“MEI,” “MIEL,” or “MINEL” languages?

As the proposal for an International Decade of Indigenous Languages moves toward consideration by the UN General Assembly,1 I’d like to return to an old discussion about ways of referring to a broader set of languages – including but not limited to those called indigenous – that in some ways face similar challenges. I’ve long felt this could be useful in discussing equitable approaches to language policies and multilingual planning.

Overlapping categories

I first looked at this issue in the early 2000s, seeking a way to refer to the many languages that are not dominant in terms of numbers of speakers, or advantages in policy or technology development. One encounters several different terms used to describe one or another grouping of these languages depending on the context, but none of them really applied so broadly. So an idea I had was to blend some of the main ones into an acronym.

An early try was “MINEL,” originally for “MINority & Endangered Languages.” It was immediately apparent that MINEL could be expanded in more than one way, such as Minority, Indigenous, National, Endangered, and Local.2 I actually created a Yahoogroup by that name in 2005,3 where for a brief while I reposted news about languages in this super-category.

There are other possible formulations, such as MIEL and MEI, which I’ll get to below. but first here are the elements of MINEL, elaborated:

M – minoritized

Regional Library of Bizkaia, Bilbao. Photo: Mary Linn, Smithsonian (Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe)

“Minoritized” is not a term I used originally, but it absolutely fits in this space. With specific reference to languages, while minority properly refers to a numerical relationship (fewer speakers than a majority), minoritized refers more to a power relationship (disadvantaged status, often as a result of prejudices and/or intentional policy). Many, but not all minoritized languages are minority languages, and vice-versa, but the terms are not equivalent.

I – indigenous

Indigenous languages” may be understood more narrowly as languages of indigenous peoples (a category that has a more or less precise definition), or more broadly as a language native to a particular region (that is still used there and has not been imposed elsewhere). I discussed these takes in relation to African languages on my other blog. Regardless of which definition is used, “indigenous” also fits in this space.

N – national

National languages” is another term that can be understood in more than one way. I meant it more in the sense of a language of a nation that is not also an official language – a usage common in Africa (some posts on my other blog include background). National languages in this sense, even when defined in statute, do not necessarily enjoy key benefits (official use in government and education, resources, etc.), and may actually be somewhat minoritized (“somewhat” in the sense that they may be promoted in a small number of programs such as adult literacy, so not entirely ignored). So understood this way, “national” seems to fit.

E – endangered

Endangered languages,” which are languages perceived to be in the process of declining in use to where they are not being transmitted to the new generation and may not survive, definitely belong in this space. It is estimated per various sources that there are as many as 3000 endangered languages.

Based on the numbers involved, plus the fact that potential extinctions are at issue, endangered languages have been the subject of various initiatives.4

L – local (etc.)

Local languages” is an expression commonly used, which in many contexts implies a limited range of use and maybe even a lesser status. I personally see a problem with how it is sometimes used, but include it as a useful way to underscore the intent of the acronym (not widespread).

“L” might also be considered to stand for languages that are “local” in the sense of being less used, spoken, taught, and resourced, per a series of acronyms discussed in the previous post on this blog: LUL, LWUL, LWSL, LCTL, LWULT, LWSLWT, and LRL.

Other fomulations: MIEL & MEI

When I first considered MINEL as an acronym, another option on the table was “MIEL,” leaving out the N for national. The latter is a bit problematic in this context as most people think of “national language” in the other of its main definitions, a single language used nationwide (perhaps quasi-officially). Although this is a sweet acronym, I opted to include the N in respect for how many African countries use the term national to describe many of their indigenously spoken languages.

A sparer but still beautiful acronym, “MEI,” would leave out L for local languages (an amorphous designation), as well as the N. Minoritized, endangered, and indigenous languages can be considered the categories needing most attention.

The purpose of all of this is to suggest a more broadly inclusive designation for policy and action to address challenges common to a great many of the world’s non-dominant languages, however they may be more narrowly categorized.


