Greenspeak strategy: How the West will be lost?


by T.W. Scott

For more than 50 years, there has been a growing campaign against the beneficial use of natural resources. The campaigners have several names: preservationists, conservationists, radical environmentalists, and greens. I will use “greens,” since it is rather inclusive and short. Years ago, it may have started as a movement to preserve some outstanding scenic or historic locations as parks, however it has expanded into a much more general opposition. The targets have been timber and mining, and more lately, hydro and even agriculture.

There are three main components to most of the campaigns: persuasion, litigation and legislation. Persuasion relies on greenspeak to convince and justify the litigation and legislation to follow. Greenspeakers use favorite words that are chosen to elicit favorable or unfavorable images or concepts.

Greenspeak is based on psychological principles, – guilt manipulation, loss aversion, and use of the indirect approach. If this sounds cynical, it is, but it also has been quite effective. In order to combat this sort of manipulation, one must be able to recognize when and why greenspeak is being used. So how can you identify greenspeak and greenspeakers?


Some of the most frequently used buzzwords are: roadless, pristine, wild, ecosystem, wilderness, clean water, biodiversity and ancient forests (or old growth). Actually, they have become code words. “Old growth” means, “don’t cut that tree; it’s older than you are! It would be like killing your old white-haired grandma!” It is probably no accident that the word “cut” is used. It sounds painful.

Another example of using implied pain is the phrase, “It would be like mugging a burn victim.” This was originated during the opposition to the proposed salvage of the 1987 Silver Fire. It so successful, that when the Biscuit Fire started in 2002, there were so many snags and large down trees remaining in the Silver Fire area, it was extremely hazardous for firefighting crews. They had to fall back to safer firelines. Consequently the Biscuit fire soon grew to 500,000 acres.

Loss aversion

“Save” is another favorite word, used to imply that anything it is attached to will be “lost” if they are not able to keep your hands off it! This is based on the principle of “loss aversion,” which is the strong desire not to lose something one has, which is stronger even than the desire for new acquisitions. This tactic is used most frequently for wilderness, as a compare and contrast scenario: “Look at these pictures of an untrammeled, scenic view versus this nasty field of stumps in a clearcut!” What they don’t show you is a wilderness after a fire that spread because roadless access restrictions prevented timely fire control. And, like in “Animal Farm,” where some animals were “more equal than others,” most of these buzzwords appear “more equal” and have an aura of “goodness” that the greenspeakers cleverly use to capture the high ground in any verbal battle.

On the negative side, some of their favorite words are: extinction, pollute, and (their all-time favorite) clear-cut. “Clear-cut” seems to be an almost universal word for any cutting they don’t like, which is pretty much any cutting. Recently, there is a new forestry concept called “Forest Restoration,” which involves thinning the smaller trees and leaving the bigger trees, which would eventually become “old growth” and thence off limits.

But even this type of harvesting has recently been protested as “clearcutting!” Their eco-mercenary vocabulary is generally based on these words and concepts so, when you see them, you will know that there is a “green” message being sold.

Spurious analogies

Another favorite tactic is their use of the spurious analogy, or false comparison, that is intended to leave you with a shockingly horrible image, such as the “mugging a burn victim,” as mentioned above. They want to leave you with an image of a burned and bandaged person, not the actual situation. It’s just a clever way of changing the subject, sort of a bit of magician’s sleight of hand.

An older spurious analogy was the classic “Canary in the Coal Mine,” comparing a threatened species (the northern spotted owl) with the proverbial canary, as an “indicator species.” Since coal mines are not the naturally favored habitat of canaries, this comparison doesn’t really work and also appears really to be obsolete. But, lacking new buzzier words, it has come back, just as spurious as before. Most people’s reaction to the suggestion that the forests and timber industry would be shut down by this small owl would be, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But no, greenspeakers use the Endangered Species Act with a straight face. They take it even further by claiming that “virtual” (theoretical) owls need protection.

