Conversations about Conservation: Part Two

Updated: May 1, 2020


We need to employ greater linguistic flair to revitalise our discussions on conservation.


I discussed in Part One the words and phrases not fit for conservation. So maybe you’re wondering, what terms and phrases should we adopt instead?

Shaking up the semantics

Let’s not talk about ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital’, but rather inject some soul by saying ‘nature’s benefits’. In the Nature Conservancy report, this and ‘nature’s values’ were rated by the general public as highly appealing.

Banish ‘ecosystems’ and let’s paint a detailed picture of the natural areas we are visiting. Let’s call them ‘places of natural wonder,’ and ‘natural treasures.’

Move over ‘landscapes,’ let’s jibber-jabber enthusiastically about the ‘living planet’ and ‘natural world’ instead.

I attended a ‘Conservation Optimism’ conference last year, where Dr Dan Danahar discussed many exciting things (cut to 17:30 on video in link) about getting kids into nature. One of them being how he was avoiding the term ‘biodiversity’ and simply calling it ‘big nature.’ Amazing! Memorable and exciting!

And, the conservation movement is slowly getting a grasp on this, coining the term ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ (AONB), much better than a ‘reserve.’

Intentionally framing our language in more exciting ways has the power to bring conservation issues into people’s sphere of receptivity and can aid the effectiveness in punctuating, elaborating, and motivating action. Crafting these interpretive lenses through which we see and make sense of things is important. For example, what term evokes a greater sense of excitement? ‘Biodiversity’ or, ‘wildlife’? For me, it’s certainly wildlife!

We have a whole dynamic language to graciously capture our natural treasures. To do this, Monbiot urges professional ecologists to discuss with poets, cognitive linguists and amateur nature lovers to discover the perfect words. I’d be interested to hear what ideas people have, please do comment below. Let’s speak to people’s love of nature, establish aspiration, thrill and longing. Let’s feel the cold dewy grass tickle our feet, let’s hear the autumn leaves murmur in the breeze, let’s sense the deer’s cautious gaze, just through words.

Really paint a picture in one’s mind when describing nature.  Trees in The Park, by Leonid Afremov.

Really paint a picture in one’s mind when describing nature. Trees in The Park, by Leonid Afremov.

The Reasoning

These economic language buzzwords, ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ are concepts that have shaped the vision of the conservation movement. They have been indoctrinating our thinking, hopes and expectations for the past three decades. Institutions were created and adapted to them. And significant advancements have been made. So, whilst I’ve criticised some of the conservation jargon, it must be noted that these terms have empowered conservationists and legislators to think beyond conventional thought; ‘biodiversity’ has been able to signify more than ‘species’ or the ‘environment.’

And undoubtedly I will be using some of the no-go terms discussed, despite efforts not to. I recently finished filming one of my little upcoming documentary series and realised I’d mentioned ‘biodiversity’ at least 10 times! But using these terms suited for political and academic situations does not resonate with all, and will hinder people from engaging more fruitfully with conservation.

Everything we do is underpinned by nature. (Picture Source)

To finish Conversations about Conservation, I want to finish with pointing to some inspiring projects which emphasize the value and integrity of our conservation lexicon.

Back in 2007, nature writer Robert Macfarlane unearthed that the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was missing a horde of words associated with the natural world; words the publisher felt were no longer relevant to modern-day childhood… to which Oxford University Press confirmed. So, ciao to acorn, adder, ash. Cheerio to conker and bluebell. Laters to lark, nectar and newt. Instead, hello broadband, celebrity, chatroom, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

Motivated by the cull, Macfarlane wrote an eloquent essay in The Guardian and ingeniously crafted ‘The Lost Words,’ a book to ensure the next generation will stay connected with nature through language; the perfect resource for providing a valuable lexicon in an era when ‘chatroom’ replaces ‘conker.’

A page spread from MacFarlane’s, The Lost Words.

A page spread from MacFarlane’s, The Lost Words.

Another fantastic book to have a look at is ‘Uncommon Ground’ by Dominick Tyler. Similarly, he reignites your enchantment with the natural world by uncovering a vast linguistic store of words as wild and magical as the natural phenomena they describe.

Ever heard of a ‘zawn?’ Me neither! It’s ‘a steep-sided coastal inlet’ Check out Tyler’s book for more! (Picture source).

Ever heard of a ‘zawn?’ Me neither! It’s ‘a steep-sided coastal inlet’ Check out Tyler’s book for more!

So, let’s revive our curiosity and connect ourselves back to nature and do so in a linguistically pleasing way.

The Conclusion

Conservation need to revolutionise its vision and craft imaginings of futures that we can collectively aspire to create. Much of the conservation scaffolding provided in language, is simply uninspiring.

Funding is one of the biggest constraints for conservation projects. But conversing in prose that nourishes the way in which we are intrinsically motivated to protect our living planet, will help build support for conservation. It won’t be instantaneous, nor a panacea, but it will certainly help.

If you’re wondering, in the end I would simply say I’m studying the living planet.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a little infographic I found rather exciting.

#Communication #Conservation #Language