In my post last night, I noted that many people are expecting the President to pivot from the BP oil disaster to the climate and clean energy bill. But how exactly should he do that rhetorically? I’m writing a piece on that subject and would love to hear your thoughts.
Also, I have been mostly calling the unfolding disaster in the Gulf the “BP oil disaster,” which certainly beats the President’s “BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.” Guest blogger Dominique Browning has some thoughts about the name and messaging below. Again, I’d love to hear your ideas.
As a professional editor, I’ve always paid close attention to words. Now that I’m writing regularly about climate change, I’m even more attentive to the language people use in engaging with this subject. It’s rife with jargon, rhetoric and innuendo–handy tools that environmentalists could use more adeptly. These days I’m focused on naming names.
A scan online of news and blog headlines shows that we–editors and writers and, for that matter, politicians and environmentalists–are all over the place in giving a name to this disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The New York Times is calling it the Gulf oil spill; others refer to the Gulf crisis or the BP spill. Environmentalists are in danger of missing the chance to give this gusher a name that will stick in the historical record. That would be a shame, because this event could alter our collective awareness of the grave danger we are facing.
It is time to settle on a name. If you think this is irrelevant, consider, for instance, the Exxon Valdez. Notice how every single time that spill comes up (with great regularity these days, as it is dawning on us just how bad things are in the Gulf) the name of the culprit is attached. That’s perfect. We should be reminded of the perpetrators of environmental catastrophe.
The only people who have settled on the terms with which they are discussing (or not) this disaster are the folks at BP. Why do you think they keep pushing the name Deepwater Horizon into the conversation? Whoever heard of that company before? Note that Wikipedia has now listed this disaster as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, with secondary reference to it as the BP oil spill. Wonder how that happened? (An example of innuendo, but I do wonder”¦.)
BP doesn’t want to own this problem. They just leased it. But we don’t have to buy that. We need a name that eternally links BP with the Gulf–because BP is responsible. And we need a much stronger word than spill. Before much longer, we’ll be wishing a spill is all we were facing. This is a gusher with no known end.
Speaking of rhetoric, by the way, when trying to persuade people that global warming is a crisis, all reference to “grandchildren” is unnecessary and inaccurate. This is a threat to you and your children; the problem isn’t a generation away. It is happening now. As usual, the “I don’t believe in global warming” crowd is better at defining the terms of the argument. (What argument? Well, they’ve created one, simply by using that phrase.) Just look at the idea embedded in the word “belief”. Belief, of course, has nothing to do with science. But it perfectly captures the margins of skeptical thinking that are always, and necessarily, at play among scientists–captures them, and co-opts them, with a spiritual twist.
Environmentalists who want to join the public debate effectively have to name problems accurately, and find the most persuasive, honest and durable ways to talk about them. And stick with the terms until the terms stick. If we don’t do that, we are going to get caught in tricky, unpredictable, and endless currents. Just like the oil from the 2010 BP-Gulf Gusher. And yes, hyphens matter too.
Guest blogger Dominique Browning writes a column called PERSONAL NATURE for the Environmental Defense Fund website. Her new book is SLOW LOVE: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, & Found Happiness. She blogs at SLOWLOVELIFE.com
As I noted last night, it is time for the president to reframe the energy debate, as many have begged him to do (see “Is Obama blowing his best chance to shift the debate from the dirty, unsafe energy of the 19th century to the clean, safe energy of the 21st century?” and Video: Robert Redford tells President Obama it’s time to lead “America on a path to cleaner, safer energy”).
The public is certainly craving leadership Obama’s campaign pollster: “In the aftermath of the oil spill disaster, voters overwhelmingly support a comprehensive clean energy bill”¦. Voters understand the dangers of our dependence on oil. Now, they’re ready to hold Congress accountable.”
Even the uber-insiders at Politico point out it’s time for “President Obama to seize control of a deteriorating narrative. One solution: Step up in a bigger way on his promise to deliver comprehensive energy legislation, by reframing the debate over the spill from “who’s at fault” to “how we fix this problem in the long run.” Moving in this direction would shift the conversation away from a situation over which they have no control, to a key administration priority and a legislative debate that they can shape and drive.”
Some commenters think the pivot is tricky in the face of this unfolding disaster. How would you do it?