By George Monbiot - The Guardian
Language is crucial to how we perceive the natural world. Help me to find better ways of describing nature and our relationships with it so we can better defend it.
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”. Had you set out to estrange people from the living world, you could scarcely have done better.
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. (Even this neutral term has now been banned from use in the US Department of Agriculture.) I still see ecologists referring to “improved” pasture, meaning land from which all life has been erased other than a couple of plant species favoured for grazing or silage. 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. There were similar differences between people performing a “consumer reaction study” and a “citizen reaction study”: the questions were the same, but when people saw themselves as consumers, they were more likely to associate materialistic values with positive emotions.
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.
The catastrophic failure by ecologists to listen to what cognitive linguists and social psychologists have been telling them has led to the worst framing of all: “natural capital”. This term informs us that nature is subordinate to the human economy, and loses its value when it cannot be measured by money. It leads almost inexorably to the claim made by the government agency Natural England: “The critical role of a properly functioning natural environment is delivering economic prosperity.”