Indirect Approach

Their use of the Northern Spotted Owl was a classic example of how to use the “indirect approach.” This was originally described by the ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu, in a book the “Art of War.” It means looking for the enemy‘s weak point and attacking there, not where they are strong. So, when they wanted to stop timber harvest, rather than simply saying “Don’t cut that tree, you nasty logger,” which likely would have elicited the response “why not?” instead they looked for a weak point. In the northwest forests, the handiest weak attack point turned out to be a bird, the Northern Spotted Owl, which was declared to be “threatened” under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. This gave owls “more equal” status, and meant that its survival was put first in BLM forest management planning, – even ranking ahead of the 1937 O&C Act, which mandated priority to forest timber production under sustained yield management.

As it turned out that the main threat to the little owl turned out to be its bigger cousin, the barred owl, and not the cutting of “old growth,” which had been pretty much stopped anyway by the NW Forest Plan in 1995. So it is not surprising that the owl has continued to decline, as competition with the barred owl is the real problem.

Who are the Greenspeakers?

How can you recognize their groups? As well as their selling buzzwords, they have favorite words they like to use for their organization names, such as: council, task force, alliance, project and center. The message that they are trying to convey is that there are large numbers of activists involved and, in the world of politics, numbers count.

Any serious campaign needs foot soldiers to carry out the program on the ground. I call them “eco-mercenaries,” – somewhat like the troops hired by the British during the American Revolution. In this modern case, it has been the big green 501(c)(3)s, the tax-free foundations that do much of the major funding of these local groups which are usually found in cities, generally with colleges or universities, to facilitate recruiting of young greens.

These young people are often impressionable and can easily be taken in by greenspeak if they are not widely informed. So, what better place to recruit than in a college town, where there is usually a shortage of practical experience, but idealism and theory are in ample supply. This might be called the “Pied Piper of Hamlin” system of recruiting. Many college students are living away from a familiar home environment for the first time, and trying to fit into new surroundings with their new friends and acquaintances. So it is not surprising that, when “Pied Pipers” come along, singing their song of saving the world, they can find recruits.

One might expect that these environmental organizations would try to recruit graduates with backgrounds and expertise in the environmental sciences. However, that’s not the case, according to the executive director of the most active litigating green group, the Center for Biological Diversity:

“I’m more interested in hiring philosophers, linguists and poets. The core talent of a successful activist is not science and law. It’s campaigning instinct. That’s not taught in the universities, it’s discouraged.”

Their lack of technical training frequently allows them to ignore facts they don’t understand.

This may explain an observation by Senator Wyden recently, that “environmentalists have an allergy to compromise!” (The old expression, “don’t confuse me with facts!” comes to mind.)

Their “campaigning instinct” also includes much more than the use of greenspeak words for persuasion; it includes litigation and legislation. The litigation is used to stop or stall government management programs, and the legislation is used for the more permanent “fix” – wilderness status. And greenspeak words and tactics are used to support and sell these more aggressive aspects of their agendas.

Watch what we do, not what we say

A rather good bit of advice came from a surprising source, an environmental attorney. It was: “Watch what we do, not what we say!” The “say” is the persuasion and selling part, which may sound good enough to fool some, but the “doing” he was referring to is the real “teeth,” – litigation, not persuasion. He said this, more in the nature of a threat, as he went out the door at a Congressional hearing, but it is good advice even if he didn’t really intend it to be. He should know, since he works at one of the litigation factories. They have developed litigation into a successful “cottage industry” that has brought them many millions of dollars, – $21 Million at last count in 2014 – from the Equal Access to Justice Act alone, which is considerable but not their main financial support.

Follow the money

So, how has the green movement gotten so large and financially powerful? The old saying, “follow the money,” is the key. This can be a bit like looking for icebergs; only a small part shows above the waterline. Mainly, these are the “little green” 501s, while the “big greens” are largely out of sight underwater. Although, the fact that they are out of sight hardly means they are unimportant. Reputedly, as much as a billion dollars annually flows down to the little greens. This buys quite a bit of the greenspeaking agenda!

