Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

A New Consciousness About Extractive Practices?

Tinges of regret about the ecological effects of land use need to surface as part of the sustainability conversation.

More Americans who are telling their stories now do so with a degree of regret.  With the effects of climate change more likely to be top of mind, there seems to be some useful shame associated with family histories built around various extractive industries.  Celebrations of vaunted “American initiative” from generations ago can now sound foolish, given increased awareness of the true costs tied to the exploitation of natural and sometimes human resources.  Mining, oil and gas production, farming, quarries and logging are probably the most common reference points. But we also have internet businesses that use up precious social capital by abusing the trust of others. Think of social media like Facebook, click-bait scams, or the selling of personal information gleaned through online selling.

True,  it is easy to quarrel with Shakespeare’s famous line that “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” Still, we would like our own family albums to be free of relatives who were rapacious exploiters of the land or its inhabitants.

Financially Successful and Ecologically Disastrous.

There are, of course, the worst of the worst: generations of slave traders and owners, or religious and political leaders who carried out the forced removal of ethnic and indigenous families. But I am thinking of less dire personal histories that include discussions of land-use practices that violate the newer norm to tread lightly on the earth. Thankfully, the rhetoric of professionals in ecologically sensitive fields is now more likely to include their own misgivings about earlier work in extractive industries. For example, several recent authors have lamented their employment in organizations that have left scars on millions of acres of forest land.  Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree (2021) and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) each contain their authors’ regrets about the kind of forestry they were required to do for various governmental agencies.  Both argue for a more wholistic approach to forestry, mostly as a repudiation of the industrialized tree farming. In Simard’s case, some of the organizational practices she witnessed included clear cutting complex old growth forests to make room for monocultures of non-native and quick growing money trees. “I come from a family of loggers,” she notes, but “with taking something comes the obligation to give back.” Her heartbreak over reckless forms of tree removal sometimes came down to the taking of a particular “Mother” tree in one of Canada’s arboreal forests.

We have yet to hear much from those whose family wealth has come from natural gas fracking, mountaintop removal for coal, or the squandering of natural aquifers. And there are many additional industries that have been financially successful and just as ecologically disastrous.

                                                         Clear Creek

I cringe now to note that some in my own family several generations ago were engaged in silver mining in Colorado, which optimistically might have meant only tunneling within a mountain. But other methods of extraction were much more destructive. Hydraulic mining for gold, for example, blasted creek beds with high pressure water to expose tiny nuggets of valuable metal. Mammoth hills of rock and oceans of slag water were created for just a few ounces of the metal. If nature had been allowed to run its course, mountain streams like Clear Creek west of Denver, should still have rugged but vegetated banks, As it is, many spots along the river are vegetative dead zones with piles of grey river rock that can sustain very little.

More than ever, we need biographies of regret to be part of the climate- change discussion. They have the power to bring our attention to the worst of these practices.

A Linguistic Habit We Should Toss

“Biased?” Of Course. We are not capable of neutral observation. Human perception is an instrument of approximation powered by personal experience. It follows that our rhetoric always has ‘tendency:’ personal, political or social. It cannot be otherwise. 

There are many words in our language that have outlived their usefulness, but none more so than that old standby, “biased.” We hear it all the time. ‘People are “biased;’ ‘The story was biased;’ ‘The research has a built-in bias;’ ‘His attitude shows a bias;’ and so on. Someone recently reminded me that another project I am working on is “biased toward the 12-tone system of music.” (Guilty, obviously, but annoyed and unrepentant.) And, of course, a given news outlet is said to be “biased” toward Republicans and another one is biased toward liberals. In any conversation about media, the use of the term can take off like popcorn in a hot pan. And, given the lack of precision that usually comes with the ways it is tossed out, its only one more step to note that the ocean has a bias to flood low shore towns, or that dry forests have a bias toward burning. In the interests of full disclosure, I also have a bias toward food. Can’t kick it and won’t try.

The point of all of this is that the term is mostly an empty word being used as an observation. Even if the term was nailed to the floor in the middle of a room with a spotlight overhead and encircled by a velvet museum rope, I’d still wrench it out and toss it in the trash.  It has gotten to be that irritating as an ostensible insight.

The obvious point is that we are never neutral observers. Humans are not measurement instruments. Human rhetoric always has tendency: personal, political, linguistic, or cultural. It cannot be otherwise. There is simply no way to excise bias from humans using ordinary language and preferred behaviors. We can design instruments for precision.  But, except for mathematicians, its not a value we usually emulate.

The problem here is that the user of the term presumes a purer version of events. But even this presumption has a problem.

Since even hard “data” rarely speaks for itself, we must narrate its meaning in ways that justifiably skew in various possible directions. My office thermometer tells me that is 50 degrees outside. But I’m a member of the jabbering species, so I might interpret this simple data to a friend as a “warm” early spring day. That’s a judgment made in relation to the fact that I’m in the northeast, not balmy Sarasota.

The term “biased” is also used as a blunt instrument of dismissal. There is little going on behind the remark other than the obvious point that someone’s narrative doesn’t match another’s preferred narrative.

This means there is nearly always one simple answer to another’s charge of bias. It is a straightforward “of course,” with an addendum: “Could it be otherwise?”

All of this suggests it would be more intellectually honest to not hide behind this one word.  Go ahead and explain the specific attitude or behavior that is bothersome or seems wide of the mark.