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Mother Nature Is Not Fooled By Euphemisms

By Tim Murray

01 December, 2010

As William Catton has observed, language is a double-edged sword. It can be employed to convey clear and accurate information or be an agent of obfuscation and manipulation. Since the tactics of deceit and camouflage are a common to a cross section of species, Catton maintains that they must not be necessarily seen as a character flaw but instead be viewed objectively as a sometimes necessary adaptation to confuse predators and prey. As Churchill said, sometimes the truth must be protected by a bodyguard of lies. It is doubtful that the Normandy invasion would have succeeded without the fiendishly deceptive ploy of creating Patton’s phantom army. Perhaps the imperatives of group living in an hierarchical arrangement primed the primate brain for deceitful tactics, but in language we have developed a means to deceive even ourselves. Language has become a weapon of mass distraction and destruction. What was a competitive advantage of decisive importance in our ascendance may prove, ironically, to be the agent of our ultimate demise. When we are not using language to practice deceit, we amusing ourselves to extinction by "conjuring fictions with words", as Catton put it, stupefied and inebriated by the opiate of escapist storytelling.

The concept of language as a kind of lens or filter, or even straight-jacket, cannot be over-stated. Wittgenstein said that the limits of language are the limits of one’s world. By that token, bilingual or multi-lingual people typically have a broader vision. It is not what we look at, but how we look at it. Objective reality is not a linguistic construct, but how we perceive it is paramount. In filtering reality, language draws a caricature of it, bringing a part of it into sharp focus while blurring the rest. The question then becomes, whose lens are we wearing? What filter are we looking through? And most crucially, how do we remove it?

Orwell made us understand that the purpose of “Newspeak”---the language of the fictional totalitarian society depicted in his “1984”, was to rid standard English (“Oldspeak”) of all adjectives and unnecessary words so that people would not be able to feel or think in proscribed ways. If one could not describe sadness, one could not feel it, and if there was no word for democracy or justice, one couldn’t complain about arbitrary government action. By eliminating words, Newspeak would narrow the range of thoughts. Thus the objectives of contemporary “political correctness” are classically Orwellian. The notion is that if we can’t label people or things by potentially harmful terms, then people will desist from thinking of them in those terms. And if politically acceptable euphemisms are substituted and repeated ad nauseam, the brain-transplant will be complete.

It must not be thought that euphemisms are the exclusive weapon of left or right, government or business. In fact, it is my contention that is most perniciously employed by what may be termed “the growth-management industry”, a coalition of environmental NGOs and their corporate benefactors united in a mission to make growth palatable by coating it of sugary-sweet syrup of oxymorons like ‘smart’ or ‘managed’ growth and ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ development. Its purpose, as Catton might phrase it, is to induce in the message-receiver a definition of reality that benefits the message purveyor. And it’s working.

It is in the ideology of growthism where euphemistic language presently makes it most incursive and dangerous intervention in the determination of what we perceive to be real. The ideology that economic and population growth is beneficial, necessary and inevitable prevails, to a large extent, because the language which mediates that message, the language of classical economics, has colonized academic forums, radio and television studios and the print media. Consequently the very real prospect of environmental Armageddon is seen by the audience through the same rose-coloured glasses that are worn by the presenters, their writers and researchers, and those whom they interview, tinted by the growthist vocabulary they use to interpret that reality. A stable population is therefore described as “stagnant” and an economic “bust” is never represented as an environmental “boom”, while a drop in housing construction is represented as a calamity urgently in need of a fiscal stimulus.

How can we remove their lens? The answer is to substitute our lens for theirs. We have to constantly challenge media terminology and offer our own. We must refuse to allow the enemy to define our predicament and frame the questions. In the meantime, however, the snake-oil salesmen of the growth-management coalition has us buffaloed. Unfortunately for them, however, Mother Nature ain’t buyin’ it.

Living, breathing human beings must convert energy and consume it to survive. We can call that economic activity any oxymoron we like----sustainable development or smart growth---but deceptive labels can’t negate its negative ecological impact. As Derek Jensen observed, “Building houses is destructive. Manufacturing toilet paper is destructive. Printing books is destructive. But there is no reason to stop there. The industrial economy itself is inherently destructive.” George Plumb elaborates. “Land development is really land destruction. First it destroys the land where the development occurs and there is no bio-capacity left. Second, it destroys surrounding land because it requires infrastructure. Third, it destroys far away land because it requires all kinds of resources to construct that development.” Just who are we conning but ourselves?

In Mother Nature’s dictionary the only “smart” growth is the kind that never happened, and the only “smart car” or “green building” is the one never constructed. There is no entry for “eco-cities” because no city can ever be self-sufficient or not rely on external inputs, often imported from far away. All cities draw down resources and generate waste, and the even the construction of “energy-efficient” housing involves structural elements like nails, pipes, bricks cement, plastic and wiring--and they aren't made from angel dust. If you want to see a city with a small footprint go to the ghost towns of the Wild West.

Mother Nature knows that agriculture of any kind has adverse impacts, most conspicuously in soil depletion and deforestation. She knows that the manufacture of pollution abatement technology, catalytic converters, electric cars, solar panels, wind farms and nuclear power plants with zero CO2 emissions involve intrinsically damaging processes that space does not allow me to enumerate. Mother Nature is a “systems thinker”. She looks at the entire life cycle of a product, from resource extraction, through manufacture, transportation and disposal. She is from Missouri. When we tout the marvels of “eco-friendly” technology she replies, “Show me”. Then she reminds us of the Jevons Paradox and the Khazoom-Brookes Postulate. In the context of a market economy, more efficient resource use by more efficient technologies, by making inputs cheaper, only provoke more total consumption. Even more efficient land-use strategies, conservation and recycling enable more growth rather than constrain it--unless introduced within the framework of a steady-state economy.. And making “responsible” consumer choices does not challenge the source of waste and pollution---the economic system which fosters and relies upon consumerism and growth. We can and should mitigate our impact, but we can't eliminate it.

Mother Nature does not want more “green” consumers. She wants fewer consumers. She does not care about our virtuous self-abnegation or personal frugality. She doesn’t care about our per capita consumption—it is our aggregate consumption that registers on her scoreboard--the sum total of ‘per capitas’. Her advice? Stop growing stupid.

Face it. Mother Nature is not fooled by euphemisms.

Tim Murray
An environmentalist in British Columbia and VP of Biodiversity First