The New Greenspeak

To inspire activism, we need more than managerialism

Picture a post-industrial landscape transformed: wildflowers, birds, and butterflies returned to the site of some former quarry, parking lot, or landfill. Now imagine this transformation happening again and again: landscapes turning gradually from brown-gray to green, a network of wildlife corridors fanning out across the country. Now, finally, envision a movement devoted not just to the preservation of isolated pockets of wildness, but to the re-greening of an entire nation, its grayer and grimier parts included.

artwork depicting scraps of paper with jargon written on them scattered in a garden of wildflowersillustration by Doug Chayka,

This is the vision behind the Futurescapes program of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Britain’s largest nature conservation charity. The society is deemphasizing the creation and maintenance of nature reserves and adopting what, in one newsletter, it calls a “strategic, landscape-scale, cross-boundary approach to biodiversity delivery.” Its long-term vision will not, it concedes, be easy to achieve. If its members are to generate “the maximum aggregate impact for nature,” they will need to “deliver multiple objectives simultaneously” to many different sorts of “stakeholders.” Doing this should ensure that more people come to “benefit from the delivery of a portfolio of goods and services” from the land. It should help them to take full advantage of its “natural assets.”

I’m of two minds about such claims. I see the value of the Futurescapes program, I really do. But talk of natural assets, strategic approaches, and the delivery of goods and services? Such phrases leave me cold. Worse, they seem to conflict with everything I love about wild nature.

This sort of distancing, managerial language isn’t confined to conservation organizations in Britain. Increasingly, it’s being used by environmental groups across the world. The National Audubon Society, for instance, has a “strategic plan” that will enable it to “deliver conservation impact.” Defenders of Wildlife expresses its aim to “deliver on-the-ground conservation at the local level” while “developing long-term solutions and delivering measurable results.” The World Wildlife Fund describes an “ambitious new strategy” that will enable it to “leverage” its unique “assets” and “devise innovative solutions to the issues that challenge us.”

It’s the same phrases again and again. What’s needed, we are told, are well-managed projects that will yield measurable outcomes, expressed in terms of biodiversity indices or the provision of ecosystem services. What’s required are SWOT analyses and SMART objectives (that’s strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats and specific-measurable-achievable-relevant-timely, for the acronymically challenged among you). It’s essential, we are informed, to embed commitments, create synergies, add value, and identify core competencies and key performance indicators.

Governmental agencies can perhaps be forgiven for using such turns of phrase. Maybe they need to talk about strategic thinking and the delivery of objectives if they are to convince their respective treasuries to crack open their coffers. But environmental campaigners like the good people at the RSPB and the WWF? I’m not so sure. To the Romantic in me, it sounds like selling out.

What, exactly, is so bad about the language of green managerialism? First, there’s its blandness, its incapacity to inspire. The poetry of Gary Snyder, the prose of Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson – now that can inspire. But talk of maximizing impact and the delivery of goods and services? No one could be moved to act by that. After all, people who care about protecting nature tend to be inspired by nature: by the wild lives they encounter, for example, or by the particular wild (or wildish) places they have come to know and love. Yet the language of green managerialism could be about almost anything, from financial assets to university courses to medical services. Among all the bland and regimented talk of objectives and targets, the natural world, in all its glorious wildness, is nowhere to be seen.

A second shortcoming of such language concerns meaning. As George Orwell argued in his classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” managerial language consists “less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” Verbs (such as “break”) are transformed into high-flown ready-made phrases (“render inoperative”), which, when strung together and expressed in the passive voice, serve to disguise the meaning of what is said – even, very often, from the speaker herself. Orwell gives examples of what, in his day, were some of the worst offenders: “greatly to be desired,” “a development to be expected in the near future,” “deserving of serious consideration,” “brought to a satisfactory conclusion.”

The language of green managerialism provides plenty of modern variants. “We need to think strategically and build partnerships with a shared vision,” the RSPB says. Its aim isn’t to conserve nature, but to “deliver” nature conservation. Its goal, as set out in one document, is “to build a consensus for a vision of a sustainable future.”