Notes:
1. UN General Assembly, 74th session, Third Committee, Agenda item 67 (a) Rights of indigenous peoples: rights of indigenous peoples (A/C.3/74/L.19/Rev.1), 6 Nov. 2019, #24.
2. Several other ideas occurred at that time, such as M for “maternal language” (per International Mother Language Day) and E for “ethnic language” (which I encountered in another context). Neither of these really work in this context.
3. The MINEL Yahoo Group will disappear on 14 Dec. 2019 per Yahoo’s decision to eliminate of group content. The messages will be saved.
4. Of the various initiatives and funds for endangered languages, I’ll just mention the Foundation for Endangered Languages, which is holding its 23rd conference in Sydney next month (13-16 Dec. 2019).

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LUL’d awake

Researching some details for a forthcoming post, I ran across a number of acronyms, several of which are used mainly in Europe, describing languages disadvantaged in terms of numbers of speakers (often referred to as minority languages), profile in education, status (official and social), and resources to take advantage of technology.

EBLUL logoThe best known of the acronyms for description of the size and status of languages probably is “LUL” for “lesser-used language.” It is, for example, part of the name of the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, a once prominent NGO in language policy and planning.

A variant of LUL is “LWUL” – less widely-used language” – and an acronym similar to the latter is “LWSL” – “less widely spoken language.” Without having seen an explanation as such, one imagines the “less widely” formulation is in recognition that a language might actually be “more used” among a small population, meaning LUL would not be completely accurate.1

None of these – LUL, LWUL, or LWSL – appear to be commonly used, even though they all are near to the opposite of “LWC” – language of wider communication – which is a term used in discussions of language documentation and planning.

In fact, the lack of a globally accepted way to refer to languages that aren’t LWCs was part of how I got interested in this topic. I actually used LWSL in an early (2008) posting on this blog and also proposed my own coinage,  about which I will write in a following post.

In any event, there are at least three other acronyms, two of which are based on the above, which bring in the notion of how commonly taught the languages are. Aside from the first one listed below, the others do not appear to be … widely used:2

  • LCTLless commonly taught language. This term and its acronym are accepted in academia, although primarily in the US, but have an explicit reference to the context of second language instruction. That context will shift depending on who is employing the term/acronym, even well outside what might be considered an LUL (Mandarin Chinese, a language with over a billion speakers, is among the LCTLs in the US).
  • LWULT – less widely used, less taught,3 or least widely used, least taught.4 Some sources indicate that this applies specifically to EU “Community languages,” i.e. official languages of EU member states.5 But at least one source widens the scope to include regional minority and migrant languages.6
  • LWSLWT – less widely spoken, less widely taught. Not clear how current this is. I found only one instance of this acronym,7 but also an example of the expanded term.8 Not clear if this is a cognate of LWULT, or if there is a different nuance in meaning.

As should be readily apparent, the latter two combine LCTL with some aspect of LUL/LWUL/LWSL.

Since all of these acronyms spell out terms beginning with “less,” I should add another to the list: “LRL” – “less-resourced language.”9 This term, and more rarely the acronym,10 is used at the intersection of languages and information and communication technology to refer to a small level of published and digital materials that could be used to develop language technologies for them. (Like LCTL, its use is not primarily in Europe.)

LRLs don’t correspond neatly with LULs. Factors like history, income level, status, and effects of language policies mean some relatively widely spoken languages are LRLs, and some relatively “small” languages are well resourced.

So there you have it – a set of seven  acronyms beginning with “L” for terms describing at least three largely overlapping groupings of languages: relatively small in numbers of speakers, not frequently taught in schools, and not having much in print or digital format. Issues of status – lack of prestige and/or official role – may be (but are not always) crosscutting factors in these.


