By Alicia Siddons
Our linguistic prowess is a powerful tool. Many of us are familiar with the idea that language provided homo sapiens with an evolutionary advantage. It is also crucial to our understanding of ourselves as a species. Declarative speech gives an individual evidence of the thoughts and emotions of another human being. We recognise the interior experience of other people; we refer to a shared ‘human condition’. It is our linguistic faculties that allow us to see ourselves as social, emotional and, most notably, rational beings.
We forget, however, that language is also part of nature. Our language lives on the air we breathe, on the oxygen provided by living trees. Language, like nature, is a creative force. It shapes our understanding of the world around us and our attitudes to nature, non-humans and ourselves. Our choice of language directly influences the way we treat the planet.
We speak of ‘dead matter’ and ‘commodities’: wood, oil, coal, tallow. We could speak, instead, of the spirit of the forest. The word spirit derives from the Latin spiritus, ‘to breathe’. Regardless of whether one is sat underground on London’s crowded Picadilly line or on a flight headed for New York or Hong Kong, one is always in intrinsic and continuous union with the forest.
The language of today’s culture is notably poisonous – full of cynicism, hostility and disrespect. Environmental activists are not exempt. Vocal harbingers of climate catastrophe hope to convince their audiences – with recurrent reminders of our ruinous, environmental impact – to change their harmful habits. Yet these warnings are less shocking then they are disheartening. Depressing headlines and warnings of an apocalyptic future only seem to reinforce fatalistic attitudes and a debilitating sense of individual powerlessness.
Yet our language can also heal. Just as the whispering wind uplifts the scattered leaves in the forest, so our rhetoric can clear the pathways of progress of their cluttered and downtrodden litter. Those who want to protect the planet need to set the tone for success.
Let us, as leaders, speak of our deep-rooted love for the planet, of our compassion for all the living lifeforms that it supports.
Alone, rational argumentation is insufficient to inspire substantial changes. Take, for example, the assumption that human beings are motivated by self-interest: make individuals aware of how climate change will affect them, personally, in the future, and they’ll change their habits. The tactic is perfectly logical. Yet how many strict dieters have been known to raid their favourite burger place after a night out? Why is it that so many of today’s young, well-educated generations start smoking, irrespective of the health risks? The reality is that so many of us irrationally indulge in the convenient luxuries of today and disregard the consequences of tomorrow – even if it is to our own detriment.
Our education system insists on reason, objectivity and empiricism. Little wonder, then, that students have taken to heavy drinking, narcotics and opiates. These are substances that obscure reality, that strip away the checks to our irrational behaviours, that relieve us of the stress of our competitive society – if only temporarily.
Western culture, with its ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, divides us from nature, divides us from one another, divides us from our own bodies. With the assumed assurance of humans’ supreme rationality, it overlooks the intelligence of the natural world and its expansive and intricate ecosystems. It strives to dominate and control. Throughout history, it has exploited not only animals and the natural world but also people and cultures deemed ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’.
For decades, women, colonies and oppressed cultures have been resisting these divisive power structures. Now the planet also voices her shuddering and torrential pain.
Let us listen to her. Her language is the same language of our own ailing bodies; her workings are as intimate and unconscious as the anatomical workings of our own biology. As the ecopoet, Grace Wells, observes:
millions of human beings are suffering from a great rise in auto-immune diseases like cancer, hypo-myalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis. Our collective immune system is telling us that we cannot quite cope with the stresses of Western culture.
We need to heal ourselves and the environment of the all the toxins and pollutants, all the chemicals and pesticides.
Why not begin with the hostility of our language? It is only with a language of love, compassion and imaginative optimism that we can build alliances and foster disruptive innovation. Yes, big, profit-driven corporations are largely to blame for the poisons and chemicals in our food. But instead of antagonising them through hostile campaigning, is it not more effective to inspire them – by developing sustainable, alternative methods of production – to change their business practices?
Climate change is not simply a proliferation of scientific issues. It is symptomatic of the pervasive divisions in our world-order. The way to treat it is with compassion and collaboration, to move away from a society orientated around social status and hierarchy to one that builds alliances and trust. Our social value (and survival) as individuals need not be dependent on the climbing of social ladders and the domination of subordinates. We ought to appreciate the importance of each living organisms as it enriches and serves the wider (eco-)community.
After all, what harm is there in embracing our vulnerability, our immense capacity for love, our playfulness and wild imagination? Faced with the malaise and scepticism of the modern psyche, I dare say these are the remaining training grounds for hope.
Wells, Grace. “Culture and Nature: The Roots of Ecopoetics.” Women’s Studies, vol. 47, no. 2, 2018, pp. 147–159.