Forget ‘the environment’:
we need new words to convey life’s wonders
abridged article by George Monbiot
courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd
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If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it would have inspired them.
So why do we use such language to describe the natural wonders of the world? There are examples everywhere, but I will illustrate the problem with a few from the UK. On land, places in which nature is protected are called “sites of special scientific interest”. At sea, they are labelled “no-take zones” or “reference areas”.
Even the term “reserve” is cold and alienating – think of what we mean when we use that word about a person. “The environment” is just as bad: an empty word that creates no pictures in the mind. Wild animals and plants are described as “resources” or “stocks”, as if they belong to us and their role is to serve us: a notion disastrously extended by the term “ecosystem services”.
Our assaults on life and beauty are also sanitised and disguised by the words we use. When a species is obliterated by people, we use the term “extinction”. It conveys no sense of our role in the extermination, and mixes up this eradication with the natural turnover of species. It’s like calling murder “expiration”. “Climate change” also confuses natural variation with the catastrophic disruption we cause: a confusion deliberately exploited by those who deny our role. We need a new vocabulary.
Words possess a remarkable power to shape our perceptions. The organisation Common Cause discusses a research project in which participants were asked to play a game. One group was told it was called the “Wall Street Game”, while another was asked to play the “Community Game”. It was the same game. But when it was called the Wall Street Game, the participants were consistently more selfish and more likely to betray the other players.
Words encode values that are subconsciously triggered when we hear them. When certain phrases are repeated, they can shape and reinforce a worldview, making it hard for us to see an issue differently. Advertisers and spin doctors understand this all too well: they know that they can trigger certain responses by using certain language. But many of those who seek to defend the living planet seem impervious to this intelligence.
If we called protected areas “places of natural wonder”, we would not only speak to people’s love of nature, but also establish an aspiration that conveys what they ought to be. Let’s stop using the word environment, and use terms such as “living planet” and “natural world” instead, as they allow us to form a picture of what we are describing. Let’s abandon the term climate change and start saying “climate breakdown”. Instead of extinction, let’s adopt the word promoted by the lawyer Polly Higgins: ecocide.
We are blessed with a wealth of nature and a wealth of language. Let us bring them together and use one to defend the other.
According to the author:
- The language we currently use to talk about the environment is too disinterested
- It is not important which words we use to talk about the environment but how we say them.
- The word “extinction” tends to hide man’s frequent responsibility regarding the disappearance of species.
- Many ecologists do not seem to understand the importance of words.
- The way we see the world is not influenced by the language that is used to describe it.
- New words for old problems could help to create a better world.