Notes:

1. However, the French translation of EBLUL – Bureau Européen des langues moins répandues (and not moins utilisées)- already puts the emphasis on how “less widespread” these languages are.
2. The following presentation slides were helpful in identifying acronyms featured in this post: Luciana Oliveiri, “Language policies at European universities for less widely spoken and less widely taught languages,” 6 June 2012 (via Issuu.com)
3. Three sources, for example, all expand it this way: Oliveiri (op cit); a Wikipedia article (accessed 24 Nov. 2019) mentioning the EU Lingua program that used LWULT; and the AcronymFinder.com page on the acronym.
4. European Community Law, Kluwer Law International B.V., 1995, page 285.
5. Wikipedia (op cit) and European Community Law (op cit)
6. European Commission, Comenius School Partnerships, handbook for schools, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2008, page 8.
7. Oliveiri (op cit)
8. Erich Prunč, “Priests, princes, and pariahs: Constructing the professional field of translation,” in M. Wolf & A. Fukari, eds., Constructing a Sociology of Translation, John Benjamins, 2007,  page 45.
9. Another formulation is “under-resourced languages.” There was at one point criticism of these terms analogous to those that moved us away from referring to “less developed” and especially “under-developed” countries, but I’m not sure where that is now – LRL still seems to be current in the field of language technology.
10. See for example at: Zygmunt Vetulani, ed., Human Language Technology. Challenges for Computer Science and Linguistics, Springer, 2011,  page vi; and a 2017 CFP, “Language Technology for Less Resourced Languages (LT-LRL) 2017 Under 8th Language & Technology Conference.”

 

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Inclusion, Mobility & Multilingual Education Conference, 24-26/9/2019

The 13th biennial Language and Development Conference (LDC) will be held in conjunction with the 6th International Conference on Language and Education in Bangkok, Thailand later this month (24-26 September 2019).  The theme of this joint event is conveyed in its title, Inclusion, Mobility, and Multilingual Education Conference: Exploring the Role of Languages for Education and Development (IMMLE).

I missed the call for participation (CFP) earlier this year, so by now all that’s left before the event itself is the registration period, which ends on 15 Sept.

IMMLE description

The purpose of IMMLE is described this way (from the conference page linked above) and a page on the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) site:

We are all presently witnessing unprecedented levels of human mobility. Along side an increasingly mobile workforce and increased mobility for higher education, we are also seeing the highest levels ever of involuntary displacement, with over 68.5 million people forced from their homes, including 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under 18.

In the Asia-Pacific region, huge populations are moving for work and higher education, with internal displacement and cross border migration due to conflict, poverty, climate change and social injustice creating increasingly complex ethnolinguistic landscapes. Challenges of inclusion, social cohesion and peace-building are raised, for mobile populations but also stable but linguistically marginalized populations, including issues of access to civic participation, justice, health and information.

At a time when many more children are in school, but many are still not learning, and in particular in the context of the declared United Nations Year of indigenous languages, fundamental questions remain about the balance of local, national and global languages in education.

IMMLE objectives

The conference objectives are described in this way:

The overall aim of the conference is to provide a space for practitioners, NGO staff, researchers and government representatives to explore and exchange on issues of language, inclusion, and mobility in education and development.

The Conference aims to:

  1. Explore how an open and inclusive multilingual approach, especially in the context of education and wider society, can maximise outcomes and well-being for different groups and for an increasingly mobile population;
  2. Create linkages between policy, practice and research on how multilingual approaches can be used to advance (civic) participation, access, and learning for children and adults from marginalised and mobile communities;
  3. Investigate the role of, and balance between, different languages – local, national, and international – in the context of diverse and mobile populations, and social and educational practice;
  4. Identify policy priorities for advancing multilingual approaches to social and educational policy-making, learning and development;
  5. Raise awareness among participants in key thematic areas.

Linking the two conference series

The LDC is held every 2 years in different locations, and I posted on this blog about the previous two: 2017 in Dakar, Senegal; and 2015 in New Delhi, India. Per the current conference site, this series “provides an opportunity for policy-makers, researchers, development personnel, teachers and linguists to come together to share views and explore issues concerning language use in development contexts.”

