A scan online of news and blog headlines shows that we—editors and writers and, for that matter, politicians and environmentalists—are all over the place in giving a name to this disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The New York Times is calling it the Gulf oil spill; others refer to the Gulf crisis or the BP spill. Environmentalists are in danger of missing the chance to give this gusher a name that will stick in the historical record. That would be a shame, because this event could alter our collective awareness of the grave danger we are facing.
It is time to settle on a name. If you think this is irrelevant, consider, for instance, the Exxon Valdez. Notice how every single time that spill comes up (with great regularity these days, as it is dawning on us just how bad things are in the Gulf), the name of the culprit is attached. That’s perfect. We should be reminded of the perpetrators of environmental catastrophe.
We need a name that eternally links BP with the Gulf—because BP is responsible. And we need a much stronger word than spill.
The only people who have settled on the terms with which they are discussing (or not) this disaster are the folks at BP. Why do you think they keep pushing the name Deepwater Horizon into the conversation? Whoever heard of that company before? Note that Wikipedia has now listed this disaster as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, with secondary reference to it as the BP oil spill. Wonder how that happened? (An example of innuendo, but I do wonder…)
BP doesn’t want to own this problem. The company just leased it. But we don’t have to buy that. We need a name that eternally links BP with the Gulf—because BP is responsible. And we need a much stronger word than spill. Before much longer, we’ll be wishing a spill is all we were facing. This is a gusher with no known end.
As a professional editor, I’ve always paid close attention to words. Now that I’m writing regularly about climate change, I’m even more attentive to the language people use in engaging with the subject. It’s rife with jargon, rhetoric, and innuendo—handy tools that environmentalists could use more adeptly. These days I’m focused on naming names.
Speaking of rhetoric, by the way, when trying to persuade people that global warming is a crisis, all reference to “grandchildren” is unnecessary and inaccurate. This is a threat to you and your children; the problem isn’t a generation away. It is happening now. As usual, the “I don’t believe in global warming” crowd is better at defining the terms of the argument. (What argument? Well, they’ve created one, simply by using that phrase.) Just look at the idea embedded in the word “belief.” Belief, of course, has nothing to do with science. But it perfectly captures the margins of skeptical thinking that are always, and necessarily, at play among scientists—captures them, and co-opts them, with a spiritual twist.
Environmentalists who want to join the public debate effectively have to name problems accurately, and find the most persuasive, honest, and durable ways to talk about them. And stick with the terms until the terms stick. If we don’t do that, we are going to get caught in tricky, unpredictable, and endless currents. Just like the oil from the 2010 BP-Gulf Gusher. And yes, hyphens matter, too.
Dominique Browning's new book is Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, & Found Happiness, published by Atlas & Co. She was the editor-in-chief of House & Garden and has worked with and written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, O, Wired, Body + Soul, and On Topic. She writes a monthly column about environmental issues for the Environmental Defense Fund and blogs at SlowLoveLife.com.