Plenty of words have fallen out of favor over time — and I'm going to make the argument to retire one altogether.
My desire to eradicate this word arose after reading Andrew Revkin's fascinating NYTimes DotEarth article, debating whether or not human beings can work together to not destroy the Earth's ecosystems and our ability to live on it. It was a fascinating discussion — I encourage you to read the story — but my problem doesn't lie in what was written there. After I had shut my laptop, full of deep thoughts about the future of the planet, I strapped on my sneakers and headed out for a trail run in the woods of the Coast Range mountains of Oregon. I was listening to a Slate podcast. (My trail run is relevant to this point because this is the time of day when I'm reminded how incredibly gorgeous the planet is, and how much we could lose if we pull one too many foundational Jenga blocks from the carefully balanced but robust pile that makes up the Earth.)
The word that got me riled was "eco-friendly," which was being used to describe a potentially game-changing type of renewable energy, and as I was running along, I wanted to spit. And I'm not a spitter. The podcaster wasn't wrong — there just wasn't a better word to use. What an absolutely ridiculous, milque-toasty word to use for something so important!
Because as anyone who gives two hoots about "the environment" knows, it's not about hugging a tree or saving fuzzy animals. What's at stake when we talk about "environmental issues" is the ability of human beings to breathe and eat. If we can't feed ourselves real food because we've degraded our topsoil to such an extent that we're "soylent greening" it up, or if we change the climate so massively that much of our history ends up under water, these seem like criminal acts to me — acts by people today on the people of the future.
And the word for wanting to fight those criminal acts? The word for standing up for the people of the future and their ability to pursue health and happiness?
It's NOT "eco-friendly."
Perhaps I was so disgusted because I'm one of the people who helped popularize the word. I founded a site called Eco-Chick, for Pete's sake. At the time, these softer words seemed appealing because they were positive and unoffensive. And 15 years ago, that seemed like a wise move when talking about environmental issues.
Maybe that was a mistake; I'm not sure. What I do know is that calling a piece of technology that eliminates the need to get oil from other countries or the need to destroy ecosystems and water supplies to get oil at home, or a system that improves air quality so fewer kids and old people die of asthma needs a better word than "eco-friendly."
As a writer, I believe words matter. And I know that a growing percentage of the world's people understand that our actions now are going to have real consequences for future humans. (And for those of you who have children, that would include your own kids and grandkids.) More people than ever are ready for real energy independence and understand the value of a healthy planet. We all deserve a more impactful word to describe the change we want to see.
But it's difficult to find the right word. Maybe one that's closer to the heart of the matter is "human-saving." Anyone who knows geology will tell you that the Earth will keep spinning; the issues we're talking about here are the ones that will make sure the planet is livable for us. At least that phrase feels more future-thinking and humanistic.
How about "future-respecting" or "health-first"? As in, "This new health-first geothermal system will result in almost no carbon emissions since it doesn't require fossil fuels." Or, "The Johnsons really like their future-respecting greywater system."
And if you're shaking your head at those options, can you come up with a better replacement for eco-friendly?
Related on MNN:
- Say a word over-and-over and see what happens
- 7 billionaires and their crazy-ingenious ideas
- Dogs really do hang on our every word