The International Conference on Language and Education, also known as the Multilingual Education (MLE) conference, is organized by the Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group and held every 2-3 years, For information on the previous two events, see 2016 (Mahidol University website) and 2013 (SIL International website).

Again, per the IMMLE background page:

Bringing the two conferences together represents a unique opportunity to demonstrate the shared mission between the LDC and the Language and Education Conference and to raise the profile of the language issues affecting achievement of the SDGs globally in the context of global mobility.

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International Decade of Indigenous Languages?

Logo of IYIL2019
                                 Logo of IYIL2019

As we look beyond the current International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), it is interesting to note a proposal for continuing that effort as an International Decade, 2020-2030 (IDIL). In this post, I’ll share at what information I have found about the latter, and relate it to a similar, but now almost forgotten, proposal for a Decade following the International Year of Languages (IYL2008).

The proposal for an IDIL may have originated with Wilton “Willie” Littlechild, Grand Chief, Maskwacis. He, in turn, indicated in an April 2019 meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) that the Assembly of First Nations (Canada) had in December 2018 passed a resolution advocating an IDIL. That meeting of the UNPFII also issued a call for an IDIL.

In January 2019, the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, (EMRIP)a subsidiary body of the UN Human Rights Council, released a “Statement on the International Year of Indigenous Languages, 2019.” It included this paragraph, which seems like a good summary of the rationale for IDIL:

We strongly support the States that have encouraged the United Nations to Declare 2020-2030 the Decade of Indigenous Languages. This initial year is important to raise awareness among states and convene stakeholders, including universities, civil society, private sector, and other actors, in the movement for indigenous language revitalization. Yet it will take more time to reverse the dire situation of indigenous peoples’ language loss. Over the course of a decade, however, it would be possible to truly transform the situation of indigenous peoples’ languages, such that these languages could fully recover and flourish in the lives of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples must play a leading role and be fully consulted while these initiatives are being discussed.

I do not currently have information on which countries actively back the IDIL proposal.

The EMRIP, in its July meeting celebrating IYIL2019, reaffirmed its support for declaration of an IDIL.

And on the recent International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, August 9, several UN human rights experts called for “a decade of action to protect and promote the use of indigenous languages, many of which are endangered.”

UN Decades

UN International Decades, like the Years, are typically established by resolution of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). As I understand the process, a resolution would need to be proposed by member states, then go through a normal process of debate and revision before a vote.

It may be possible for UNESCO, the agency facilitating IYIL2019, to declare a Decade and then seek UNGA adoption. In any event, the process for something so significant is not quick (note the attempts by India, beginning with appeal to FAO in 2017, to establish a Year of Millets – which may finally happen in 2023).

IYL2008 & the Decade of Languages

Towards the end of IYL2008, I speculated on this blog about a possible International Decade of Languages and what it might do.

It was probably inevitable that someone in official circles would at least float a proposal along these lines, and indeed that was what happened in 2009. Details were hard to come by, but apparently Hungary made a proposal at UNESCO that was supported by Austria. And Venezuela, Chile, and Ethiopia also backed the idea, which evidently was given the title “International Decade of Languages and Multilingualism.”

This proposal never seemed to gather the kind of constituency and support that IDIL has today.  So it will be interesting to see how the latter fares.

Indigenous & endangered languages?

IDIL would address vitally important issues just as IYIL2019 does, and it is a proposal with merit. Given the frequent mention of endangered languages in the context of discussing indigenous languages – since many of the latter are among the former – I’m personally wondering if the proposal wouldn’t be strengthened by joining the two categories.

Could an International Decade of Indigenous and Endangered Languages gain wider support and ultimately achieve more, while not diluting attention to languages of indigenous peoples?

