Can't? Or Won't?

by Carl Duivenvoorden (

Published January 10, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems that two common little words with very different meanings get confused for each other a lot lately. That is, we use one word when what we are really saying suggests we should be using the other.

The two words are "can't" and "won't". Perhaps reminding ourselves of what they mean and striving to use each in proper context would help us better reconnect with our role in causing - and potentially correcting - climate change.

Different meanings

"Can't" and "won't" have very different meanings. "Can't" implies a physical impossibility. It's an acknowledgement that there are certain laws of the universe that are unbreakable. For example, I can't make it rain. And, much as I might want to, I can't vaporize a Hummer.

On the other hand, "won't" implies a conscious decision or choice. It's all about unwillingness, not impossibility. For example, I won't eat black olives. I won't drink bottled water. And, no matter how good the deal, I won't ever buy a Hummer.

But we often take liberties in our use of "can't" and "won't". No doubt you've heard someone say, "I can't do that". Usually, what's really meant is, "I won't do that." Similarly, "I can't eat that" usually really means, "I won't eat that." "I can't give that up" usually means, "I won't give that up."

The link

Perhaps the blurriness between the two words stems from our longstanding prosperity. In this part of the world, we're lucky: most of us live a pretty good lifestyle. In fact, we are so far removed from true hardship that most of us have no realistic concept of just what true hardship is. When it comes to essential needs, we're far beyond food, clothing and shelter. Our 'new essentials' are typically luxuries like oversized personal transportation (so we can go wherever we want, whenever we want); southern vacations; and a crush of the very latest consumer goods. And, once experienced, such luxuries - even if they are all made possible by the oil, coal and natural gas that are causing climate change - are very difficult to give up.

So try suggesting that solving climate change might mean having to rethink some of those 'new essentials', and there's a good chance you'll get strange, sideways glances and comments.

"Oh, I can't do without my Florida getaway!"

"I can't give up my SUV!" (often followed by a myth about enhanced safety)

"I can't live without fresh fruit in January!"

And what about working toward solutions?

"Oh, I can't afford a solar hot water system." (though I'm guessing if offered a new Porsche at the same price, most of us would magically find the money.)

"I can't find the time to insulate the attic."

"I can't carpool to work."

Unfortunately, re-reading the above responses with "won't" in the place of "can't" likely offers a better glimpse of what's really being said.

A time for choices

After a recent presentation, a member of my audience raised his hand. "So," he asked thoughtfully, "is climate change a people problem or a technology problem?"

My answer took about thirty milliseconds to formulate - because today we have all the technology and knowledge we need. But knowledge and technology are simply tools. They are only useful if we humans choose to use them to solve our climate crisis.

So perhaps we need to rethink our use of the words "can't" and "won't". Can't solve our climate crisis? Nonsense - unharnessed human creativity, ingenuity and determination are the most powerful forces in the world. History has proven that time and time again.

Won't solve our climate crisis? That's a different story. We definitely won't solve it as long as we don't choose to.