In his famous essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell lamented politicians embrace of what he called, “meaningless words.”
These are words that are bereft of any single, agreed-upon definition, but are politically useful because they conjure up different meanings to different people. As Orwell states, “words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is the person who uses them has their own private definition, but allows their hearer to think they mean something quite different.”
While Orwell’s observations were written close to eighty years ago, they remain remarkably relevant today. Indeed, this winter produced two rather impressive examples of “words that part company with meaning” by politicians here in Saskatchewan.
The first comes courtesy of the City of Regina, which recently promoted the idea of reverting the downtown’s single pedestrian-only street back to car traffic as “revitalization.”
Now, revitalization is certainly one of those slippery words that can have multiple meanings yet sounds good to most people’s ears. Who could be against the revitalization of anything? Perhaps the more pertinent question would be revitalization of what and for whom.
According to the City’s news release, the purpose of revitalization is to “attract more people downtown and to the Scarth Street Mall—with changes to the pedestrian walkway being considered as part of a larger plan to create "a vibrant community, economic prosperity and community safety and wellbeing.”
Even the most cursory research on urban renewal will demonstrate that maintaining and expanding pedestrian-exclusive zones within downtown cores is the most documented means to accomplish these goals. Pedestrian zones increase the attractiveness of areas, resulting in more frequent and longer visits while also reducing air pollution, enhancing pedestrian safety and promoting more active modes of transportation.
Yet both Mayor Sandra Masters and local business leaders who support scrapping the pedestrian zone seem to have a very different meaning of revitalization in mind. For them, revitalization is purely about “revitalizing” retail spending in the downtown. They appear to believe that the only amenity that will attract consumers to the downtown is convenience for drivers. That somehow, the gutting of one single pedestrian-zone will somehow unleash a torrent of retail spending as cars that were previously shut out of the 160 metres of pedestrian-only space come rushing to the rescue.
As University of Regina Geography Professor Vanessa Matthews keenly observes, cars don’t make purchases, people do. Ironically, despite the kneejerk reaction of business owners who often view pedestrian-only zones as an obstacle to customers, the evidence clearly shows that such spaces are a boon to local business, generating higher sales volumes than for business outside the zone.
As one of the most car-centric cities in the country with over 50 percent of its downtown devoted to parking lots, it’s not surprising that the city feels hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. So, it strains the imagination to see how further entrenching the primacy of the automobile will somehow revitalize Regina’s downtown. But maybe that depends on what your definition of revitalization is.
“Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is the person who uses them has their own private definition, but allows their hearer to think they mean something quite different.” —George Orwell
Our second case of “meaningless words” comes directly from our Premier. In December, Scott Moe proudly announced the launch of “Sustainable Saskatchewan,” a rather clunky marketing attempt to greenwash Saskatchewan’s otherwise dismal environmental record.
Now, despite that record, Scott Moe loves the word “sustainable.” In fact, to hear him tell it, there’s not much of anything in the province that isn’t “sustainable.” Coal is sustainable, potash is sustainable, uranium is sustainable, oil and gas are sustainable. What does he mean when he touts virtually the entirety of Saskatchewan resources as “sustainable?”
While notoriously slippery, “sustainability” usually encompasses one of a few broad definitions—in the dictionary, there are two. The first definition is rather simple, something is sustainable if it is “able to continue,” meaning it can be maintained indefinitely without depleting the energy or material resources on which it depends. You will notice right away that a finite, non-renewable resources like oil, natural gas, coal, potash or uranium would not fit this description. Even if managed conservatively and frugally, there is only so much oil, potash, coal or uranium in Saskatchewan that can be drilled or mined.
The second is probably closer to what we think of as sustainability and its association with the environment— “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.” This certainly seems to be what Premier Moe would like people to conjure in their minds when he speaks about Saskatchewan’s resource industries as “sustainable.”
Of course, given what we know about climate science, there is no way we could characterize the continued burning of fossil fuels at the scale we are now as causing “little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue.” So, on both counts, Premier Moe’s claims of sustainability are spurious.
But once again, the goal of meaningless words like “sustainability” and “revitalization” is not to be accurate – quite the opposite – but to let people project their preferred definition on to it, comforted by the belief that their government is following their wishes –even if the truth might be quite different.