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Change & continuity in global Development

A report published recently by the Brookings Institution entitled “Global development disrupted: Findings from a survey of 93 leaders” (by George Ingram and Kristin M. Lord, March 2019) “reveals a global development sector in transition and perhaps even turmoil.” This post will look at how the report uses three specific terms – culture, language, and localization – and draw some inferences from those.

Context

This is obviously a high-level report, but I approached it with an eye to some issues identified from years working on or close to the grassroots level – issues that I see as key underpinnings to successful work in support of development at all levels.

Philosophically, I also see “development” as fundamentally a process of “unfolding” and “revealing of potentialities” (its core meaning, related to its etymology),1 which the material and learning foci of development programs and projects ideally facilitate.

Over the years that I’ve moved in and out of international development work I have, of course, been cognizant of changes in the field. These changes, which are part of the background for Brookings’ report, include, among others: changing funding equations; new technologies; evolving socio-economic contexts; different actors on both the international level and within the countries where work is done; and a nexus of security issues and responses.

There are also constants in the field, of course. beyond the general mission.

In addition, there are deeper questions about what international development is and could or should be. The three terms that I key in on here – culture, language, and localization – could be doors to considering those.

Culture

My early years in development practice and study were during the period when the field both recognized the “cultural dimension of development,”2 and almost simultaneously critiqued that concept with the idea that maybe culture is so integral to development that it can’t be separated out.3

So it was somewhat surprising to me that In this report, culture refers mainly to the “organizational culture” of development organizations or the related “professional culture” in the field of international development (11/12 uses of “culture”; 3/3 of “cultures”; 0/1 of “cultural).

There is nothing inappropriate with those topics. As a sometimes student of organizational development, I also find them interesting and as relevant to international development as they are to any field. Indeed, a concern with internal processes (related to the focus on organizational culture) in development organizations has had positive aspects, in the form of efforts to evaluate efforts and improve practice.

However it seems strange – even allowing for the fact this is a high-level analysis – that the cultures of the places where international development works are relegated to two (of 16) mentions – an observation concerning how “cultural issues” may limit host country government attention to gender issues, and the following general statement:

Expatriate experts lack the depth of understanding of the local culture and how it works. Better solutions will be offered by local actors. 

The latter seems to imply that the whole topic of culture outside of the organizations (reduced to “local”4) is taken care of, having been filed under another term and theme in the report, “localization” (which theme is discussed below). If it’s simply that “better solutions” are local, then what is the role of the expatriate there anyway? Shepherding funds and filing reports?

While it is certainly true that someone from a “local” culture generally has greater depth in it than an outsider ever will,  it is also true that someone from outside any culture (whether that be ethnic, national, organizational) can see things and ask questions that those who know it best might not see or ask. Think forests, trees, and cross-cultural complementarity.

Could it be that the “best solutions” in development come from local actors interacting with expatriate development experts who, for their part, have developed more than a passing familiarity with the cultures of the places in which they work?

In fact, the field offices, at least, of development organizations generally include expats who have some level – sometimes considerable – of cultural knowledge about the places they are assigned to. And at some level the development organizations value this. Yet this important factor, and how it might be enhanced, doesn’t emerge in this document.

International development has become ever more of a business, and a very large one at that, such that a significant part of its attention is now necessarily devoted to its own functioning. And that includes, as reflected in the report, the culture or cultures of donor and development organizations – and how that works or how those interact. Judging by the preoccupations of leaders of development organizations, it seems the center of gravity, as pertains to the spectrum of cultures of all parties involved in development programs, has thus shifted away from focus on the cultures of the “beneficiaries”5 of those programs.

What is lost when the original “cultural dimension” of development is effectively relegated to the margins of the business of international development?

Language

The high water mark of discussion about the “cultural dimension” of development stopped short of encompassing its “linguistic dimension.”  This was an opportunity missed. In the context of the focus on organizational and professional cultures reflected in the “Global development disrupted” report, one gets the impression that language has receded even further from active consideration as a key factor in development.

The document includes a single mention of “language,” and that is in “natural language processing” (NLP), which appears in a list of technologies6 about which development leaders “express broad excitement.”

