The Style Guide at the End of the World


Photo: Polar Bear, Derby Museum Collection, Gorm Ashurst for Stories of Change project,

What kind of language should we use to describe the end of the world as we know it? This is a question that has been running in parallel with the history of space flight. Since the first glimpse of NASA’s blue marble photo – the whole Earth from space – humanity has been struggling to put into words the enormity of the impacts that human beings are having on the world they inhabit. The dawning awareness of the impacts of everyday life has presented a tricky puzzle for those of us that seek to capture it all in an image or a phrase.

Some modest changes to the Guardian newspaper’s style guide on writing about environmental issues kept me awake last night. I’ve drawn my thoughts together in the hope that I sleep tonight. Yes these observations are ‘picky-academic’ but the fact that I’ve burned a slice of early Saturday morning when I’d rather be in bed suggests that I really feel the need to share. A style guide is a rule-book – the soft word ‘guide’ disguises its status as the authoritative bedrock of terminology on which a media institution stands. So this is an intriguing moment to observe a change in tenor at a well-known title. There are some tweaks here that I suspect the Guardian may come to regret.

‘Wildlife preferable to biodiversity’

This appears to be a tactical move designed to mobilise more people to care. It hardly seems necessary because wildlife as a term is used all the time in popular writing and biodiversity probably not enough. My guess? Anyone that might be moved by such a change was reached long ago, and they already view these terms as synonymous. But there are costs to deploying ‘wildlife’ more consistently in place of ‘biodiversity’. The former subtly, probably inadvertently, places human beings back at the centre of the action, just at the point in modern human history when we were beginning to get the hang of the fact that we are in-and-of-nature. Biodiversity suggests interconnected webs of life within which human animals sit. For me it is a good consistent reminder that human actions have consequences. ‘Wildlife’ sustains the myth of separation and is too suggestive of ‘care for animals’ rather than lives lived within big messy interdependent ecosystems. This is a step backwards.

‘climate science denier or climate denier… Most “climate sceptics”, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, deny climate change is happening, or is caused by human activity, so denier is more accurate’

So if your objective is to pull the wagons ‘round and sit at a campfire with trusted friends knowing the enemy is some distance off in the dark this is a smart move. But if you want to build the kinds of majorities for action that span the political spectrum and can sustain a consensus for policies across four election cycles then it is a poor signal to send. The sociologists call this kind of language use ‘othering’. It is the construction of an opposition through language. However it is easy for the relatively small number of very active and engaged critics of climate research and policy to step over this rhetorical device. Indeed we can anticipate some clever redeployments of it. I’m counting the minutes until we see an arch commentary on ‘why I’m a climate tax denier’. I’m not so worried about the hacks and bloggers whose mortgages or personalities depend on this kind of argument. Most of the air has left their tyres by now. But I am concerned that this move pushes the public that is attentive to their arguments (lets call it 30-40% for now) further away from engaging with the challenges of climate change. And as a side point, there is something distasteful in the implicit association with holocaust denial. For what it is worth I think ‘climate contrarian’ is both polite and accurate.

‘global heating preferable to global warming’

This idea appears to originate from a contribution by climate researcher at the Met Office Richard Betts at a UN climate side-meeting. It feels like a good creative thought that would have delivered a better term than one that’s been widely used for over a quarter of a century. But I suspect that train has left the station. I’ve almost never referred to global warming because I found climate change summarised my natural science colleagues’ work better than global warming in the contexts I was using it, and also climate change bedded down quite quickly in the international policy and political processes as the primary reference term. Where the term global warming is needed in explanation of the basic science I can see that this could be a handy refinement. (Incidentally Betts at the same time repeated a really big and important point that deserves way more attention – that we need to frame climate in terms of risk. See some links to other posts below for more from me on that).

‘climate change is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation; use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead

Hah! I see what you did there… You have recognised that climate change is a somewhat passive and descriptive term in the context of a rising tide of attention amongst your audience, particularly those much fought over next-generation media consumers. I don’t mean to suggest that this is simply a showy commitment to a phrase of the moment. But I’m not certain how long any of us can sustain a state of emergency. This takes me back to a question about the right quality of urgency around climate change, or indeed environmental issues more widely. How should one refer to a slow crisis, or an emergency that is coming at you at the pace of a stream of treacle? The Earth in Vision research project I worked on looked at one hundred programmes produced by the BBC on environmental themes across sixty years. That work demonstrated that the ‘end of the world show’ is one of the longest running strands in British broadcasting. See for example Frank Fraser Darling’s Reith Lectures of 1969. The mainstream media have been worrying away at how to tell the story of ecological collapse at human hands for at least as long as I’ve been alive (52 years and counting).

The boy who cried wolf wasn’t wrong, but did struggle to find the right communications strategy. It is an unfortunate but consistent feature of academic performance that us hypercritics can help plot problems but leave the room before offering up answers. So I’ll do my best. I don’t think we have significant issues with our choice of language. Yes we might have done better in the early stages, but the style guide around biodiversity and climate change was inscribed into international agreements and processes a while back and we probably have to put up with most of it. Instead our innovation needs to come in our political, policy and economic language, and we need to weave it together into engaging accounts of the future that can be worked with across a broad political spectrum.  In step with this we need to practice a cultural politics of environmental change that is improvisatory, experimental and, when the moment calls for it, visionary.

Entrepreneurship is urgently required in how we thread together objectives about the future of work, health, cities, homes and streets with clear goals about managing down climate risks and protecting and expanding space for the non-human natural world that we depend upon. We have to rethink how our systems of taxing and spending work in order to reflect full environmental costs of goods and services in all our decisions. Paul Hawken’s Drawdown book is a catalogue of actions we already have within reach. It is just one example of approaches that show that ‘this is a problem we can probably fix’, and achieve good things in the process.

People have a good instinct for authenticity and they know that the kinds of transformative work that is needed requires a steady purposeful pace. People know that making homes comfortable using little energy or enabling journeys that don’t require – or just sip – fossil fuels is going to take time and care. ‘Crisis’ and ‘emergency’ suggests a sprinter mentality: bursts of urgent effort spurred by a fight and flight response. The sustainability transformations we are in the midst of – albeit in the early stages – just aren’t like that, and everybody in their heart knows it. They require a marathon runner’s mentality. We need to make changes to many aspects of contemporary economies and societies, and hold everyone together while we’re doing that. Getting to the finish requires a sustainable and steady pace.

I hadn’t looked at the Guardian’s style guide before today. It is a fun document for the pub quiz setting crowd. Clearly it doesn’t seek to achieve encyclopedic completeness, but there are moments when they really bottom out a question. Under the heading for ‘Alastair or Alasdair’ it usefully shares one distinctive spelling: ‘Aleister Crowley (late satanist)’. Down the other end we have ‘zig-a-zig-ah in the Spice Girls’ song Wannabe.’ At the same time there is no entry for sustainability or sustainable development. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are the global plan of action on poverty, climate change, resources and biodiversity and those that have heard of them don’t talk about them much. None of these terms appear in the Guardian’s Style Guide. Personally I would have really welcomed being guided towards some more sprightly phrases that communicate the same principles. I’ve never managed to achieve that myself, but I can’t help feeling that some of the UK’s best wordsmiths could help. We all have work to do.

Here are some links to some of my other posts that relate to these themes:

On climate contrarianism

Calling time on climate name calling:

Not sceptics but climate dyspeptics:

An open letter to Nigel Farage (and offer of a pint)

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