Tracking the Language of the Environment
Last week, Google labs released a new language tool, the Google Books Ngrams Viewer, that lets you plug in any word or short phrase and see how often they occurred in published books over a designated period of time.
While the technological tool itself is certainly worthy of its own post (looking at you, Peters!), it sure is fun (or, at least, interesting) to see how various words and phrases relevant to a particular field have played out over time.
Nicola already went ahead and tracked America's diet using Ngram. Following her lead, I couldn't help but wonder how various environmental terms have played out in literature over the past 100 or so years.
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The "greenhouse effect" (in green) was most popular through 1988 or so, when it was overtaken by "climate change" (in blue) and "global warming" (in red). Climate change and global warming tracked even until about 1994, when "climate change" took the lasting lead. It's worth noting that 1994 was the year that GOP messaging strategist Frank Luntz helped Republicans win the House with the "Contract with America," and that the same Frank Luntz advised Republicans in 2003 that "'climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming.'"
Here's a baseline look at "environment." I have no idea what would cause the pretty sudden drop after 2000. Should we blame Al Gore?
And here's "environmentalism," which clearly shows how the movement around the environment grew, slowly at first, then in a flash in the mid-1990s. Despite the impressive curve on this graph, it's worth noting that compared with "environment" itself, the term "environmentalism" barely registers as a flat line on the bottom of the chart. People are still writing a lot more about the environment itself than about the movement.
Here's "nature" versus "environment" from the turn of the 19th Century through 2008. Despite its relatively steady downward trend over time, I like thinking that the slight uptick for "nature" around 1836 had to do with Emerson's essay of that same name. During the mid-1840s, when "nature" was again trending briefly up, Thoreau was passing time at Walden Pond, but he didn't published his seminal work about that experience until 1856.
I honestly don't know what to infer from this chart, but I do think that there's a good chance that "preservation" was used pretty commonly outside of the realm of the environment and natural resources.
"Solar energy" (blue) boomed through the 1970s, until Reagan came into office and stripped Jimmy Carter's panels off the White House roof. "Nuclear energy" (green) saw a similar jolt, but didn't fall as fast, even after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. "Wind energy," apparently, has never been all that popular in the books. (A comparison of "wind energy" and "wind power," which rolls off the tongue a little easier, show relatively even results.)
To leave things on an up note: pessimism may be rising, but optimism is fairing even better. (Note: this is a far from scientific assessment.)