Avoidance of absolutes: a lesson in language

Yesterday a prominent business litigation lawyer told a transportation conference at McMaster University in Hamilton that she thinks that rail transportation of crude oil is safe. A US communications ngo with sustainable agriculture expertise claims that sustainable agriculture is agriculture that does not harm the environment. This week Maclean’s has published a list called the Green 30 (see GallonDaily later this week for our comments on the list).

The problem with these claims, and with thousands more made in the media, in articles and advertising, and on product labels every week, is that they are presented as absolutes. Rail transportation of crude oil is clearly not safe, sustainable agriculture inevitable causes some harm to the environment, as does every human activity, and even the top companies on the Green 30 list are less than absolutely green, even when we take into account that the term ‘green’ is less than perfectly defined.

These statements are presented as absolutes when they should be presented as relatives. It is not unreasonable to suggest that rail transport of crude oil is safer than other ways of transporting crude oil (though GallonDaily would suggest that such an opinion may still be wrong). It is even more reasonable to suggest that sustainable agriculture has a lower environmental footprint than conventional agriculture, though GallonDaily suggests that sustainable agriculture, another poorly defined term, may not be as sustainable as organic agriculture, a practice which it apparently encompasses but also exceeds.

One might expect that a lawyer would understand the risk of absolutes. Given the number of recent train wrecks involving crude oil, how can a respected lawyer possibly make a public statement that rail transportation of oil is safe. A lawyer can hold whatever opinions she wishes but when speaking from a public platform she is using her professional qualification as a credential. Surely the Law Society should view this as a misconduct? Had she stated that in her opinion transportation of oil by rail is safe enough or safer or, even more preferred, poses less risk than other modes of transportation, and had she been willing to present evidence and been prepared to support public participation in a debate about the relative safety of oil transportation modes, because one part of risk assessment must involve public perception of risk, then the statement would have been defensible. But to state that transportation of oil by rail is safe is nothing short of a lie and a disrespect to the people of Lac-Mégantic and other communities that have been seriously harmed by crude oil train wrecks.

An ngo that claims expertise in sustainable agriculture should at least understand that all agriculture has an environmental footprint. Sustainable may involve minimizing that footprint but the human presence at least since the stone age almost inevitably has a deleterious impact on global ecosystems. We support sustainable agriculture not because it has zero environmental impact but because it is a stepping stone towards more sustainable food production systems. Watch for more information on bioeconomies in the next issue of Gallon Environmental Letter, due in your email box before the weekend.

The above is a GallonDaily opinion. For information on subscribing to Gallon Environment Letter, including a last chance to subscribe to the free edition, visit http://www.cialgroup.com/gallonletter.html

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