2-4-6-8: How can we help mitigate?

'Mitigation' increasingly is used in a way that assumes forces that can't be controlled but only offset – 'flood mitigation,' for example.

I don't like to make predictions, but I will share a hunch: I suspect that we're going to see a lot more of the word mitigation over the next few years.

I know it's not a word that's exactly in your face, or mine either. But I find it's a word I keep seeing, the way I kept seeing Bentleys on the street all over town the other day.

Mitigation pops up in a wide range of contexts. And it may be on the verge of slipping over the line from policy-wonk speak into the language of thoughtful, ordinary citizens. It may make the kind of transition that accessibility, with reference to people with disabilities, has made over the past few decades in the wake of new legislation and building codes. Sustainability is another word of this same type.

A quick Google News search has turned up mitigation with reference to a proposed new gambling casino in southeastern Massachusetts (mitigating possible damage to the tourism industry on Cape Cod); taxing big-box retailers in Ellensburg, Wash., to mitigate possible damage to the historic downtown; projected construction of a supermarket in Kingston, N.H., adjacent to wetlands; and a rock-fall mitigation project being undertaken by the Colorado Department of Transportation. You get the idea.

On one hand, our language seems to be getting less formal all the time. For instance, you can go to a fine dining establishment prepared to spend serious money and be greeted by your server with nothing more formal than "How're you guys doin'?"

On the other hand, language also seems to be picking up more polysyllabic technical terms of all kinds – medical jargon; insider language of political analysts, pollsters, and media marketers; and the language of public process, particularly with regard to the environment.

Mitigation seems a good example of this latter trend. Mitigate is a Latin-derived word meaning to soften or make milder or gentler. It's not used all that often, but when it is, it's often in interpersonal relations: "He tried to mitigate his offense by apologizing." But as the examples above suggest, this new wave of mitigation is about offsetting irresistible forces and the damage, particularly environmental or economic, that they do.

And note that we're talking about mitigation, not prevention. Time was when Smokey the Bear looked us square in the eye and told us, "Only you can prevent forest fires." More recently there have been second thoughts about whether prevention was overdone, and whether letting nature get a little wildfire out of its system would be a good thing.

So now we have "wildfire mitigation."

And as with fire, so with water: Hurricane Katrina focused attention on whether some pieces of land should be built on at all, and whether the rivers are ultimately going to flow where they want to flow. Legions of people around the world are involved in various aspects of flood mitigation.

Mitigation, in this new public-policy sense, as distinct from the good-manners sense, assumes forces – natural or man-made – at work that can't be controlled but only offset, or to some extent protected against.

Although many of the usage examples I've run across are clearly anchored in context – that is, one knows just what's being mitigated, such as flood or fire – I see signs of mitigation becoming a free-floating unmodified noun, like the previously mentioned accessibility or sustainability.

All of this has brought to mind King Canute. He is often remembered as the one who foolishly tried to hold back the tide. But another version of the story has him ordering the tide to stop expressly to demonstrate to his overawed subjects just how limited his powers really were.

He probably wouldn't have had to do it today; people are pretty well aware of the limitations of their leaders' powers. But he might have ordered up some tidal wetlands mitigation.

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