Dictionary of Environment and Conservation

‘Oxford Dictionary of Environment and Conservation’ by Chris Park;  Oxford University Press, 2008. 522pp.

Reviewed by Austin Williams | March 2008

The first word in the Oxford Dictionary of Environment and Conservation is “aa” – a Hawaiian word, pronounced “ah-ah”, defined here as volcanic lava rock. This opening definition seems to be there solely to distract the reader from the banality of the second entry, “abandoned well”, helpfully defined as “any well that has not been used for a long time”. The definitions improve, though Chris Park continues to prefer extended phrases, derived from the root word, to concise, or even single-word definitions.

Nonetheless, this dictionary is a useful tool for understanding the language of environmentalism, clarifying commonplaces such as “environmental impact assessments”, “organophosphates” and “hydrofluorocarbons”. It provides details of the Beaufort classifications of wind strength and the Richter earthquake magnitude scale, as well as the Torino asteroid and comet asteroid impact hazard scales.

Once Park strays into the field of explicit political discourse, however, the reader has to be wary.

His dictionary is certainly not a heavy-handed polemic -on the subject of “Chernobyl”, for example, every environmentalist’s shorthand for human folly, it is reasonably free from hyperbole. Generally, Park avoids “eco-sermonising”.

But he does sometimes offer political positions rather than dictionary definitions. In his extensive entry on “sustainable development”, for instance, he writes that “there is no clear answer to the question of how we can create a vibrant global economy that does not destroy the ecosystems on which it is based”. Presumably, those who do not believe that economic development is a destructive force will have to consult a different dictionary. Likewise, Park defines “poverty” as a problem that could be resolved by (inter alia) “reducing the problems of rapid urban development”. This assertion will puzzle those who do not regard rapid urban development as the primary cause of poverty in, say, underdeveloped countries; more to the point, is a dictionary really the place to make ideological declarations? Park may have wanted to provide the definitive interpretation for these words -after all, that’s the whole point of a dictionary -but actually, these words, as political concepts, are still up for debate.

An appendix contains a glossary of environmental contacts, but though the Forest Stewardship Council is cited, loggers’ representatives (who might also have a conservation story to tell) are not; while the International Energy Agency is listed, the International Atomic Energy Authority is not. Chris Park has produced a useful but not impartial work of lexicography. The carbon offsetting company can help businesses balance out the damage done to the environment due to carbon emission.

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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