The Undefinable Word

smurfHow do we communicate concern for the “environment” if we cannot even share a definition of what it is? We think we all know yet this is demonstrably untrue.This communication problem is perfectly illustrated by little blue men. The Smurfs appeared over fifty years ago with a language that used the word “Smurf” as verb & noun. This is described on Wikipedia thus:

“A characteristic of the Smurf language is the frequent use of the undefinable word “smurf” and its derivatives in a variety of meanings. The Smurfs frequently replace both nouns and verbs in everyday speech with the word “smurf””

Thus it is that the “environment” is an undefinable word – every argument you have ever heard about the environment flows from this central problem. Definition.

To illustrate; I recently read a letter from our local Council concerning a parking ticket. However the letter was NOT issued by their parking enforcement team. It came from the Council’s “Environment Services” department. What’s more, a couple of weeks before, the local newspaper reported the demolition of a house to make way for a new road junction. The Councillor quoted was in charge of the Council’s department of the “Environment”. Seeing this reminded me of the Smurfs and their “undefinable word”. A word that has become to mean everything, and, hence, nothing. To make it worse it is a reference pushed into quite cynical usage; it seems as if we now use it to make bad things sound nice.

To illustrate let’s insert the word “environment” into a couple of examples to nullify the negative image. So, I’m off to park the car in the nearest “stationary-vehicle-environment”. Afterwards I am going to “environment” people’s homes into the ground if they get in the way of bigger “travel-environment”. Who has spotted that the “environment” ain’t what it used to be? Does it conjure to mind green spaces and fresh air? Not any more it doesn’t. Who wouldn’t groan inside to hear someone agonising over which of their life-choices is more or less “environmental”.  The “environment” should be read as “life support system and source of all human wealth” but when since have you see that definition in COMMON use? Certainly your Council don’t see it that way.

This matters because the entire public debate about sustainability is coloured by our world-view of what this “environment” thing is. Some examples; on the 19th July The Telegraph interviewed former Chancellor Nigel Lawson who declared that the “greens are the new reds“. This was followed by John Kay in the Financial Times who chose to blame the “gestures” of “environmentalists” for the shambles that is British energy policy. Then there was Tim Montgomerie in The Times who declared that “The Greens can’t defy gravity: they’re finished“. These were by no means isolated examples.

In the defence of environmentalism we then had James Murray at Business Green who described the latest invective as “predictable” and we shouldn’t count on the greens being “finished” quite yet. He rapidly followed this up with a broad-side listing ten significant newsworthy items that have occurred since the greens were declared as “finished”. James was quickly joined by Tom Burke at The Guardian who, in a most powerful, must-read-piece, condemned the “desperation” of rightwing media attacks on the greens. The debate is boiling down simply to who has the better science. Hence we have Andy Stirling – a professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex stating that “the green movement must ensure its relationship with science helps open up ideas of progress, not limit them“. Or take the view of Robert Wilson – a PhD student in mathematical ecology at the University of Strathclyde – who argued that “the green movement is not pro-science, if [it is] to win against climate change, greens need to replace spin with sober analysis“.

ALL these good folk are talking past each other. This is NOT about science at all – it is a cultural war in which they will never see eye-to-eye. The facts do not matter in the modern media where ‘facts’ are framed as “someone else’s opinion”. Few mere mortals have the time nor inclination to check the facts hence they align themselves with whatever creed suits their personal colours. James Murray entered the debate by discussing the “new-environmentalism” and it has become a term that pundits genuinely use. Yet we must ask, how can we have “new-environmentalists” when nobody can even agree what the “environment” is?

Gargamel_LawsonTo see any sense you need to step back, way back. Think for a second. Exactly who are these “greens” that Lawson, Kay and Montgomerie attack? Who are the environmentalists that Murray and Burke defend? I will contend that they are not even talking about the same people nor even the same policies. Clearly the polemic for Nigel Lawson is firmly enrooted in the cold war rhetoric of 1980. The “Reds”!? Seriously? For the likes of Lawson the “environment” is simply on the loss side of the balance sheet. It is a cost, an externality to be shoved as far off-shore as possible. For example take the debacle of Conservative peer Lord Howell who, Speaking in the House of Lords on 30th July, stated that fracking should be encouraged in the north-east of Britain because there there is “large, uninhabited and desolate areas”. It is easy to laugh but this is what it means to them.

To make sense of this nonsense you HAVE to understand WHAT these people THINK they are attacking. These attacks are upon a myth. Of course this “myth” seems very real to these people, like I am sure the Smurfs are real to a three-year-old. But we all have to grow up one day. This is not the playground. The “greens” for these anti-green writers are, in reality; a stereotype, a cliché, a caricature, a fiction, a fantasy  – and have all the real world relevance as do little blue people “three apples tall”. We use these fictions to bury our discomfort at disturbing realities. As one former climate change denier put it “I spun all sorts of stories to keep the climate crisis out of my life“.

