Progressives Need To Stop Obsessing About What To Name Things
The myth of the "death tax" rebranding
“The end of natural gas has to start with its name,” is the provocative and inaccurate headline of a Vox story calling on the media to stop referring to natural gas as, uh, natural gas.1
The argument basically goes like this: natural gas is a term that polls well but “methane,” which is the primary component of natural gas, doesn’t poll well.
The paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, examined how 3,000 respondents viewed different synonyms for gas. More than half of participants had a positive view of natural gas, but the advantage shrank immediately when you called it “natural methane gas” or “methane gas,” as well as for “fossil gas” and “fracked gas.”
People like “natural gas.” People don’t like “methane.” If everyone started calling “natural gas,” “methane,” then people would no longer approve of natural gas/methane.
This is a view of language that is increasingly popular among progressive activists. People disagree with us because of branding, not because of substance.
Let me start by explaining what’s going to happen to you if you decide in your actual life to call natural gas “fossil gas.”
“Blah blah blah fossil gas”
“What is fossil gas?
“Natural gas but let me tell you why I call it fossil gas”
And that person is then going to leave and never come back. They aren’t your friend anymore. They hate you. You used a term you hoped they didn’t know just so they would have to ask you to explain it so you could have an opportunity to give them a speech.
It’s like when people use Latin terms and then immediately explain what it means in English. Why are you using this term you expect me not to know? Is this a Latin class? Language is supposed to be a way that people communicate meaning from one party to another. If someone asks you to bring them some fruit and you bring them a tomato and they say “I asked for fruit” and you say “well technically tomato is a fruit,” you’re an asshole.
I understand the temptation to argue about what people should call natural gas. If you are a climate activist, you are probably very frustrated with the government’s lack of progress on the issue. You’ve screamed, you’ve yelled, you’ve pleaded, you’ve marched, you’ve sailed across the sea, and yet still things haven’t gone your way. It can feel like you have no ability to create the change you think is so urgently required. You might find solace in projecting your frustration onto things you think you actually can affect, like what words people use.