Reflection: Word Pollution Rots Brains

A word cloud (the more often used, the larger) generated from a speech by Governor Bobby Jindal in 2009. (Photo by Jason-Morrison/Flickr)

While the problems caused by industrial-scale pollution of air, water and land rise inexorably to nostril level, any and all efforts to deal with them are hampered by the deliberate release of toxic words into our language. Like poisons and endocrine-disruptors, toxic words cloud our intentions, weaken our will and muddle our efforts. If we can’t talk clearly about where we want to go and why, we can’t get there.

Both Aristotle and Confucius warned us eons ago that if we want to have good government, we must begin by calling things by their proper names. Almost as long ago, industrial PR firms discovered the inverse: if you really want to screw up government, debase the language it uses to make and communicate decisions. This practice has spread and deepened until now, every company with a large carbon footprint has an even larger BS footprint. A few examples:

Oil production. The verb “to produce” means, in all its proper uses, to create or manufacture, and clearly the oil bidness would like us to think of oil that way, as something they’re making for us. The reality is that all the oil there is was made a long time ago, and all they are doing is draining it. If we habitually talked about the “oil drainage” business, we could more easily keep in mind its essential¬†transience.

Natural gas. The term is echnically correct, in that methane, propane etc. are found in nature, but in this case it is the connotation that is objectionable. In today’s parlance, “natural” is supposed to mean something that is not a product of industrial processes. But the way we get “natural” gas — using millions of gallons of precious water in combination with toxic chemicals to blow up subterranean rock, then transporting the gas thousands of miles through leaky pipelines, is about as un-natural as you can get.

Energy Independence: The US “produces” (see above) just over five million barrels of oil per day. This rate has been declining since 1970, the year the United States experienced peak oil. Meanwhile the country consumes nearly 19 million barrels per day, an amount that has been increasing, except for the occasional recession, since the first gusher came in. The notion that by sticking a few more straws into the bottom of the bowl, or by building a few more wind “farms” (see below) we could somehow make up for the nine million barrels of crude oil we have to import every day just to keep up, is, when tested by simple arithmetic, absurd. Yet it continues to be a favorite shill word for politicians and industrialists who want to mask their intentions.

Farm: (esp: family farm) A variation on the theme, in that instead of polluting the word, the PR wizards just continue to invoke its true, former meaning and apply it to things that make its use a flat lie. The word, of course, invokes a modest parcel of land on which is raised a diverse array of plants an animals under the happy husbandry of a healthy family. Today, the label is applied to concentration camps for sickly animals, confined to standing-room-only spaces in the tens of thousands, eating food-like industrial products and emitting city-scale amounts of sewage. Or to vast expanses of chemical-soaked monoculture run by equally vast corporations supported by vast government subsidies. This has worked so well (why would you force a feed lot to have a sewage-treatment plant? It’s a farm, for heaven’s sake!) that the wizards now apply “farm” to to anything that needs a little burnishing in the PR department, for example, a gazillion-dollar solar array that wipes out thousands of acres of terrain, uses millions of gallons of water a year, and requires the construction of a small city for workers and a giant transmission line — in the desert. Yup, it’s a solar farm. (See also “wind farm”.)

Renewable energy once meant simply a source of energy that was not depleted by use. But as appropriated by the industrialists, it now means capturing that kind of energy with enormous, non-renewable, wind turbines, solar collectors and dams (whose manufacture trashes the environment) to be transported over non-sustainable grids to non-sustainable industries and homes. Nevertheless, “renewable” is deployed to suggest something whose use is not detrimental to the “environment” (see “environmentalist” below). To the contrary, the reality is that renewable is not sustainable if it’s industrial.

Create Jobs: No company, individual or agency of government exists for the purpose of “creating jobs.” Corporations are created to make profits, and although they usually have to hire people to do so, they hire as few as possible and work very hard to reduce that number. Governments exist to protect people from harm, and while they, like companies, hire people to do the jobs, they don’t do it to “create jobs.” When you hear a candidate vowing to create jobs, or a company PR guy bragging about the jobs it has created, you know they are lying in order to get something from you. But you knew that already. You saw their lips moving.

Environmentalist: We allowed this one to be hung on our necks like a dog’s training collar. At first it seemed a cute way to sum up a certain set of beliefs about the living web of life on which we all depend, and the harm being done to it. But the industrialists, ad the industrial journalists, made it into a little compartment, a label for a special interest group, and the moment anyone raises concern about the fact that industrial processes are killing our world, that person becomes an “environmentalist, ” a representative of a special interest, like tobacco. Decades of toxification have added all kinds of connotations to the word, such as tree-hugger, radical, anti-people, anti-jobs, lunatic fringe, etc. And that’s what you become if you want to survive. Moreover, this use has made “environment” seem like a discrete thing lying off top one side of our real concerns, like, oh, Lake Erie, so that harming “the environment” comes to seem more like stepping on the dog’s tail and less like destroying the future of humanity.

All Commercial Speech: If you see it on television, it’s not true, and if it’s in a commercial it’s a lie. Examples aboud, from IBM’s “We can build a smarter planet” to Waste Management’s sterile garbage trucks accompanied on their routes by white doves. But a personal favorite of the moment is the one that says, and this is a quote, “Emerging science suggests that Centrum may improve breast health.” May we ask what science does when it “emerges,” and from whence does it emerge? May we ask what science is doing when it “suggests” something? Which part of the scientific method defines “suggest”? And if you’ve already qualified your statement twice, with “emerging” and “suggests,” what is the purpose of the additional weasel-word, “may”? And how do we measure breast health? General perkiness, or something more specific?

What to do? At least keep in mind, and remind others, of the actual meanings of the words that are being lobbed at us like grenades every day to distract us from our intention of surviving. You might keep a list of such words with you, adding to it as you hear them misused, and consulting it often. Think of it as a Poison Word Bible.

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