Eco Euphemisms Confuse Our Understanding of Environmental Destruction

What’s in a word?

In his now-classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell warned: “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”

photo of a steam-shovel in the process of removing a verdant land to expose bare soilJulia Kilpatrick, The Pembina InstituteBoreal forest “overburden” being cleared for tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada.

Orwell’s insights are as true today as they were in 1946, when he wrote the piece. Calculated euphemisms clutter our political conversation, making it hard for citizens to winnow fact from fantasy. Take, as just one example, the jargon that infuses environmental debates.

Corporate polluters and government bureaucracies have done an excellent job at creating a raft of words that cover up – or at least distance and distract us from – environmental abuses. Technical-sounding phrases disguise the daily destruction of wild nature. A clear-cut is called a “timber harvest.” Sewage goes by the name “bio-solids.” Soil is referred to as “overburden.”

Such terms confuse rather than clarify. And that, of course, is the point. If we can’t talk straight about environmental degradation, we won’t be able to think straight about it, either.

So here’s a short decoder list of commonly used environmental jargon and euphemisms, as gleaned by some members of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A hat tip to Peter Dykstra, publisher of Environmental Health News, who kicked off this collection and did a similar rundown of euphemisms on PRI’s “Living on Earth” last week.

  • Beneficial Reuse: In short, the recycling and/or reclamation of dangerous waste. In general, this can be a good thing. But the term elides the possible hazards involved.
  • Biosolids: Aka, human excrement. This is the waste disposal industry’s term of art for treated sewage, which is often spread on farm fields and pastures. Here’s one recent headline using the term: “Plans for biosolids concern residents of Spotsylvania.” It might not be fit to print, but perhaps the headline writer could have been more to the point: “Plans for spreading shit concern residents of Spotsylvania.”
  • Bycatch: All of the fish and marine mammals swept up in industrial fishing nets that aren’t intended to be caught. At least 20 percent of what ends up in fishing is thrown away each year.
  • Deforestation: The destruction of forests by industrial loggers and/or farmers. Environmental groups use the term as often as government agencies and academics. But it seems an overly clinical description for an act of ecological violence.
  • Harvest: This ancient agricultural term is appropriate when discussing domesticated plants and wildlife. But it slips into misleading language when used to describe untamed game animals, wild fish, and natural (as opposed to farmed) forests. For example, “Louisiana deer harvest up 10 percent over last season.”
  • Fugitive emissions: Pollution that is released from equipment leaks. These days, often used in the context of the methane releases from natural gas infrastructure.
  • Lagoon: Livestock industry nomenclature for a pond where animal waste, typically hog shit, is stored.
  • Municipal Solid Waste: In a word, garbage.
  • Ozone nonattainment area: A smoggy place.
  • Overburden: The mining industry’s term for anything above the valuable seams of ore and minerals below ground. This includes soils, grasses, shrubs, trees and anything else in the way of the valuable deposits below.
  • Particulates: A fancy word for dust, soot, and any other small particles that lead to air pollution.
  • Produced water: The oil and gas industry’s phrase for the leftover water from a hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) operation. A more commonsense definition would be, simply, waste water.
  • Rapid oxidation: That is, a fire. Actually used in some reports by, of all people, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency.
  • Reclaimed Water: Treated wastewater that is then reused for agricultural uses or even, in some places, as drinking water. Especially in drought conditions, this is a smart stewardship of resources. But the term obscures the fact that it refers to recycled sewage.
  • Resources: A catch-all meaning air, water, forests, fisheries. Innocuous, perhaps, but it suggests that all of the world exists for the benefit of humans
  • Regeneration Harvest: A term common in the logging industry. Involves cutting down trees, sometimes through clear cutting, and then replanting for future cutting.
  • Research whaling: The term used by whalers from Japan or Iceland to explain their commercial whaling practices.
  • Routine exceedances: Refers to an industrial plant’s regular violation of clean air or water standards. “Persistent pollution” would be more to the point.
  • Surface Mining: The coal industry’s preferred term for what many people call mountaintop removal coal mining.
  • Take: Meaning to kill, usually through hunting or trapping. For example, “The bill … would allow hunters to take one bobcat per year.”
  • Incidental Take: Accidentally killing an animal. Usually used in reference to birds or animals listed as threatened or endangered.
  • Valley fill: The mining industry’s term for the leftover rock that is then dumped into a valley.

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