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Words - the importance of words in environmental arguments.

Updated: Feb 1



Many environmental arguments rest upon questions of value rather than principle and logic. We see this in many areas whether it be GM crops or a large civil engineering project.


One of the favourite phrases is "tampering with nature". This is always considered as bad. But in fact it need not be. Anyone visiting any of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust centres will witness a great deal of , "tampering with nature" whether it be rearing and releasing cranes and water voles, or controlling the flooding of wetland habitat. None of this , "tampering" is bad. Simply saying something is wrong because it is, " tampering with nature " is incorrect, as only harmful tampering with nature can possibly be wrong.


There is also the assumption that all things natural are good and unnatural bad. Yet it is far safer for me to drink the treated chlorinated water out of my tap than the natural rainwater in my water butt. A false value of goodness can be given to the word "natural." Indeed we see this with good adverts and even hair shampoos that claim natural ingredients as an asset when the final product is far from "natural. " GM foods are particularly looked upon as unnatural and therefore bad for the environment, when they can also help improve soil health, reduce chemical usage and enable people to be fed.


A similar phrase is "exploitation of nature" is given a negative value. Yet the wind turbines exploits natures breeze. The humble ant exploits his environment moving as much soil globally as mankind, yet this is not bad.


There is also an assumption that when the environment is harmed there is a decrease in the amount of diversity of life in it. Yet Rutland water boasts ospreys where there were once none, feeding on fishes swimming amongst the drowned remains of the rural village of Empingham!


"Climate change" is also a misused phrase that assumes this is bad. The earth's climate has always changed with extremes of temperature and resulting extinctions. The extinction of man caused by climate change may be bad for us, but equally it could be good for the earth. Is man just an arrogant spec in the eons of time?


Indeed the value given to words works both ways. How many times do we see environmentalists referred to as "eco terrorists" or "vandals" when they may be delivering inconvenient truths to power. Equally they can be overly praised as “eco warriors” implying a positive noble cause when their actions are in fact quite selfish or self righteous.


The problem is that there is a lack of differentiation between statements of fact and statements of value. This is particularly seen in the badger culling TB debate where statements of fact on both sides get lost by the value statements of good and bad. A statement of fact is different to a statement of value. As Hume stated, "All because it ought does not mean it is."


The reason for these gaping differences is that argument does not get press, with either sales, or in the internet age, the numbers of clicks. News stories carry evaluative comments and rhetoric that hides serious argument. Indeed we are in a world full of rhetoric that overtakes all logical arguments. This is because the goal of rhetoric is to persuade by any means. Rhetoric does not require facts, reason or logic. People use rhetoric and value loaded words to make their arguments more appealing even if the argument has no substance.


Especially on environmental issues the gullible readers of the press and social media are increasingly unable to identify the difference between rhetoric and argument. Preferring instead to seek to reinforce their existing views. Perhaps we all need to consider this next time we hear or see an environmental argument as to whether the words are of value or of fact.

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