Language in Environmentalism and the Idea of Public Reason

By: Michelle Bastien
When you and I, as ordinary citizens (assuming of course that you are an ordinary citizen), sit down and chat about the current environmental issues, we speak in a very specific language.  This language is not technical or academic, per say, however this language has jargon; words such as “environmental impact”, “sustainability”, “pristine wilderness”, and “biodiversity”.  These terms mean something specific in regards to our discussion, they convey a certain argument or position.  Proper understanding of environmental jargon is important because it influences many of our decisions as consumers, as political beings and/or as business owners.  Yet, our specific definition for these words varies, which inevitably creates ambiguity in the terminology when it stands alone.  What I consider sustainable environmental practices may not be what you consider sustainable.  Yet the term “sustainable” can be applied in both of our environmental philosophies despite the fact that we hold differing positions.  This is frustrating when one tries to really understand an environmental position, however this language serves a very specific function in our democratic society and there is a reason for the existing ambiguity.  Exactly what that function is, I hope to answer by the end of this piece.  


Rebecca Livernois on how environmental conflicts arise out of competing worldviews

Conflict in environmental ideals as a manifestation of 
differences in fundamental economic worldviews: 
A case study in Tofino, BC    

 Rebecca Livernois

Environmentalists, industry, and First Nations in Tofino, British Columbia, debate often with little resolution. Conversations with representatives of these groups suggest that their disagreements are symptomatic of different and conflicting worldviews. However, it is not obvious whether these worldviews can be reconciled, or, whether they are opposed at some fundamental level.  The aim of this paper is to identify the fundamental disagreements between industry and environmentalists, and industry and First Nations, with the purpose of providing the opportunity for groups to better understand their respective positions.


Abby Wilson on strong vs weak sustainability

In her final paper for the 2011 field course, Abby Wilson looked at the controversy between environmentalists and fish farmers in Clayoquot Sound. She notes that it can be tempting to characterize their disagreement in terms of two different views about sustainability. Weak sustainability condones human use of natural resources, as long as those resources are replenished. Strong sustainability prohibits any major impact on the environment, regardless of whether it is replenished.  It might seem that fish farmers adopt the former view of sustainability while enviromentalists adopt the latter. 

However, Abby argues that, contrary to initial appearances, this is not what distinguishes the two groups. They do not disagree about the correct definition of sustainability (strong versus weak), although this is how one side of the debate --environmentalists-- would  portray the issue. The actual debate  turns on whether sustainability is a moral or a scientific issue in the first place. Environmentalists characterize sustainability as a moral issue, whereas industry tends to view it as a scientific one.  

You can read a summary of this interesting thesis in what follows.