In the December/November issue of Columbia Journalism Review’s magazine, our managing editor, Brent Cunningham, made the case for a rhetoric beat in journalism. His argument focused on the American response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — which the government (and the media, in turn) framed as a “war on terror” — but it holds for all stories where buzzwords and catchphrases are found:

Political rhetoric is not inherently bad, and I am not suggesting a War on Rhetoric. But there are aspects of our present political and cultural reality that underline the need for a prominent, persistent, and intellectually honest airing of our linguistic dirty laundry, and the mainstream press is our best hope for getting it.

A thoughtful op-ed by Verlyn Klinkenborg in Tuesday’s New York Times echoed that sentiment and applied its logic to the environmental beat, where the term “carbon footprint” has gained considerable traction over the last year. According to a quick Factiva search, U.S. newspapers have employed the phrase in over 2,000 articles since June 2007. Most recently, it appeared in local papers nationwide following the release of a report, by the Brookings Institution, cataloguing the greenhouse gas emissions of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. Rhetorical analysis of the term is rare, however, and while the increased awareness of environmental impact is heartening, Klinkenborg aptly points out that there is a certain risk of cognitive dissonance:

The swiftness of this change in consciousness—and the linguistic change that goes with it—is staggering. And a little worrying. For one, it is vastly easier to find new words than it is to overturn old habits, and all too easy to mistake the ubiquity of the new carbon-speak for substantive change…

What makes me uneasy is simply knowing how quickly humans adopt new phrases and how readily we confuse them with the reality—or the unreality—of our actions. The two things we seem to do most instinctively are manipulate language and create markets, and those two instincts converge when it comes to carbon footprints. Creating a market in moral carbon—offsets that counter our energy-rich lifestyle—feels a little like Rotisserie baseball, more illusion than reality.

In fact, it is not terribly difficult to define “carbon footprint.” In a long New Yorker article from February entitled “Big Foot,” science reporter Michael Specter wrote, “A person’s carbon footprint is simply a measure of his contribution to global warming.” Still, the term is finicky because defining a footprint is easier than measuring one. Specter’s story revolves around the chief executive of Tesco supermarkets, Britain’s largest retailer, and his efforts to reduce the organization’s environmental impact:

“Customers want us to develop ways to take complicated carbon calculations and present them simply,” he said. “We will therefore begin the search for a universally accepted and commonly understood measure of the carbon footprint of every product we sell—looking at its complete life cycle, from production through distribution to consumption. It will enable us to label all our products so that customers can compare their carbon footprint as easily as they can currently compare their price or their nutritional profile.”

Therein lies the rub: People talk abstractly about their efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, but how many actually calculate their environmental impacts using a more scientific metric, such as tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent per capita? And how many people actually bother to break down the relative impacts of each of their daily activities?

As one elementary school principal and part-time columnist argued recently in The Christian Science Monitor, “A ‘footprint’ is a good metaphor for our individual impact on the social or natural environment. It’s personal, tactile, organic, and immediately comprehensible. It’s elementary. We’re bipeds; we all walk and leave tracks. At my school, the students in sixth-grade science class can calculate the size of their carbon footprint with an online tool - based on heating fuel, car type and annual mileage, electricity use, and other factors.”

In his op-ed for the Times, Klinkenborg disagreed: “In some ways carbon footprint is not an especially good metaphor. The carbon in question — the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming — is a gas and far too diffuse to resemble an actual footprint. Still, the phrase sounds conscientious. You feel as though you’re reducing global warming by saying it.”

It has become a “righteous metaphor of great potency,” wrote Robert Fulford in Canada’s National Post. He meant that derisively, though, and criticized writers who bandy the term about in order to “establish themselves as highly ethical and up-to-date.” Fulford’s headline, a seeming response to such wordsmithing, was, “How about my footprint on your magniloquent rear?”

Despite his antipathy, Fulford offers an interesting account of the etymology of the “footprint” metaphor. In the 1960s it described the landing area for spacecraft, or, in architectural jargon, the land covered by a building; in the 1970s it described the “sonic footprint” (or noise pollution) of aircraft; and in the 1990s it described the area covered by broadcasting satellites before assuming its current, ecological significance.

It’s an ordinary old word that has completed a long, tedious journey from everyday language to Word Heaven, where it’s now in regular use by scientists, politicians, high-class journalists and all-around freelance moralists.

For better or worse, that is indeed true. I tend to think that it is for better, however, insofar as terms like “carbon footprint” and “green” (the latter of which is far more ambiguous and prone to abuse) have helped foster the environmental zeitgeist that pervades much of the world today. Nonetheless, the rhetoric beat is important and journalists have a responsibility to remember it whenever new buzzwords appear.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.