Two recent news stories have cropped up that demonstrate the precariousness of our ability to engage in environmental concerns in a meaningful way. While one is garnering quite a bit more public attention, it’s the combination of the two events that suggests the extent to which our understandings of the environment can be moved beyond our control. The first is a sweeping piece of anti-terror legislation the Conservative government is pushing through parliament in Canada. Bill C-51 extends the surveillance, search and seizure powers of police and government agencies, allows for arbitrary and warrantless detention and criminalizes the promotion of terrorism, broadly defined. The wording is alarmingly vague. The Bill as it stands (although the government is currently considering some scale-backs) states that undermining Canadian security includes “interference with critical infrastructure” and with Canada’s “economic and financial stability.” It’s never made clear what it might mean to interfere in these things but it is clear that interference will be criminal.

The risks of potential charges of terrorism for environmental activists and First Nations groups have been made clear in a recently leaked document from the RCMP, which expresses concerns over activists “opposed to society’s reliance on fossil fuels,” and advises that anti-petroleum “extremists pose a realistic criminal threat to Canada’s petroleum industry.”

It’s worrisome because there are points at which environmental protection and a profit-driven natural resource-based economy such as Canada’s will come into conflict. If the health of the environment comes first, then profit will at some point have to come second, and vice versa. This is not to say that we can’t have both a healthy economy and a healthy environment, but that if profit is the bottom line that’s what will guide decision making.

This bill gives a hefty amount of muscle to the prioritization of profit by making financial “stability” not just an ideal, but a lawful state of being. To vocally or actively prioritize something other than financial stability, in this broad sense, could be rendered criminal, particularly since financial “stability” in Canada has become more and more entwined with the development of Alberta’s oil sands.

To support a healthy economy, according to the rhetoric around C-51, is to support oil sands projects and pipelines. Aligning economic health with national security and petroleum production with economic health means that our ability to move towards cleaner alternative sources of energy will be seriously curtailed. To move past Canada’s current petro-economy would be unthinkable.

The other story, which got considerably less press, was Robert Macfarlane’s reminder about recent changes to the Oxford Junior dictionary, changes that, in a no less overt way, will determine what will be thinkable in regards to future environments. In 2007, the dictionary removed a number of words for natural things—buttercup, kingfisher, pasture and willow, for example. It replaced them with words like bullet-point and chatroom, words it thought were more reflective of what children need to know about their daily worlds. It apparently actually replaced the word blackberry with Blackberry. Seriously.

Macfarlane’s reminder was also an essay on our need to “rewild” our language. He cites the loss of words associated with the specific geographies of coastal areas and islands around Britain, and the need to preserve them, and through them, the “lifeworlds and habits of perception” that belong to those localities. It’s a timely reminder that language doesn’t just reflect the world we live in—it creates it. If the nonhuman world is missing from the dictionary, the children who use the dictionary will have to limit the scope of their inquiries to the human world and they won’t even know that they’re being limited. They will also have to assume that the culture they’re growing up in doesn’t value things like trees and birds because it didn’t make the effort to pass on knowledge about them in one of the most authoritative means it has to pass on knowledge.

The two stories together are worth making a dialogue of because they demonstrate that the ways we can talk about our environment are governed by entities that can determine our ability to articulate what needs protection and why. On the one hand, language about the environment is being used to enforce the primacy of the free market economy and to obfuscate the extent to which ethical engagement with governments on behalf of environmental causes can be enacted before it becomes “terrorism.” On the other, language about the environment is disappearing altogether.

Bill C-51 explicitly excludes “lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression” from its measures, but given the increasing limitations on what counts as lawful, the exclusion might not matter as much as it should. Green Party leader Elizabeth May says that of particular worry is the Bill’s potential application to “non-violent and illegal civil disobedience,” which as she points out encompasses something as simple as demonstrating without a proper permit.

Journalist Wes Regan makes an excellent point when he notes that because the term “critical infrastructure” is so vague it could, in the context of ensuring petroleum security, apply to something like a pipeline, or even “a pipeline that isn’t built yet.” The vagueness surrounding the bill allows governments to shift the meaning of environmentalist action from a moral to a legal context whenever that happens to suit them. It also means that the government has a formula wherein every environmentalist action can be taken to broadly belong to an abstract and general category of environmentalism that has already been determined to be both anti-economic and anti-government. To take the meaning of individual actions back requires rejecting the abstract conceptualization of environmentalism and putting the issues within a local context.

But we can’t do that without language that allows us to speak specifically about the geographies and beings we’d like to preserve; to talk about willows instead of trees, kingfishers instead of wild animals. Without language about the local environment, we can’t speak about the local environment in terms other than what’s given us by the powers that be, and that – coupled with our increasing inability to conceptually separate environmentalism from criminality – means that we’re quickly becoming limited in our ability to stand up to potential ecological degradations around us.


image: willow stump in storm via Shutterstock