Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Letter Nobody Can Read

A Letter Nobody Can Read

                To build a pipeline to transport crude oil across the United States, or not to, is the question at hand.  This question is surrounded by a complex web of human activities that play out in economics, politics, law, and social and environmental activism.  Out of this complex array of human interaction came an attempt to help answer this question in the following document, published on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.  Here is a link to that document:
            To boil it down, the letter addresses a previously published document by The State Department concerning the environmental impact the Keystone XL pipeline would have on the environment were it to be built.  The letter is written by Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator of the EPA, and is addressed to Amos Hochstein and Judith Garber, both members of the State Department.  The letter is also indirectly addressed to the public; it can be found by anyone on the EPA’s website.  And here is where the letter’s pros style can be called into question.
            As can be seen by reading the opening sentence, the letter is written in the official style: “In accordance with our authorities under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Section 309 of the Clean Air Act, EPA has reviewed the Department of State's (Department) Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS)…”, and on and on, to form an ever elongating string of prepositional phrases and conjunctions.
What member of the general public, who on average read at a 7th grade level, would take the time to struggle through a document this hard to read?  The answer is, very few.  So it seems as if the public nature of this document is being undermined by the fact that it is written in the official style.  Let’s take a look at some further examples.
First, in bold lettering, we have an example of nominalization, when a verb is changed into a noun to make the action sound extremely important: “The Department has also strengthened the analysis of oil spill prevention preparedness…”.  The author could have written, “…being prepared to prevent an oil spill…”, but instead uses this awkward phrase to sound important at the expense of alienating less adept readers. 
Second, we have an example of metonymy, “a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept.” (Wikipedia).  In this case, the use of metonymy obscures the source of the document (who are the authors?): “Nonetheless, the Final SEIS acknowledged that the proposed pipeline does present a risk of spills, which remains a concern for citizens and businesses relying on groundwater resources crossed by the route.”  This is a silly use of words, since people know that inanimate objects like documents don’t acknowledge; cognizing people acknowledge.  By using metonymy, the authors remain hidden and it becomes very difficult to find out who is taking what position on an argument—something important for the general public to know about the people directly affecting policy. 
 Lastly, the concepts in the document are very abstract.  Unless the reader is already familiar with the jargon, much of the meaning of the text is lost.  For example, a term like, “wells-to-wheels” is so abstract that entire books are written on the subject, yet in the letter, the term is mentioned without any explanation. 
So, it can be seen that even though this letter is available to the public, only a few comprehend it.  The text’s meaning becomes obscured by long sentences, official sounding language, authors who hide behind figures of speech like metonymy, and abstract concepts that are never explained, just dropped for others in the know to pick up on.
 In order for me to cut through this cloud of information and understand what the letter was talking about, I had to turn to some outside sources for clarification.  For example, a google search on the Giles’s letter led me to this article in the New York Times: 
I imagine it is through sources like online newspapers, rather than the EPA’s website, that many individuals heard about Cynthia Giles’s letter.  When comparing the pros style of the NY Times article with the actual letter itself, it is easy to see why this might be: the Times article is much easier to comprehend.  It uses much shorter sentences, less abstract language, and it clearly contextualizes the letter.  Luckily there are avenues like this where information is synthesized into much more comprehensible bits!
I also found a number of blogs with posts referring to the letter.  Here is an example of a blog geared towards the environmentally conscious:  The commentary provided by the blog seems very optimistic about the letter’s abilities to sway policy makers away from constructing a pipeline.  This may be true, but it should be read critically, since the bloggers themselves might have an agenda and therefore the commentary could have a bias.  It was just as easy to find articles online that used Giles’s letter to support their argument for building a pipeline:  The above link is to TransCanada’s website.  TransCanada is the corporation that wants to build the pipeline, so it’s no wonder they have a very different interpretation of Giles letter. 
Ideally, anyone concerned with the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline could just read the document firsthand on the EPA’s website and know exactly what was meant by the author.  But a text’s meaning is never that precise.  Rather than being a bridge, a text is often a gap between the author and the audience and in many cases the official style widens this gap by obscuring the texts meaning even further.  A reader is apt to get lost in the lengthy sentences of official style, so that even before finishing a sentence they have forgotten what it is about. 
In the case of Cynthia Giles letter, the official style is a gap between the people who communicate with it--the policymakers and heads of corporations--and those who don’t communicate with it and don’t even understand it—and these people are often the ones who are directly affected by the policy maker’s decisions. 
There are some cases in which some elements of the official style are useful.  For example, in the sciences, the use of jargon is actually an efficient shorthand for extremely complex and abstract concepts.  Whether or not a reader can arrive at an understanding of these concepts without the official style is a difficult question.  I’m not sure every concept in humanities and sciences can be explained at a 7th grade reading level.  Sometimes it may be necessary for the reader to really struggle with a text in order to gain understanding. 
But this letter.  In it, the official style is used mostly as a formality—a way for bureaucrats to talk to other bureaucrats.  If the pipeline were to be built, it most likely wouldn’t directly affect these people.  It would directly affect the land owners, farmers and native tribes who live right where the pipeline is plotted.  And if anyone, it’s these people that the official style excludes.  So I have to wonder, what good is a letter to the public if it can’t be understood by them?

Sam Petersen

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