The Language of the Environment: A Comparative Environmental Thesaurus

Project Contributor: Fulvio Mazzocchi

The “Environmental Applications Reference Thesaurus” (EARTh) project, carried out by the Institute for Atmospheric Pollution at the National Research Council in Italy, is developing an advanced tool to be used for environmental information management and environmental policy and research. The project’s aim is increasing awareness among policy makers of the complexity of the environmental domain and of the cultural dimension of environmental knowledge. Thesauri are controlled vocabularies designed to allow for effective indexing, classification, cataloguing and retrieval of information. They consist of a network of semantic relationships, by means of which a representation of the meaning of each thesaurus term as well as of the conceptual structure of a knowledge domain is provided. Thesauri can be regarded as “semantic road maps” for information indexers and searchers and for anybody else interested in a systematic grasp of a given field. Existing terminological or knowledge organization systems at the international level do not provide an adequate and updated account of the environmental domain. To meet the present needs of environmental information management, more refined semantic structures are required, in the form of thesauri.

The EARTh thesaurus focuses on a broad spectrum of environmental terminology, but it contains a conceptual and terminological section specifically on biodiversity and will provide a foundation for information management on knowledge related to biodiversity. Sources for the thesaurus include international documents such as the terminological bulletin used at the Environment and Development conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The thesaurus is strongly oriented toward the cultural dimension of environmental knowledge and knowledge organization—an important goal in times when diverse cultures with distinct visions of the world need to work together to address environmental problems. The project recognizes that traditional knowledge classification systems and environmental terminologies encapsulate traditional worldviews and reflect indigenous cognitive structuring of reality. In order to better represent indigenous and traditional cultures within the global context, these systems and terminologies are planned to be included within the thesaurus in the form of special annexes. For this purpose, partnerships for documenting indigenous and traditional terminologies and classification systems will be established, subject to availability of a technological infrastructure able to handle different languages of the world.

With limited economic and human resources, EARTh is still in a phase of implementation, involving the core vocabulary and semantic structure. One of the main challenges about this work is related to the delimitation of the environmental field – since it also implies policy, economic and social aspects. Another challenge is the fact that environmental concepts and terms could be interpreted differently according to different disciplinary and cultural views, implying that multiple semantic structures are to be handled within the same system.

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