Terms like the “environment”, “green”, climate change” and “Transition” have become a secret code used between people who give a damn about the sustainability of industrial society. Yet from the outside the layman just hears “blah blah environment blah blah climate change blah blah Transition…” and little else. They don’t care to learn more. It doesn’t interest them because this is not the language that engages their interests. We have to find new ways of communicating sustainability that engages our communities. It has to be about the wealth in our pension funds, about keeping warm on a cold night, about having the money in your pocket to buys the kids an ice-cream on a hot day. To engage we have to touch people’s real lives. It has to be about them.

Don’t believe me? As a thought experiment just go through the links I post above and replace the word “environment” or “green” with the word “Smurf”. These writers expect their readership to know exactly what they are talking about. For certain I can tell these writers that they are not describing the same cultural phenomena at all.

The sense in all of this is what WE bring to it. It is our narrative and expectations that give shape to the modern myth of environmentalism. We make it real through our world-view in a way that a child believes the Smurfs are real through their imagination. We often communicate best through what we do – through what we demonstrate. It is quite frustrating to hear from one leading Transition thinker that “doing” is not enough, no – there is also power in “being”! Again, it is easy to laugh but ephemera like this seriously does NOT engage our communities. It acts as a barrier – a glass box beyond which Transition cannot transcend. Any “inner-transition” is a consequence, not the cause, of acting to sustain future industrial society. Yet we are all too polite to say it.

So, to borrow a phrase from Nigel Lawson – let us have a real “appeal to reason”. The facts as we know them are simple. We have infinite wants and we live on a finite planet. It is not a question of IF this immovable object will ever meet this unstoppable force. It is only a question of WHEN and HOW SERIOUS will be the consequences. We know the way the world works, we understand the laws of physics. We don’t know exactly WHEN a reversion to sustainability will come nor do we know HOW costly it will be. But it must happen and it might expensive – unavoidably so due to our historical failure to invest.

The most vocal narrators preach from two different pulpits: one tells us that everything is OK whilst the other is often portrayed as the pessimistic end-of-the-worlders. Both have their myths and cartoon bad guys. This polarity suits us because we know where we stand. It is a simple battle-line. The messages are easily understood if we care to listen. One messenger tells us what we need to hear. The other tells us what we want to hear.

I, like most people, don’t want to hear about the politics of the left nor the right. Not red, blue or green. Nor cartoon bad guys. Inbetween these two poles there is the real world of caution. “Caution” is neither green nor blue, no left, not right. Nor is “caution” sitting on the fence. “Caution” is simple common-sense – something we seem to have abandoned long ago.

Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe everything will be OK. The difference between Nigel Lawson & I is probably that I expect to big changes to happen in my own lifetime. The difference between some environmentalists & I is that I don’t think it will be the end of the world. Until we know… there is only caution. CAUTION is the new green. “Caution” is what “environmentalism” used to mean. It isn’t “new” and its meaning is hard to distort. Instead of “environmentalism” we should use the term “cautionaryism”. We can sit around at “cautionaryism drinks” and discuss the state of the world with other Cautionaryists.

Caution makes us look both ways before we cross the road. Caution is an umbrella on a British summers day. Caution is not playing with your car keys over a storm drain. Caution is hoping for the best yet expecting the worst. Caution has no politics, no colour, no creed. It is the air we breath, the sun that warms us and the comfort of a duvet on a cold winter’s morning. Caution makes us human. I’m all for caution. It’s security. It is a definable word.

So the next time somebody tells you that it is all the fault of the “environmentalists” just imagine Nigel Lawson pronouncing the word “environmentalists” like the Smurf’s arch enemy wizard Gargamel uttering the word “Smerrrfs” with a strong Belgian accent. And, just for balance, imagine Al Gore as Papa Smurf.

Works for me. Maybe blue is the new green.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.


The Undefinable Word — 1 Comment

  1. Environmentalists could hugely improve their public perception by openly admitting that the real world requires us to rank and compare issues and decide which ones should take precedence over others, rather than acting like the egg->omelette situation simply cannot apply to the Earth. The message often comes across as there being be no compromise and mankind has no right to be here. Let alone be comfortable.

    A good example of this is the ever amusing Franny Armstrong who made a film declaring that taking a commercial flight is equivalent to burning down a forest (in environmental terms), then had various celebrities du jour flown in for the premier.

    Beyond such amusing examples, observing events like the insanity of palm-oil; literally taking food crops to burn as fuel when people are starving, or the enforcing of CFL’s without any consideration of the mercury disposal/leeching problems, which were all done under the guise of “saving the Earth”, it is not hard to see how “environmentalists” became synonymous with “silly people”. Political writers may have seized upon the public perception for their own leverage, but they didn’t exactly create it from nothing.

    Environmentalists need to focus on issues on which they can have an effect. It may not be as sexy as “saving the world” but walking around telling everyone they shouldn’t fly, or to get a wood burner and solar panels, doesn’t really achieve much. People just turn off.


    i) Using bold for emphasis is fine. Using capitals just reads LIKE YOU’RE SHOUTING. I would suggest just using bold.

    ii)”But we all have to grow up one day. This is not the playground.”

    Agreed. But calling people “denier” in the next breath and comparing them to Gargamel is not much better.