I’ve had a long interest in language and technology, and certainly believe that NLP could have potential in development – especially to the extent it can be used in first languages of beneficiaries. It’s not clear that development leaders are thinking in this direction, but the fact that languages get no other mention reflects what I’ve come to see as the usual disconnect between development (theory, practice) and language (as a factor fundamental to communication, learning, and indeed culture, in development).

I touched on this gap in an earlier posting on this blog – “Visualizing language, development, education & ICT connections” – in which the language↔development connections are portrayed as “largely ignored.”

The language↔ICT (information and communication technology) links mentioned in that post are also relatively undeveloped in places receiving international development interventions. If this assertion is accurate, one could assume that interest in NLP is not thought of in multilingual applications.

It is important to remember that development organizations function in a limited number of globally dominant languages, and in some cases “local” languages of certain wealthy countries, while many development interventions happen in places where an entirely different set of languages, and often many languages in a given location, are widely if not predominately used. This linguistic juxtaposition should be at least as apparent as the cultural one. And because it involves relative neglect of the less “powerful” languages, it has important implications for the outcomes of development interventions.

However, this “linguistic dimension” is absent from the concerns expressed through this report. In that respect, unfortunately, international development doesn’t seem to have changed that much at all.

Localization

“Localization” has a number of meanings across different contexts (from medicine to geography). Over the years I’ve used it mainly in connection with translating software and content (per “L10n,” and in this context basically the same as the language↔ICT connections mentioned above). 

“Global development disrupted” uses this term frequently (16 times), but always in a different sense: that of shifting responsibilities and initiative closer to the beneficiaries. i.e., national and local institutions and leaders. This is a logical and positive direction in which to move, but not a new idea.7 It is interesting, however, to note the prominence of this concept in the responses by development leaders.

What does the emphasis on localization in this sense mean ultimately? That’s an interesting question that gives rise to others:

  • If localization in this sense were pursued to its logical conclusion, where would that leave international development organizations?
  • How would roles of international donors and local/national authorities change?
  • What might be the result of localizing development programs also in cultural and linguistic terms? 

Conclusion

The report itself offers useful insights into the thinking of those in high positions in development organizations. The content of that thought, however, along with what I see as a persistent gap, has helped give new form to an evolving set of impressions I have about the current state of the field of international development.

The way “culture” is discussed implies a subtle but fundamental change in preoccupations. The way “language” is not discussed reflects a constancy in priorities (specifically what’s not there). And the way “localization” is treated points to an ongoing shift, potentially major, in terms of the structure of the field (e.g., who the actors will be, where the initiative resides).

In general, the report confirms a sense that a large part of what originally attracted me to this field – being outside a corporate structure and focusing on efforts and processes that assisted people and their communities – exists less than it may ever have. (The old format of the donor agency having bureaucratic approach

In general, the report confirms a sense that the field has become:

  • more corporate,  which in turn is related to demands of the system of development contracting, involving competition for bids and reporting requirements of donors, and
  • less concerned with cultures, not to mention languages, of places they work, and that under the cover of localization.

Where is international development headed? Part of the answer would be in the localization piece. Another part probably in factors not directly related to the field as we have known it.


Notes:

1. “Development” in this field is usually defined in terms of economic growth and improvement of standards of living. These are of obvious importance to materially less well-off communities. And they are measurable via quantifiable metrics, which is important to donors.

2. For those unfamiliar with this topic, the first two (free) pages of this article give an intro:  Pierre Pascallon and Clermont-Ferrand. 1986. “The Cultural Dimension of Development.” Intereconomics 21(1):38–45. A longer treatment, with focus on environmental knowledge is offered in: D. Michael Warren, L. Jan Slikkerveer, David Brokensha, and Wim H.J.C. Dechering, eds. 1995. The Cultural Dimension of Development. IT Studies in Indigenous Knowledge and Development.

