On Speaking Terms with Conservation

There is one thing everyone concerned about the future of our wildlife and natural habitats—and the kind of world we’re going to leave our children—can do to help. That is to take on the responsibility of being knowledgeable spokespeople for the natural world. Communicating in every possible forum how vital it is for us to protect it. In order to do so effectively, we must use the best terms we can to inform and influence public attitudes, and the decision-making of our politicians.

I find that the terms we use that are related to the natural world can be divided into several groups. There are “management,” “political,” and “communication” terms that we use all the time, but we don’t always realize the difference between them.

For example, “conservation” is actually a management term, not a communication term. It comes from the days of the dust bowl and refers to soil conservation; however, today most people don’t know whether “conservation” is for animals and plants or for human beings. It gets used a lot, often incorrectly, because people are comfortable with it and it doesn’t trigger a negative response.

The words “environment” and “environmentalism” can be even more ambiguous. Environmentalism has turned into more of a “political” term. It has been used as an umbrella to cover everything. The public doesn’t always know exactly what it means, but it is generally not liked by business and industry because it implies being restrictive. In order to fully understand its meaning, it should be made clear that we deal with two different environments. There is the “human environment,” which is a person’s personal environment and usually deals with cleaning up the backyard or insulating the house, and a “natural environment” which encompasses the entire planet. The two have different urgencies. It is easy to communicate to people why we have to clean up our garbage and insulate our homes. It can be much harder to communicate why it is essential for us to have access to wildlife, wilderness, and open spaces.

A more appropriate communication term that reflects how life on earth works is “sustainability.” Sustainability is a law of the universe. Any life form that is still here on our planet is here because its habits, its ability to adapt (if necessary), its food and behavior have been sustainable. That applies to humankind as well. The way we treat our bodies must be sustainable. The way we treat our cars must be sustainable if we want them to be around for a while. Sustainability is easy to understand.

Adding the word “consumption” to sustainable creates a term that can disarm CEOs and financial leaders who may think that environmentalism is restrictive and therefore, bad for business. Sustainable Consumption is a law of nature. It is the way the earth works. Every life form, from a microbe to a whale, is a consumer, and any consumer that over consumes will ultimately not be able to sustain itself.

©2012 Jim Fowler