Years ago, while still a grad student at George Mason in Fairfax, Virginia, and then again after graduating, I took a class with Robert Nadeau called Literature and the Environment. I’d hoped to emerge from the class with more of a grounding in the mechanics of writing, say, the kinds of articles you might find in Orion Magazine—most of them lovely gems that call you to take a deeper look at the world around you, to see it with eyes different than those with which you first approached.
Instead, the class was more of an eye-opener about many things economic and ecological. Nadeau started at the beginning of time—if you measure time based on when humans first attained the physiological ability to speak. This, I recall his saying, pointing to his mouth, is what has gotten us into trouble and this, he said, still pointing at his mouth, is what will get us out.
In other words, language—coded sounds, oral and written—and what we do with it can easily put us on the wrong side of eco-history just as language can direct us toward an awareness of our vulnerability to words and the emotions that underlie them. With a growing awareness of this vulnerability, the onus is on us to change how we use language to create a more loving and just world.
I tend to be much more aware of how this works in the larger context of politics, legislation and regulation because that is my background. For example, contrast “watershed protection and restoration program” with “rain tax.”
The first is long, but meaningful, and represents what money allotted for such a program would seek to do—prevent polluted runoff from entering the waterways of Chesapeake country by assessing fees on the impervious surfaces (e.g., parking lots) that surround commercial and residential buildings.
The latter, short and sweet, is used by opponents of such a program to diminish the importance of watershed protection while also switching on the emotions of someone who tends to be upset by taxes and might think, “Gee, now they’re taxing the rain.” It also creates a link with pop culture, to wit, George Harrison’s “Taxman”: “If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.” It prompts people to think, “How ridiculous!”
The first phrase is intellectually honest, but does little to create an emotional bond. The latter is dishonest, but creates the kind of bond advertisers and marketers love—one that glues itself in memory. Frankly, the program could be called a “seafood protection program,” a “healthy fish program” or even a “healthy beaches program,” because, though the main goal is to boost the overall water quality in the Bay, the “side effects” are edible seafood and water you can actually swim in, maybe even after a storm.