3. My first encounter with the notion of a centrality of culture in the development process was a statement in a 1981 interview of then former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella that the problems of development are first of all cultural problems (Jeune Afrique #1072, 22 July 1981). That view never intersected, as far as I’m aware, with academic discussions of the period about culture and development, but it could have.

4. I find the use of “local” to be tricky. On the one hand, it is a normal descriptive, but on the other hand it may imply a minimization of the “other.” I’ve noted this particularly in the are of languages, per “local language.” One way to disarm that impression is to couple it with something broader, like “national” or “regional.” That way you acknowledge the range of cultural contexts.

5. “Beneficiary” is the term long used in international development for people its interventions are intended to help in one or another way. Its use is also criticized as implying a passive or inferior status. See for example Wayan Vota’s “Please Stop Using the Term ‘Beneficiaries’ in ICT4D” (2013) and Pete Vowles’ “Why I Hate The Word ‘Beneficiaries.’ But I don’t know what to replace it with” (2018). I use the term here without endorsing it.

6. That this list was generated by a question on “the most exciting new initiatives or new directions in their own organization or international development more generally” – in other words blurring any distinction between those presumably intended more for an organization’s operation, and those more directly affecting beneficiaries – is itself telling.

7. When I first joined the Peace Corps almost four decades ago, an early take on this was the slogan, “working yourself out of a job.” Over the years, greater emphasis in development has been given to partnering with local organizations. All that seems to have resulted in changes in types of jobs on the international side.

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Updated Renewables & Burnables Venn diagram

In a post last year entitled “Reframing ‘renewable energy’ & ‘bioenergy’” I introduced several diagrams, including a simple Venn depiction of how various forms of bioenergy are found in the overlap of “renewables” and what is burned or combusted to release energy. I’ve made a few minor changes to that diagram (detailed at the end of this post), and present the updated version below.

Why this Venn?

As I contended in my post last year, “renewable energy” is a problematic concept in that it is kind of a catch-all for several forms of non-fossil fuels, and definitions of it vary. A particular problem is the common opposition of “renewable” and “fossil,” which obscures the “double life” of bioenergy sources (both “renewable” in most definitions, and burned or combusted like fossil fuels but unlike other renewables, dubbed here “clean energy”).

The two operant categories at this level of analysis would then be “renewable” and “burnable/combustible” (the latter recognizing that some bioenergy forms like wood are burned with minimal processing, while others such as biofuels are processed for combustion). These are simply and appropriately representable in a Venn diagram.

Ideally this diagram, or a more professional image conveying the same information, can help encourage more clarity in reports on or discussions of energy sources. In particular, it is important to move beyond the simple opposition between “renewable” and “fossil,” and to be more specific at all times about the kind(s) of renewable energy being referred to.

Deeper analysis

In my post last year I explored other ways of categorizing energy sources, including without use of the “renewable” or “combustible/burnable” categories. One of several aspects I hope to return to is the inclusion of another relatively minor subcategory of forms of bioenergy that are not burned.

An academic article published by Atte Harjanne and Janne M. Korhonen in Energy Policy this past April – “Abandoning the concept of renewable energy” – looks at how “renewable” is used and potentially misused, and suggests that an alternative framework for categorizing forms of energy could inform better policy. I hope to return to this as well.

This space is complex, contested, and vitally important for understanding and dealing with the energy and environmental challenges ahead. 

Changes

The original Venn diagram had “Pure renewables” as the heading above geothermal, solar, etc., which I changed to “Clean energy” pursuant to a discussion on Twitter with some nuclear energy proponents.

I added the header “Bioenergy” to the brown overlap, to make clear that this represents a group separate from “Clean energy.”

Also in the interests of clarity, I underlined the titles of the two circles, “Renewable” and “Combustible / Burnable” in colors corresponding to the circles they represent.

Finally, I added “peat” to the list of fossil fuels, but in parentheses. From what I read, categorization of peat in this regard is not clear.

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