One has to wonder what really motivates the big greens. Could some of them even have been sold by the little greenspeakers to get their financial support? In the Middle Ages, the church developed a system (although gimmick might be a more accurate word) called the “indulgence,” which allowed guilty rich “sinners” to buy their way into heaven! Since much of greenspeak is built on implied guilt, maybe it also works upward, like the old indulgences. Plus, these contributions are tax deductions for the big green foundations!

Whatever the motivation, they have undertaken major campaigns and, despite all their green talk, what is it they really want? By “watching what they do,” it is pretty clear that their eventual aim is to stop timber cutting and other utilization of Federal lands. The best way they have found to do this permanently is by wilderness designation. They usually claim this will “save” the area, but from what exactly is often not specifically stated, (although “clearcutting” or worse is usually implied.) The contradiction here is that “saving a wilderness” actually causes the loss of its resources and can make it more vulnerable to loss by fire. Despite these realities, “more wilderness!” has been the greenspeakers answer to pretty much everything. Loss aversion stood on its head!

Following the money locally is still useful, since many of the little green groups are run by eco-mercenaries, some of whom are very well paid. It can be revealing to see where their money is coming from, since it usually comes with the big green agenda. Their IRS filings, and even the organizations own web sites, can tell you quite a bit about identifying the opposition. Publicizing their stated agendas can make it clear that often they are not really working in the best interests of the local communities. Some green groups gather local business supporters who may not be aware of the negative impacts the local greens have on the local areas and their own businesses and customers. Ask them if they know what they are really supporting.

Another big dollar expense caused by the green appeals and lawsuits is the $1.1 billion that flowed from the U. S. Treasury and the U.S. taxpayers to the Oregon O&C counties under the “Secure Rural Schools Act of 2000.” This doesn’t benefit the greens directly, but it is largely to help minimize the damage to county government finances caused by their activities. However, it does little to reduce unemployment or to help the local economies, which have withered away due to the raw material shortages. These artificial shortages have even caused measurable changes in rural demographics – a tilt to the older age classes – as the younger working group had to move away to find employment. As regional economies have declined, there are further negative changes in affected areas, falling public safety budgets, increased crime and drug abuse and declining real estate values. In fact these are all the attributes of a recession – an artificial recession but all too real.

So what now? The nationwide situation has become so serious that the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee formed an Endangered Species Working Group that held hearings on the abuses. In 2014 they proposed four bills, HR.4315 thru HR.4318, which were approved by the House, but were among the many bills that were not acted on by the Senate last year. When reintroduced in this session, they should have a better reception in the Senate. We can let our legislators know that we support these changes so the ESA can get back to the stated job of actually working on species recovery.

In a more general context, we must demand that decisions – affecting vast areas, major natural resources, and extensive rural populations – be based on peer reviewed, real science. One step in the right direction is a 9th Circuit law case which stated that, when Federal agencies’ research decisions are based on “best available science” and not found to be “arbitrary or capricious,” they were presumed to be correct and not vulnerable to appeals or lawsuits.

Any new wilderness areas or monuments proposed must to have recreational values that are outstanding and clearly be of a higher priority than any other values that will be foregone. And new proposed areas should be rigorously examined as to whether their fire protection plans are realistic.

The broader lesson we need to learn from greenspeak is that fine sounding proposals, concepts and words can be adopted and used by groups with entirely different aims from the common usage of the words themselves. And, if they are clever and unscrupulous, their use of greenspeak can continue to mislead most of the public as to what their motives actually are.

Their use of greenspeak has allowed the greens to largely escape responsibility for these negative effects. By pointing out their methods and the long term consequences, it is hoped that this study will allow us, as they suggest, to “watch what they do,” and no longer be fooled by “what they say.”