Wild Ones #1: How does language conceal environmental problems?

Why it matters what we don't say as much as what we do say in solving environmental problems.

One idea:

  • Erasure: a story that we believe, adhere to or hold unconsciously in our minds “that an area of life is unimportant or unworthy of consideration.”

    (in Ecolinguistics by Arran Stibbe, Professor of Ecological Linguistics, University of Gloucestershire).

Erasure is a useful tool to explore how patterns of language are used to hide some aspects of an environmental issue. I define it as: a way of representing an environmental issue as irrelevant or unimportant by hiding, backgrounding, or distorting the issue in text, images, and talk.

Fossil-fuel companies have found erasure to be an especially useful tool of communication to distort our understanding (and policies!) of their toxic consequences. Here’s an example:

“On 6 April 2001, coal lobbyists from the National Mining Association approached EPA officials to argue for ‘‘a small wording change’’ to the regulations that prohibit the dumping of soil and rocks from Appalachian mountaintops into valley streams, in a process of coal mining known as ‘‘mountaintop removal’’ (Warrick, 2004, p. A1). As a result of the lobbyists’ request, EPA officials ‘‘reclassified the debris from objectionable ‘waste’ to legally acceptable ‘fill’’’ (p. A1). This change in the definition of what is ‘‘waste’’ and what is acceptable ‘‘fill’’ ‘‘explicitly allows the dumping of mining debris into streambeds’’ (p. A6).” (Cited in Cox, 2007).

To build these “stories” of unworthiness and unimportance, individuals and corporations often use certain erasure patterns of words, images, and narratives to blur, hide, conceal, and obfuscate the damage they do. In this case, using the word ‘fill’ instead of ‘waste’ was a simple but effective tool to enable them to dump toxic waste into local communities. More recently, the current administration is using a bolder erasure tactic to hide the toxic effects of mountain-top removal coal mining on local communities: erasing the science.


One quote:

“We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
— Aldo Leopold


One question:

What stories are told about animals, ecosystems, people, and places that aim to render them unimportant, unworthy of your attention or completely invisible; and how might you counteract this erasure by making them important, worthy of attention, and more visible to the world (whether through words, images or actions)?

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