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Sunday, April 6, 2008

The potential power of making up words

What’s the point of trying to popularize a word like Hydrocarbonaholic? Words name problems in useful ways; naming can be the beginning of solving.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been much more effective at reducing the impact of alcoholism than prohibition ever was or could have been. And a core part of that success rests on the first word in the organization’s name.

“Alcoholic” is a word so familiar it feels like it’s always been with us. It hasn’t. It was coined some hundred and fifty years ago, in 1849, by Swedish physician Magnus Huss. Huss wrote Alcoholismus Chronicus, or Chronic Alcohol Illness: A Contribution to the Study of Dyscrasias Based on my Personal Experience and the Experience of Others. Jean-Charles Sournia, writes about Huss in “A History of Alcoholism,” (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1990).

Why does the word matter? And why should it be more effective than “Demon Rum”? It matters because it “medicalizes” the problem, tags it as an addiction rather than merely a moral failing. Whether or not we see medical problems as more easily solved than moral problems, it is certainly easier to accept the accusation that one is “sick” rather than “bad.”

If you’re bad, getting better is an iffy proposition; maybe you can manage it maybe you can’t. If you’re sick, there’s always the chance of a cure. And if we believe in medicine over magic, then getting better from an illness is a scientific process: There are steps to take, data to be assessed, approaches to be tested.

And so to Global Climate Change. . . I’m not interested in castigating anyone, myself included, because of the desire to be warm in the winter, cool in the summer, to enjoy the fruits of modern technology. Doesn’t make me bad; doesn’t make you bad either. And if we can do it efficiently, more power to us!

If we can’t do it efficiently, however, if we’re stuck in a cycle where we just have to keep guzzling gas or we can’t get out of bed, can’t get where we need to go, can’t do what we need to do. . . Well, I’m thinking that’s a problem. I’m thinking that describes a system, describes a lifestyle, that’s unsustainable and unhealthy.

I’m a hydrocarbonaholic, an oil addict, a fossil fuel fool. Not proud of that but I’m not beating myself up about it either. I need the stuff. I admit it. Having admitted it, I want to see what I can do about it. Not bad; just a guy with a problem.

Name It. Start to Change It.


Crafty Green Poet said...

Good post and its a great new word, fits most of us!

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