Why don't we call it pollution?

18th May 2011

When we are talking about climate change we call the gasses that come out of the exhaust pipes and chimneys carbon ‘emissions’. Why do we do that? Why don’t we call it ‘pollution’?

The word emissions is so tame, the word pollution is cutting and devastating. I don’t suppose anyone set out to deliberately re-brand this sort of pollution as carbon emissions, but once it started it stuck. This is probably because ‘carbon emissions’ is much less offensive than ‘pollution’ and, to some, it was convenient to leave it this way. There is a precedent here. The Grandfather of Madison Avenue, Edward Bernays, consciously dropped the word ‘propaganda’ in favour of the more palatable ‘public relations’ when he was selling his services to politicians and businesses. He did this because of the negative mind control connotations associated with the word propaganda but later admitted that public relations was essentially the same thing.

When you frame marketing and advertising as ‘propaganda’ - a psychological technique that plays on your deep subconscious anxieties and emotions to manipulate you into buying a good or service - it sounds sinister and deeply unethical. However, if marketing and advertising are framed as a profession practised by creative, cool and sexy ‘agents’ who show you how their product or service can fulfil your wildest dreams it seems clever, interesting and harmless. You know you’ve been tricked, but you don’t mind because you were tricked by Don Draper and you want to be him/sleep with him /drink bourbon over ice in a seedy New York jazz club with him.

When you frame the climate altering gasses that we each create in huge proportions every day as Carbon emissions, they sound a lot less devastating than when you call them what they are: pollution.

Lanuage is important. Whether you are a business, NGO or educator, I can help you to frame your sustainability message effectively. 

Morgan Phillips