Why George Monbiot is both right and wrong about ‘cold and alienating’ language

peat bog smallThis post also appears on the National Trust’s blog.

George Monbiot today wrote an excellent twitter thread criticising the ‘cold and alienating’ language we routinely use when talking about ‘the environment’. He specifically calls out a term we have been using at Green Alliance for several years: ‘Natural Infrastructure Schemes’. Monbiot argues that phrases like ‘our shared home’, ‘climate chaos’ and ‘wildlife’ should replace ‘the environment’, ‘climate change’ and ‘biodiversity’.

He is right that language matters and affects how we think about the urgent crises we are facing and how we should respond. I like many of the replacement words and phrases suggested in the thread and will try to think of others. But I also think that there is still a place for the language George Monbiot has a problem with.

We have to consider our audience and our aims when choosing appropriate words. For example, when I’m talking to my friends and family about what I do, I don’t talk about ‘natural infrastructure’, ‘natural capital’, or ‘ecosystem services’. To them, these terms are pretty meaningless. Rather, I talk about how restoring habitats or nature can provide significant benefits to society and business, like reducing flooding or improving water quality.

But my friends and family, and by extension the general public, are not the main audience of our work with the National Trust and others. We are focused on finding new ways for businesses to realise the benefit of a thriving natural world and to invest in it.

We want to see a transformation of the economy so that restoring the natural environment, instead of degrading and exhausting it, makes sense as a business choice. And to do this, we need to use language which is meaningful to businesses.

It is not an accident or conspiracy that terms like ‘natural capital’, ‘ecosystem services’, ‘natural resources’ and ‘natural infrastructure’ have grown up in this context. Capital, services, resources and infrastructure are concepts that translate directly into a business context, in a way that ‘living systems’, ‘living planet’ and ‘life support systems’ do not.

We do not use the term ‘natural infrastructure’ to refer generally to features like hills and rivers. Rather we use it to describe specific land use and land management activities, often involving restoring the natural world, which can replace expensive, and often destructive, ‘hard’ concrete and steel infrastructure. Natural solutions are a direct substitute for this in our model and so are expressed in these terms.

If we are asking businesses to invest significant amounts of money in planting new woodland or restoring wetlands, instead of building flood defence walls, ‘infrastructure’ is the obvious language choice. This makes the link and the comparison much easier to make: you are just replacing one sort of infrastructure with another one which costs less and has more benefits.

We are not proposing a ‘nice to have’ corporate responsibility scheme that looks good on a website. We are proposing a hard-nosed, well considered business decision that will reduce business costs. The myriad benefits to people and wildlife are important, but they are not what will persuade business to divert significant investment away from their tried and tested methods to new and relatively unknown schemes.

George Monbiot is right about the importance of language and, paradoxically, this is why he is wrong to say that we should completely do away with language like ‘natural infrastructure’. Of course these terms won’t inspire the public to care more about the natural world. But in exactly the same way, the new terms he proposes won’t persuade businesses to change their investment decisions. To restore the natural world we need to refocus the economic forces that are doing it harm and, in this context, using ‘cold’ language is far from alienating.

[Image: peat bog in the Brecon Beacons, © National Trust Images/Corrinne Manning]

One comment

  • Well said Jim, the language we use will surely depend on who we are trying to communicate with/influence, and that shouldn’t always be ‘ourselves’!

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