Easy to be green, hard to be environmental

If the environment is so important, why don't we have a better word for it? And more convenient synonyms? These thoughts flickered through my mind the other day as I listened to Japanese-Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki speak at Harvard University. Well known through his long-running TV show and regular newspaper columns, Mr. Suzuki is a household name in Canada - on the order of the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He is on what we used to call a crusade before that term became inappropriate for "clash of civilizations" reasons. "We must save the earth!" is his message.

But when his issues are taken up in public-policy settings, in the halls of government, and in the news media, the language becomes "We must protect the environment." Why is that language so unsatisfactory? Well, for a start "environment" is a four-syllable abstraction, even though its constituent elements - air, water, soil, trees, birds, animals - are concrete terms, familiar even to small children.

But "environment," defined by one dictionary as "the area in which something exists or lives," doesn't seem to describe a living thing.

What alternatives do we have? "Biosphere," perhaps, although that doesn't quite get it either, and has its particular scientific meaning. Remember Biosphere 2?

At some point going back before the first Earth Day in 1970, "ecology" seemed as if it might catch on in popular discourse. "No deposit, no return" pop bottles were deemed "not good for the ecology," for instance. "Ecology" is shorter than "environment," but it's even less concrete, and it sounds like an academic discipline (which it also is). You might say "ecology" is to "environment" as "biology" is to "human being": One is the study, the other is the thing studied.

If "environment" the noun is bad, the adjective is worse. We've taken to describing as "environmentally friendly" those things that aren't positively "friendly" but only "environmentally less damaging than something else we could be doing instead."

"Green" is a bright spot in this discussion. It's short, easy to spell and say, and has a real-life referent: the green grass and trees we can all see.

Recently L'Oreal, the French cosmetics giant, announced its acquisition of The Body Shop, the British cosmetics retailer. When a trade publication ran its story on the deal March 17 under the headline, "L'Oreal Goes Green With Body Shop Acquisition," savvy readers understood that the reference was to The Body Shop's much-promoted environmental consciousness, rather than to St. Patrick's Day, or to extreme hair coloring, for that matter.

"Eco," is a useful combining form, established in "ecotourism," for instance, and it seems to telescope the awkwardness of "relatively less environmentally damaging" into three letters.

The "eco" prefix reminds me of the connection between economics and ecology - and I hope between sound management in the largest sense and environmentalism in the spirit Suzuki preaches.

"Eco" comes from oikos, Greek word for house. It has an English cousin in the "wick" or "wich" element so common in place names: Berwick, Greenwich. "Logy" is a combining form from the Greek word for "word," and refers to the science or theory of something. Thus "ecology," that '60s throwback, "the study of systems," is more concretely "the study of the house" - of Mother Earth.

"Economy" is assembled from "eco" plus another combining form, "nomy," rooted in a Greek word for law and referring to arranging or ordering things - as in taxonomy, for instance. "Economy" originally meant household management, and later the management and finances of the state.

Concern for the protection of the natural world is often seen as at odds with the desire for economic growth - and not without good reason. Suzuki had very strong things to say about conventional economics: "It's not a science; it's a set of values posing as a science."

It is encouraging to note that a number of economists - though not necessarily conventional ones - are seeing environmental protection and cleanup as opportunity, not burden. They're seeing sound economic analysis as supporting environmental protection. They're seeing "economy" and "ecology" as close cousins, if not quite twins.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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