Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Environmentalism's Language: Sowing the Seeds of Us and Them

"The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject if he has no hand to paint them to the senses.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson -

At work today my colleagues and I were discussing a recent policy to ban stocking trout by state fisheries in  National Parks alpine lakes. Perplexed by the reasoning of this "Lake Greening" as the Parks called it, one of my co-workers expressed his views on the topic in an exacerbated tone. "Must of been a bunch of tree huggers huh? Isn't a National Park green enough for them?" I was struck by this comment. Of course I have heard it before, the distaste in the mouths of those using adjectives that describe actions meant to protect our environment; but here was a coworker who has spent the last 25 years of his life fighting to protect salmon habitat. The fact that he was using these words to express his disagreement with a National Park policy made me think about the fundamental framework environmental protection is operating within. It was at this point that I realized that the adjectives and language currently being used to describe positive environmental action not only were turning people off but tuning them out.

The ban on stocking trout in alpine lakes by the National Parks did provide some "green" benefits by protecting native amphibians, but it turns out one of the main reasons for the ban was the cost of trail maintenance from the extra use by fishers. Protecting our environment has the highest rate of return of any investment that can be made. Actions that enhance the bio-diversity and environmental complexity of our surroundings yield a positive rate of return, socially and monetarily. Yet a large proportion of  Americans don't care or are mislead to believe the opposite is true. So when trendy language is used that describes beneficial environmental action, regardless of the positive social or economic benefits, the implementation of the action is met with resistance. A significant segment of the population exists that cannot digest the potential benefits of environmentally positive actions because they are blinded by the perceptions that are fused to the language used.

The time has come to re-frame environmentalism and the language used to describe it. Environmental protection and enhancement have two fundamental benefits, societal and economic. All environmental actions should only be described within a social and economic context. For example there is no such thing as sustainability. There is only a decrease in the rate of loss. Call your action "sustainable" and you have used a trigger word that turns people away. Describe your action as a "savings" and people will listen. One of the worst adjectives for positive environmental action is "alternative". Most people want to remain in common. The very nature of the word "alternative" alienates the action from most people. Wind energy production that in some areas of the country provides a much greater social and economic benefit than carbon based energy production should not be described as an "alternative" energy source. In these regions wind energy production should be described as the primary energy production choice; not green, not environmentally friendly, not alternative, not zero emissions, not by its carbon footprint, not ecologically sound, not clean, not sustainable but as profitable.

Historically environmental protection has been implemented in response to crisis management. During these times of crisis a wave of populism surrounds environmental causes and policies are born. We are currently riding a wave of populist environmentalism. Unfortanetly  this time it is being co-opted by major corporate interests that are branding these modern terms associated with environmental actions. The consumerist model is instituting a lexicon of faux environmentalism bluring the lines between beneficial environmental actions and advertisement. I used to believe that trendiness was the solution to social acceptance of environmental action. However now I realize that trends don't last. The environmental trediness of the seventies brought about sound environmental policy however today the deluge of our modern environmental adjectives are #'s for corporate interests that further the polarization of Americans. Americans who after all have a unified interest in profiting from maintaining a decent place to live.

Of course one size does not fit all and the environmental phraseology of the day does and will continue to resonate with a portion of the population. For some the altruistic nature of a beneficial environmental action is enough and therefore a "green" language works. For others any personal sacrifice must be justified economically. Recently my elementary school aged daughter and her younger brother had been leaving the water on while brushing their teeth. I explained to them both that we get our water from a local river and that by leaving the water on they were wasting water that was needed by the fish and other animals that use the river. My daughter responded immediately and no reminders to shut the faucet off while brushing were necessary, she wanted to help. My son however continued to run the water even after several reminders and another discussion about the impacts wasting water has on our environment. Finally one night as the water was gushing from the faucet at full blast I went and grabbed our water bill. I showed him the bill as he was brushing away and said "did you know the water that is going down the drain costs money?" He stopped brushing and looked up innocently and replied "No." Too which I asked, "did you know Mommy and Daddy have to pay for the water that is running down the drain not being used?" Again he replied "No." Then I asked him if he would like to help Mommy and Daddy pay for the water. At this he fell silent and I continued on to inform him that from now on every time he left the water running while he brushed his teeth he would have to give us a coin from his piggy bank. He has not left the faucet running since.

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