Easy to Be Green, Hard to Be Environmental

Article excerpt

If the environment is so important, why don't we have a better word for it? And more convenient synonyms? These thoughts flickered through my mind the other day as I listened to Japanese-Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki speak at Harvard University. Well known through his long-running TV show and regular newspaper columns, Mr. Suzuki is a household name in Canada - on the order of the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He is on what we used to call a crusade before that term became inappropriate for "clash of civilizations" reasons. "We must save the earth!" is his message.

But when his issues are taken up in public-policy settings, in the halls of government, and in the news media, the language becomes "We must protect the environment." Why is that language so unsatisfactory? Well, for a start "environment" is a four-syllable abstraction, even though its constituent elements - air, water, soil, trees, birds, animals - are concrete terms, familiar even to small children.

But "environment," defined by one dictionary as "the area in which something exists or lives," doesn't seem to describe a living thing.

What alternatives do we have? "Biosphere," perhaps, although that doesn't quite get it either, and has its particular scientific meaning. Remember Biosphere 2?

At some point going back before the first Earth Day in 1970, "ecology" seemed as if it might catch on in popular discourse. "No deposit, no return" pop bottles were deemed "not good for the ecology," for instance. "Ecology" is shorter than "environment," but it's even less concrete, and it sounds like an academic discipline (which it also is). You might say "ecology" is to "environment" as "biology" is to "human being": One is the study, the other is the thing studied.

If "environment" the noun is bad, the adjective is worse. We've taken to describing as "environmentally friendly" those things that aren't positively "friendly" but only "environmentally less damaging than something else we could be doing instead."

"Green" is a bright spot in this discussion. It's short, easy to spell and say, and has a real-life referent: the green grass and trees we can all see.

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