More Climate Change Lingo

Illustration: J.D. King


Climate is generating a lot of linguistic heat.
--Technically Speaking, IEEE Spectrum, August 2006

Climate change was a hot enough topic that I wrote about it in this column in 2006, but recent polls show it’s no longer a major component of the average person’s stress portfolio. Was global warming just another faddish obsession? We can look to language for an answer—new words are the cultural by-products of our preoccupations. And sure enough, while the idea of climate change may be on the back burner, it’s clearly on high heat, because new words and phrases are still bubbling up.

Talk about climate change often starts with carbon dioxide—calculating one’s carbon footprint, weighing the pros and cons of carbon offsets, or debating the ethics of carbon trading. But when concern becomes obsession, a new class of environmentally conscious person is born: the carborexic, a person who obsessively minimizes his or her use of carbon.

Even if few people suffer from energy anorexia, or carborexia, as it’s also called, a recent survey showed that fully 7 percent of Americans are hard core about recycling and reducing their carbon output. Researchers have dubbed them dark green. Many in this category worry about their cookprint, the energy they use and the waste they produce while preparing meals. The use of the term footprint to refer to the impact of human activity on the environment is about 30 years old. You’re probably most familiar with the phrase carbon footprint, but older variations on the theme are ecological footprint and environmental footprint.

A related idea is the walkshed, the area that a person can comfortably or conveniently cover on foot. This word is an urban take on watershed, the area of land that drains into a river or other large water source. A similar term is foodshed, which is the area where a person or family can obtain locally grown food. The goal is to reduce your total food miles, the distance that a food item travels from its source to the consumer, and the best way to do that is to become a locavore, a person who eats only locally grown food. This is just one facet of being an ethical eater, someone who only or mostly eats food that meets certain ethical guidelines, particularly organically grown food and humanely raised meat, poultry, and fish.

Your average ecosexual (a single, environmentally conscious person with a strong aesthetic sense; a metrosexual in Birkenstocks) does his part by precycling—purchasing products based on how recyclable they are—and by cycling everywhere, rain or shine, perhaps using a sport utility bike (or SUB), a bicycle that’s been extended so it can carry an extra passenger or extra cargo. On the rare occasions our ecosexual friend finds himself behind the wheel, his eco-driving minimizes fuel consumption and emissions. Many eco-drivers are also hypermilers—people whose driving technique conserves fuel by maximizing gas mileage.

Our hero may also express his ecosexuality by using only cleantech—technology that itself is environmentally friendly or that helps reduce environmental problems—as well as by supporting pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) programs (which charge a fee based on how much garbage a household or business generates) and feebates (government programs designed to reduce energy use and pollution by levying fees on fuel-inefficient vehicles and offering rebates on fuel-efficient vehicles). He may even happily join in with a carrotmob, an event where people support an environmentally friendly store by gathering en masse to purchase the store’s products.

If there’s a downside to all this fuss about the climate, it’s that it can lead to what some people have dubbed climate porn: extreme or alarmist language or images used to describe the effects of man-made climate change. This leads to eco-anxiety, which is worry caused by concerns about the environment, and threat fatigue, where people ignore or downplay a possible threat after being subjected to constant warnings about that threat.

Perhaps that’s why people tell pollsters that climate change is no great concern. After years of dire warnings, apocalyptic predictions, and the-sky-is-falling tirades, maybe they’re just tired.

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