Quantcast

Eco Euphemisms That Confuse Our Understanding of Environmental Destruction

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.”

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.

Boreal forest “overburden” being cleared for tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Julia Kilpatrick/ The Pembina Institute

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.

--------

YOU ALSO MIGHT LIKE

6 Crimes Against Nature Perpetuated by the Food Industry

Fact Checking Fossil Fuel Industry's Attacks on Wind Energy

--------

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A verdant and productive urban garden in Havana. Susanne Bollinger / Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

Read More Show Less
Trevor Noah appears on set during a taping of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" in New York on Nov. 26, 2018. The Daily Show With Trevor Noah / YouTube screenshot

By Lakshmi Magon

This year, three studies showed that humor is useful for engaging the public about climate change. The studies, published in The Journal of Science Communication, Comedy Studies and Science Communication, added to the growing wave of scientists, entertainers and politicians who agree.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
rhodesj / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Cities around the country are considering following the lead of Berkeley, California, which became the first city to ban the installation of natural gas lines in new homes this summer.

Read More Show Less
Rebecca Burgess came up with the idea of a fibersheds project to develop an eco-friendly, locally sourced wardrobe. Nicolás Boullosa / CC BY 2.0

By Tara Lohan

If I were to open my refrigerator, the origins of most of the food wouldn't be too much of a mystery — the milk, cheese and produce all come from relatively nearby farms. I can tell from the labels on other packaged goods if they're fair trade, non-GMO or organic.

Read More Show Less
A television crew reports on Hurricane Dorian while waves crash against the Banana River sea wall. Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

Some good news, for a change, about climate change: When hundreds of newsrooms focus their attention on the climate crisis, all at the same time, the public conversation about the problem gets better: more prominent, more informative, more urgent.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) met with Bill Gates on Nov. 7 to discuss climate change and ways to address the challenge. Senator Chris Coons

The U.S. Senate's bipartisan climate caucus started with just two members, a Republican from Indiana and a Democrat from Delaware. Now it's up to eight members after two Democrats, one Independent and three more Republicans joined the caucus last week, as The Hill reported.

Read More Show Less
EPA scientists survey aquatic life in Newport, Oregon. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to significantly limit the use of science in agency rulemaking around public health, the The New York Times reports.

Read More Show Less
A timelapse video shows synthetic material and baby fish collected from a plankton sample from a surface slick taken off Hawaii's coast. Honolulu Star-Advertiser / YouTube screenshot

A team of researchers led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration didn't intend to study plastic pollution when they towed a tiny mesh net through the waters off Hawaii's West Coast. Instead, they wanted to learn more about the habits of larval fish.

Read More Show Less