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Sustainability 2013, 5(10), 4428-4443; doi:10.3390/su5104428

Communication and the Narrative Basis of Sustainability: Observations from the Municipal Water Sector

Stratus Consulting Inc., 1920 L Street NW, Suite 420, Washington, DC 20036, USA
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Received: 8 August 2013 / Revised: 28 August 2013 / Accepted: 30 September 2013 / Published: 17 October 2013
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Communication for and about Sustainability)
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Abstract

Numerous studies attempt to operationalize sustainability and seek to characterize objective, or at least standardized, metrics of sustainable conditions and/or operations. In this paper, we suggest that sustainability is better viewed as an emergent quality, defined in terms of specific institutions and situations. Observations from the water sector suggest that sustainability is not merely a matter of “bolting on technologies”, but a complex synthesis of institutional factors, social value perspectives, technologies and engineered artifacts, and natural or environmental conditions. The pursuit of sustainability appears to involve a process of broad-scale organizational transformation, a transformation that can vary significantly from utility to utility. Owing to this contingent quality, we suggest that sustainability is productively understood as a narrative construct. We illustrate how two types of discourse are particularly critical to the establishment and perpetuation of meaningful sustainability programs in water utilities and municipalities: (1) constitutive discourse, which frames and enables new ways of conceiving a particular state of affairs; and (2) transactional discourse, which provides a medium for participatory deliberation and enables the sharing of instructions and information necessary to carry out a transformation from the status quo to an envisioned future state. Although physio-chemical properties, ecological processes and thresholds, and technological factors must inform deliberations, we suggest that the realization of sustainability is at base a narrative enterprise. Observations articulated in this essay were derived through an ensemble research approach including a targeted literature review, a three-phase survey of 18 U.S. water utilities, and a workshop with water sector professionals, regulators, and experts in sustainability and organizational change. View Full-Text
Keywords: sustainability; communication; water sector; water utility; contested concepts; narrative; constitutive discourse; transactional discourse sustainability; communication; water sector; water utility; contested concepts; narrative; constitutive discourse; transactional discourse
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 3.0).

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MDPI and ACS Style

Herrick, C.N.; Pratt, J.L. Communication and the Narrative Basis of Sustainability: Observations from the Municipal Water Sector. Sustainability 2013, 5, 4428-4443.

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