Words Matter When Talking Global Warming: The ‘Good Anthropocene’ Debate

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

We spend more of our waking hours communicating than perhaps any other single activity. And while the principles of effective writing and speaking have been understood for centuries if not millennia, they are largely ignored today — sometimes intentionally, as Orwell pointed out nearly seven decades ago.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in “Politics And The English Language” in 1946. “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Nowhere is that clearer than in the arena of climate politics and journalism — which often seems driven by the unproductive extremes of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “STAND BACK AND WATCH THE WORLD BURN.” Ultimately, they are both equally pessimistic, since they both push the premise that there is no chance the human race could actually embrace the kind of aggressive action needed to have a realistic chance of avoiding multiple catastrophes.

I am more optimistic, as I explained in my reply to Ezra Klein’s pessimism. I suppose if I had a motto, it might be: Do Worry, Take Action, THEN Be Happy.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I was on two recent science communications panels: a “Science & Policy Communications Workshop” this week for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and a Communications Workshop at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Summer Policy Colloquium last week. Everything I know on the subject can be found in my 2012 book, “Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga.”

For those who want the pithy version, start with the great 20th Century essayist, Orwell, in his greatest essay, “Politics And The English Language” — and the great 20th Century orator, Winston Churchill, in his essay metaphorically titled, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.”

Orwell offers six simple rules for writing with clarity, “rules that one can rely on when instinct fails,” when you are “in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase”:

  • (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.