Words shape how we think about the environment

By Katie Jones first published at Curious.earth October 1, 2020

I’m a copywriter. It’s my job to overthink words.

But when it comes to talking about the environment, it’s hard. Sustainability has got to be one of the most overused words of recent years, but it’s often misused as there aren’t suitable alternatives.

Still, when we begin to get really precise with language, it can help to define the way we think and feel about things. Language reveals that there are different shades to environmentalism and helps us to understand these perspectives.

One of my favourite writers, Charles Eisenstein, begins his book ‘Climate’ by outlining the significance of five different viewpoints:

1. Climate change scepticism
That climate change, especially global warming, is not happening – or that it is happening, but it has little to do with human activity. Or, that it is happening but it isn’t dangerous.

2. Techno-optimism
That climate change is yet another challenge that humanity is facing and will overcome with technology, engineering and alternative energies.

3. Climate orthodoxy
The burning of fossil fuels poses a grave threat to humanity; if we do not act quickly to cut emissions and limit warming, the future will bring extreme weather conditions, crop failures, mass migration and other devastating effects.

4. Climate justice and systems change
One step towards a deeper radicalism; climate change is inextricably linked to our economic system and various systems of social oppression – it’s not an environmental issue, it’s a social, racial, economical, fossil-fuel-dependent capitalism issue.

5. Climate catastrophism
That it’s already too late to prevent catastrophic climate change, foreseeing a dramatic collapse of society, a population crash, sociopolitical upheaval and a major regression in technology.

Seeing these named viewpoints, we see the different places at which people enter the discussion. It might be that you’ve moved up and down this scale. It might be that you’ve jumped a couple of stages in recent years.

I personally started off somewhere at techno-optimism and now spend most my time in climate justice and systems change. Which doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped believing that technology can provide solutions. Far from it.

One of the major learnings of this book is that we must aim to stop what he calls climate fundamentalism.

That is, a mechanistic view of the environment, which causes us to believe that it’s easily fixed, unit by unit. In this view, we see that wind turbines and hydroelectric dams reduce our dependence on fossil fuels but ignore the resources that are used in manufacturing them, or the habitats and wildlife that are also wiped out in establishing them.

Climate fundamentalism keeps us in a state of detachment from nature and the environment, thinking in the same mindset that caused these issues. So long as we do this, we’re ignoring the interrelation and dependence of all life on earth.

There’s this notion that once we fix our CO2 levels, we can go on consuming and producing at the same soaring rate that we have been for the past century. This is where we’re deeply wrong. And this state of detachment is reflected in the main narratives we use.

“We have to save our planet” This isn’t true. What we have to do is save our species.

Simon Sinek explains it well on YouTube. Our planet will be fine – the earth will adapt, evolve, move into a new age. What won’t be fine is our species. Having used up all the resources we rely on and changed the atmospheric conditions so drastically, we will be extinct. And so will / already are many of the plants and animals we share it with.

So what else do our word choices say about our attitudes?

Climate change – how much does change imply something natural or inevitable, and not call for any action or mediation?

Climate crisis – how does that word crisis make you feel? Does it scare people away?

Climate breakdownbreakdown implies that systems we rely on will not work… perhaps this is getting closer?

Climate catastrophe catastrophe implies human error, perhaps that’s correct, but how motivating is the word catastrophe?

Global warming – like climate change, is this word also too soft, implying inevitability?

Global heating – one shade stronger than global warming, but does this term describe it any better?

Last year, the Guardian published their stance on the language of what they’re naming the climate crisis. Adding the importance of more humanised terms such as wildlife instead of biodiversity, fish populations instead of fish stocks.

We need to be able to feel it.

In line with that, Charles Einsentein is calling on a mass humanising of the language we use to talk about climate collapse. To help build connection so that we feel the effects on an emotional level. Because only when we feel something personally and emotionally, do we truly feel motivated to change.

1. Can you remember the first time you realised that something in your environmental experience was wrong?

Maybe there was a piece of scrubland where you used to pick blackberries as a child. Now there’s a block of flats there and the ground is covered in concrete.
Maybe there’s a river where you used to go fishing. Now there’s nothing to catch.
Maybe heavy rains in November have caused the riverbanks to burst and your village to flood for the past seven years.

2. Can you reflect on how that memory made you feel?

We’ll all know varying degrees of environmental destruction. We are perhaps fortunate if our triggering memory is something like one of the above. Many people are living without a home, without access to drinking water, and lethal temperatures because of human-caused climate change.

3. What did you tell people about it?

These sentiments should surpass divisions between environmental ideologies. Climate sceptic, climate catastrophist – whatever – it’s this felt sense of injustice that we really want to get at here. Because this is how we would feel about all environmental destruction, if we had a chance to get close enough to it. If it had a personal meaning for us. If we weren’t so desensitized.

Eisenstein’s point is that harnessing some of this personal feeling, instead of a fact feeling, will help us to build a movement based on genuine, deep-rooted care. One that could provide the levels of commitment needed to get us out of this.

So next time you write it, try to:
• Cut out the jargon
• Use plain language and break it down
• Talk about how it makes you feel
• Share a personal experience

And the next time you read it:
• Try to imagine how the people directly affected by it might feel