Working Wilderness and Other Code Words

George Wuerthner has a good piece how metaphors affect the way we perceive our natural resources.

Working Wilderness and Other Code Words. New West. By George Wuerthner.

In fact my use of the term “natural resources” implies a point of view, namely that elements of the natural world exist just for our use and have no intrinsic value.

I shudder when organizations use the word “human resources,” for it implies that people are like mineral ore, trees bound for the sawmill, animals sent to be slaughtered and fully utilized. It also implies that people are subjects, not things valuable in their own right. The phrase “human resources” is both anti-democratic and anti-individualistic.

Conservationists would do well, as Wuerthner says, not to adopt these words. When you start talking about “working rivers” (meaning dammed and/or dewatered), predator control (killing an animal that somehow offended the owner of livestock), you are adopting a language that says “I accept your cultural and economic dominance.” You should only use these words if you can somehow decenter it — redefine it and get people to use it in a way that implies an alternative view.

I always told my classes that most of the process of politics consists of the manipulation of language.

Note that “livestock” strongly implies a view about the status of an animal, and cattle, sheep, horses have no value other than to us. 






  1. be Avatar

    i struggle with the last note. while i generally agree that “livestock” is loaded toward the anthropocentric ~ i wonder about the subjectivity of these manipulated beings. i suppose i just wonder about the interest of a being which has been bred out of its teleological moral standing… or has it? i’m not much of one to put that much value on sentience exclusively.

    I liked George’s article as well. I have issues (not necessarily disagreements) about the direction of the prescriptive aim. I suppose it is the same issue that folk have with any communication or attempt to compel others.

    that is to say ~ is it of more value for me to abandone language which i determine to be loaded in a way contrary to my beliefs as an excersize of dissidence ? ~ even to load alternative language with nuances aimed at piercing the subtle contrivances of original manipulated languages as an exercise of linguistic activism? — or is it of more value for me to engage the language being fully aware of its implication ~ but to value its ability to afford me admittance into a linguistic community through which i may serve my principles more effectively than by turning toward the alienation of isolation/activist language?

    i suppose these are different questions for policy or everyday conversation. public policy language is loaded, as George suggests ~ so much so that the meaning can be reasonably considered to be an outright lie. it is uplifting to think, however, that the prevelance of such purposefully orchestrated language must be an indication that policy makers know that if they were to label their volition honestly — they would fall.

  2. sal Avatar


    Having sttudied linguistics for years, I would have to agree with George’s claims. The term “linguistics” covers a lot of territory here–the study of language(s).

    In political speech, one should be very cautious of word use specifically as George states, to avoid a tacit acceptance of the use of certain terms to deceive or formulate public perception of what is actually the opposite of the that implied by the words used. A sort of definition bending exercise.

    Most folks in the US are not familiar with the proper English once taught and upheld in this country. The very use of most words, to many, is accompanied by a pre-defined image from a screen somewhere that presents the image the presentor wished to impart–not what the receiver might interpret independently. (This falls under the category of socio-linguistics).

    Socially constructed definitions of terms come from social conditions perceived by the users, often for the purpose of imparting a concept that is irregular to the meaning of a term already in use–like in politicalspeak as mentioned in the article.

    this can be demonstrated in the use of the word “environmentalist”. Where did that word come from? The media made it up to describe anyone who favors nature over industralization/exploitation of nature. the real term is conservationist but it has been shelved for the former term which has often resulted in a negative definition to the recipients of the phrasing.

    When I attend court sessions or public hearings, I take a notebook and write down all the comments-verbatim. Later, I review the notes and do word counts on repeated words and phrases used by those testifying to examine what rhetorical statements they are making and whether the various definitions match up or are individually defined to mean a small variety of carefully constructed sub-meanings. It really makes a difference in trying to understand what was being said by those speaking in interest groups but as individuals. It would take chapters to go deeper into why what George states is correct.

    As for the other points made thus far, I do agree with George and Ralph.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan