In the early 1930’s, two men, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, posited that language was so powerful it had the ability to alter people’s reality just based on its vocabulary, structure, morphology and syntax. This theory later became known as “linguistic relativity” and while their “strong” version has been largely disproven with linguistic and cultural research, a weaker version of this theory–suggesting that language still has powerful influence–still stands. One of the strongest modern cases for linguistic relativity comes from Dale Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes which is a wonderful book examining language and culture in the Amazonian rainforest. In this book, we see how the Pirahas’ limited vocabulary (specifically, having a number system of one-two-many) influenced the Pirahas’ ability to quantify, to engage in trade, and so forth. A second area that shapes our thought concerning language is the art of rhetoric. This describes how language is constructed in ways to be persuasive; the ancient art goes the whole way back to Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Cicero, and is still studied today. The use of language persuades us to act, to think, and to believe certain things or disbelieve others. Of course, those working in the Western magical tradition don’t need academic theories to attest to the magical power of words.
These two concepts provide us insight into how language shapes our reality, how we use language to alter our reality, and how we are, in turn, shaped by said language. This means that the way we frame things in our language–the terms we use, the way we frame what we say–has a substantial impact on our own culture and how we approach new situations. The reason I bring this up is because linguistic relativity, and specifically, how we use language to construct discussions about the planet has a substantial impact on the shape of those discussions.
One of the things I think we really need to do to help transition to a better world is to shift our uses of language so that they are more representative of actual reality on the finite limits of our plant, on the necessity of recognizing the value and rights of non-human life, and on recognizing our part in shaping the unfolding disaster of environmental collapse.
To demonstrate this in action, let’s talk a look at some of the worst offenders in the English language. There are a lot more than these, but I think these six terms will illustrate what I’m arguing here:
#1: Development. Webster’s defines this word as follows: “1) The process of developing or being developed; 2) A specified state of growth or advancement.” So we have new developments, housing developments, land developers, and so on. As humans we attach all sorts of positive images to the word development, but my question is–what is being developed, and what is lost in the process?
#2. Global Warming / Climate Change. The problem with these terms is what rhetoricians would call a lack of agency; that is, they don’t attribute causality to any particular group. Climate change is happening, but who is causing that change? In this linguistic construction, grammatically, it kinda seems like the climate is just changing. This is the same problem with the term global warming; the globe is warming, which is true, but its not attributing agency to the true case: humanity (which now has an overwhelming scientific consensus).
#3: Growth. The definition of growth is, “1) The process of increasing in physical size; The process of developing or maturing physically, mentally, or spiritually.” Of course, those aren’t the only definitions we attach to the term growth. Growth is tied to humanity’s overriding success narrative; the idea that growth is central for corporate, economic, and international success. But with growth comes the depletion of resources, the destruction of wild places, and the general killing off of other, non-human species. And, as the Limits of Growth describes, we are quickly reaching those limits; if the world consumed at the rate of modern-day America, it would take 5 earths to supply all that Americans consumed.
#4 Overgrown. In fact, when something that was tamed by humanity reverts to its more natural state of development, that is, it grows again we call it “overgrown.” Overgrown? Shouldn’t it just be grown? And we attach a negative connotation to it, like we let nature get out of control or something.
#5: Weed. Then there is the poor weed, the plant that is nature’s way of healing something that is far from its natural state (by breaking up soil, by preventing erosion, by fixing nitrogen in the soil, etc). We see these beneficials as “weeds” and then dump chemicals on them to eradicate them. What they are is nature’s way of balancing an unbalanced system (such as the lawn, which is as far from a natural state as a piece of land can typically be). We’ve declared war on these weeds (and pests) and this way of thinking is harmful (as I’ve blogged about before).
#6: Must haves / needs Everything in our culture is a must have. New “must haves” for the Christmas season, new must haves in technology, etc. The truth is, there is little that we “must have” that we think we do. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a helpful thing to consider here; Maslow posits that people need, at their base level, physiological comforts (air, food, sleep, etc.); safety (employment, property, resources, health, etc.), Love/belonging (family, sexual intimacy, friendship), esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement); and finally, self-actualization (morality, creativity, acceptance, etc.) While we see “resources” show up under the 2nd level, safety, this does not refer to the senseless accumulation of stuff. It refers to the ability of people to feel safe and secure in their environment: e.g. having the resources to acquire or produce food, shelter, etc. It does not refer to the latest consumer goods.
In sum, we need to rethink our vocabulary when dealing with our relationship to the natural world. We know from theories of linguistic relativity and rhetoric that language helps shape thought–and so we should be aware of how language used to describe our relationship with nature is used and abused. We need to come up with new terms, terms that accurately represent what is happening in our world and use terms that shape negative activity as negative and positive activity as positive. We need to empower ourselves through our communication so that we can act and build a better world.