Culture Multimedia Reviews

February 12, 2014 at 11:39 am

The Lexicon of Sustainability Grows on PBS

The nonprofit, Lexicon of Sustainability was founded in 2010 by Douglas Gayeton and Linda Howard-Gayeton. After years of experience working in and around food, they’d become familiar with many of the troubles that plague our current food system. Yet they knew that many people not only weren’t talking about food and sustainability – they didn’t even have the vocabulary to follow the conversation.

Out of this premise, a simple mission was born. Not to completely rewrite the food system but to give people the tools to better converse about what was actually going on. The Lexicon of Sustainability is now a full multimedia project that combines video interviews with photographs that have been overlaid with explanatory text.

(Credit: Lexicon of Sustainability)

(Credit: Lexicon of Sustainability)

In an interview with California’s KQED, Douglas said, “I wanted to convey what these people said to me as I worked. I wanted to share their insights, their observations. And I also wanted to solve another problem I had with photographs, namely that they often left so much unanswered. I wanted to provide as much information as possible within an image, to create what someone once called a “flat film,” a single image that actually uses time, that tells a story.”

The Gayeton’s travelled the country interviewing people like Alice Waters, Wes Jackson, and Temple Grandin. During each interview, they came away with hundreds of photographs to be tossed or stitched together into a visual and verbal collage. Because the end photographs for each “term” in the lexicon are static objects, the Lexicon was able to reach people in new audiences through holding pop-up shows across the United States. No fancy set up, showtimes, or ticket prices needed to spread the word.

Now, the Lexicon has moved forward into another medium – television. The Know Your Food webseries is being broadcast through PBS.org as well as select PBS stations. The first episode premiered in the first week of February 2014 with a new episode being released each week through June.

In the first episode, The True Cost of Cheap Food, words like “true cost accounting” are defined during the course of a short, mostly animated story of how food got to be and stays so cheap. Meant to appeal to shorter attention spans, the webisode directs viewers back Lexicon’s website if they want more in-depth information about any of the terms.

(Credit: Lexicon of Sustainability)

(Credit: Lexicon of Sustainability)

But that site, unfortunately, is difficult to navigate. I found it easier to search for specific definitions through Google and be led back to images on the site than to scroll through, hoping I’d find the one I wanted. As an educational art project, there’s not much more I can ask of the Gayeton’s. However, now that the “filling in” portion of the lexicon seems complete, I find myself wishing for a curriculum to go with it.

The introduction to The Lexicon and its mission states, “People can’t be expected to live more sustainable lives if they don’t even know the most basic terms and principles that define sustainability.” The project feels like its halfway there.

Currently, it’s like the Lexicon of Sustainability created a giant (beautiful) textbook, gave it to the public for free, and said, “Have fun. Educate yourselves however you’d like!” That’s the kind of thing that would only appeal to those of us with some working knowledge of the food systems world. The rest of us need a teacher to tell us how the text should best be used.

-Tove K. Danovich