Metaphors of sustainability: a study of metaphors in the public discourse on sustainability


The purpose of this study is to explore the use of metaphors in public discourse on sustainability. It includes an analysis of sustainability metaphors on the basis of the cognitive theory of metaphor. The paper addresses the following questions: 1. In public discourse on sustainability, which metaphors are used by which actors? 2. Which key metaphors are used to express the notion of ‘sustainability’? 3. How could the use of metaphors contribute to the development of sustainability thinking? The study is based on a sample of 56 texts and 175.000 words, taken from the websites of different organisations in the public sector, from science, civil society, business and the media. The sample contains about 2000 verbal metaphors in general with about 500 verbal and 500 visual metaphors of sustainability in coded form. The analysis revealed that ‘SUSTAINABILITY AS JOURNEY’, and ‘SUSTAINABILITY AS WAR’, are the dominant verbal metaphors in the sample. For visual metaphors, ‘SUSTAINABILITY AS SYSTEM / MODEL’ and ‘SUSTAINABILITY AS SCIENCE’ are the dominant metaphors. Remarkably, political metaphors, such as, ‘SUSTAINABILITY AS GOVERNANCE ’, play a minor role. Another significant finding is that both personal knowledge and attitudes and cultural worldviews and values are almost non-existent as sources or target domains of metaphors. This can be seen as a reflection of the onesidedness of actual public discourse on sustainability. The study suggests that a search for more appropriate and holistic metaphors of sustainability is necessary

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