weekend.
And all this happened only 7 days after the word was first used in public.

I think saying we are amazed at the incredible pace at which this is happening wouldn’t even come close to describing it. We’d like thank all those who have been using the word, and have as a result become a part of this exciting project.



11 responses to “The Depletist Project

  1. Very powerful message and a great effort on the part of all who contibuted. Thanks for making the effort at JUICE. By turning a possibility into action you created a chain of events that otherwise may not have happened. As well, you made the event itself more meaningful for myself and others. Many thanks. Share what you know. Sincerely, Robin.

  2. The Green School Committee at Upper Canada College meets every Wednesday at lunch for pizza and trying to figure out what to do next. These students want to rock the school and their city and the world with their care and concern for the future, but we haven’t been getting our message out very well. We invited Elise Houghton of Environmental Education Ontario to speak yesterday (October 25) on The Pen Is Mightier Than . . . A Lot of Other Things. Elise had planned to do a kind of “write-in” with the kids. Quite synchronicitously, we used the classroom of a geography teacher who had attended JUICE, and the next thing we knew, the students learned about DEPLETISM, and being a DEPLETIST, and the power of creating new words, and tanks that think. And they did some great writing for our Green Report too. Thanks for “spreading the word”! Truly, the internet is going to prove itself mightier than the sword.

  3. A brilliant exercise with brilliant results!!

    Congratulations and thank you for shortening the phrases and sentences that I have tried to use fpr decades to turn the non-environmentalists around to such a wonderful word!

    Depletist says it all!

    Alice for ACER and EEON

  4. Greetings. I am the person that submitted that blog entry, and I am thrilled that you found us so we could find you. I am pleased to let you know that your concept was well received at this conference with many chuckles from a crowd of design and development professionals. And perhaps you can help me figure out the name of the man who shared it with us. The Conference on Sustainable Urban Design was at the United Nations, presented by the UNDP and the Institute for Urban Design. The man who gave a very brief but compelling delivery said that he had worked with a group of students in Canada, who came up with this word, (your crew presumably). That is all I know about him. Dark hair, young-ish. He genuinely encouraged us to spread the word as much as possible. I am a student at the New School in NYC, the Graduate Program of International Affairs. I would like to send the word out to our listserv, or perhaps I could send people to your blog. any suggestions? A worthwhile mission! Keep up the good work, social awareness is inevitable.

  5. I could provide a long list of explanations as to why this is both an excellent and an appropriate idea, but I have forced myself to include only two. (Somehow I already know this is going to turn into a very long comment, so imposing limits is necessary.)
    1) Language, as a system of representation, allows us to exist in an entirely conceptual world. Our version of reality is constructed by means of associating a real object with a distinct combination of consonants and vowels. This representation of reality then becomes a reality unto itself: a reality which includes representations of things, rather than the things themselves. Thus, a person who destroys the environment does not really exist until a representation of a person who destroys the environment exists. And now it does.
    2) Another prevalent form of representation involves a demonstration of status and power. Humans employ recognizable signs, symbols, and behaviours, in order to control others’ perceptions of them. More specifically, they seek to avoid the possibility of others perceiving them in an undesirable manner. In my opinion, having lots of expensive cars in your driveway does not mean “I’m rich” so much as “I’m not poor”. The word ‘environmentalist’, then, does nothing to incite individuals to change their behaviour, because individuals will not act in an attempt to avoid a negative label that does not even exist. A word like ‘depletist’ is a great deal more likely to elicit behavioural changes, precisely because it mimics the human preference for striving to not be perceived as something, as opposed to actually striving to be something.
    I completed a Linguistics Specialist degree, so what I was actually intending to do here (other than ramble on and on unnecessarily) was to mention some commonly accepted views regarding neologisms…
    – Introducing a new word to a language, and maximizing its chances of success, nearly always involves having a direct relationship between sound and meaning. (Onomatopeic words are the most common additions to any given language.) ‘Depletist’ is an effective choice in this regard, as the predominance of stop consonants creates an air of sharpness. New words must also be easy to parse, because this makes them more comprehensible at first glance. Again, ‘depletist’ works well: its structure is very similar to already-existing words, and the -ist suffix will automatically be associated with negative, blameworthy behaviour.
    – At first, the most important thing to do with neologisms is to present them alonside their definition. You’ve got that one in the bag, too.
    – Historically, words which progress beyond the “for nonce” stage – to become fully integrated components of a language’s common usage – have done so by means of their inclusion in the realms of advertising, informal speech, political discourse, and (less predictably) literature. Getting as much exposure as possible is important, and so is the variety of exposure. It’s also crucial to move away from the initial “Here is a word. It means this.” type of exposure, and towards a type which presents the word in its real linguistic and semantic context.
    – Finally, if speakers of a language never use a word, it is equivalent to that word being non-existent. It is unfortunate that, even when creating a terribly useful new word, the probability of success is unpredictable. Gelett Burgess coined the term “blurb” in 1907, and it has certainly survived the test of time. He also coined “gubble”, and it certainly has not. You just never know.

    My comments have been neither brief nor helpful. I apologize. It’s a great idea.

  6. Hi Chris et al.

    I was so struck by your brief description of this project at JUICE2 that I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I told my ThinkTank(1) class about it, and they were very inspired (in fact, it’s been used quite a bit in class since then.)

    Tonight I realized that since this is truly an “Idea Worth Spreading” I should try to spread it more… I sent a short email to Chris Anderson at TED ( suggesting he blog about it. Hopefully he will – that blog has quite a reach.

    Keep up the efforts – great to meet you a Juice.

  7. David Peachey

    Those of you who have Facebook, I have created a group called “Save the world with a word: Depletist”

    Join up and ask all your friends to join too. Chris I’ll make you admin if you would like.


  8. In days of old, the word for God was never used because it was believed that to use a word gives one power over it. For this reason, I commend your word.

  9. What if you’re wrong?

    Just like all other Fascists you probably can’t imagine that.

  10. Since a Fascist is considered an adherent of fascism (extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practice), Mr. Fuller’s use of the term probably couldn’t be more incorrect. Anyway, who wants to allow his comment to be the last word on such a neat project? Not I!

  11. Pingback: Web Semantics: the Depletist Project | Beyond the Beyond | Wired

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