Were he alive today, Orwell would complain that the language of green managerialism conceals meaning. And he would probably add that just as it can be politically expedient to conceal meaning behind managerial euphemisms (“downsizing,” “collateral damage,” etc.), so it can sometimes be useful for developers to hide their rapacious motives behind green-sounding rhetoric. Think, for instance, of “natural capital,” “biodiversity offsetting,” and “ecosystem services.” Isn’t this the language of our political adversaries? Are such phrases Trojan horses in the environmentalists’ camp?

According to writers such as George Monbiot, they are. It is self-defeating, he argues, to co-opt managerial language for environmentalist causes, for doing so alienates those who genuinely care about nature while reinforcing the values of those who would destroy it for profit. Talk of “natural capital,” for example, or of “ecosystem services” might seem attractively green and eco-friendly, but in fact it reflects and fosters the old anthropocentric view that nature is valuable only to the extent that we can get something out of it. And to buy into that view is to place nature itself in jeopardy.

For Monbiot, then, the use of managerial language invites the exploitation of nature. But how might it affect us?

Asking that question points to a third worry about the language of green managerialism. Could it be that the more we speak and write in blandly bureaucratic terms, the more we will come to experience nature in such terms? Indeed, might there come a point when, looking up from our clipboards (or iPads), we won’t see the natural world in all its majesty, wildness, and strangeness, but merely management problems to be solved, conservation objectives to be achieved, a store of ecosystem services to be utilized in an efficient manner?

Such a world would count as a certain kind of dystopia. Granted, it might not look like a dystopia. It need not involve any stinging rain or silent spring. It could, in fact, be a green and pleasant world, with vast forests unfelled, permafrost unmelted, coastal waters clean and clear and not a Styrofoam container in sight. But it would, nonetheless, be a dystopia, for it would be marked by a devastation of its inhabitants’ experiential lives. Not – or not just – the blasting, burning and bulldozing of the external world, but the sort of internal desolation that comes with the loss of one’s capacity for wonder.

I have suggested that the language of green managerialism fails to inspire, obscures meaning, and impoverishes our senses. Suppose I’m right. What is to be done?

Literature must play a crucial role, for great writing can open our minds and senses to the richness and wildness of natural phenomena. Think, for instance, of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams – how in that book a love of language goes hand in hand with a love of nature. The eye of a muskox, “glistening in a halo of snow-crusted hair”; snow geese rising “like smoke”; puffins diving “like a hail of gravel”; a landscape of “numinous events, of a forgiving benediction of light … of a cold that froze vinegar, that fractured whatever it penetrated, including the stones.” Lopez’s elegant prose is perfectly in tune with its nonhuman subjects. By comparison, talk of objectives and strategies feels cold and cumbersome, thoughtless and lazy. There is a distancing between object and description – which is to say, an alienation.

Could it be that the more we write in bureaucratic terms, the more we’ll experience nature in such terms?

Swinging the spotlight back to Britain, consider the South Downs in southern England. In their Futurescapes literature, the RSPB says it is keen that “this exceptional natural resource” should “deliver to its fullest potential for people and wildlife for generations to come.” Fair enough. But these are also Rudyard Kipling’s “blunt, bow-headed whale-backed Downs,” the land that inspired the wonderful poems of Edward Thomas and the minimalistic watercolours of Eric Ravilious. More recently, these are the hills in which writer and academic Robert Macfarlane found himself “walking in a stormlight that made the linseed pulse a hot green, and turned the barely-ripened barley fields to red and gold sand.” Works like Macfarlane’s The Old Ways can bring such places to life. Management-speak strikes them dead on the page.

This, however, is not to say that we environmentalists should all start trying to write like Seamus Heaney or Gretel Ehrlich. That would be a recipe for disaster. We really do need efficient, practical, managerially minded people who can write in efficient, practical, and managerially minded ways if we are to avoid the familiar sort of dystopia – the one with the felled forests and melted ice sheets. But we need writers like Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver, too. We need them if we are to steer clear of the other kind of environmental dystopia: the one in which species have been preserved and habitats restored, but in which we have lost the capacity to appreciate nature, and have come to regard each of these magnificent achievements as nothing more than a conservation outcome ticked off, one more step toward the wholesale management of the planet.

Simon P. James is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He would like to thank the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council for the six-month fellowship that, among other things, enabled him to write this essay.

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