Language, Please

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

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“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” said the late Toni Morrison when accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

 

After Morrison died this week at the age of 88, a flood of eulogies has poured out praising the acclaimed novelist for her ability to use words to speak so eloquently to the heart of the human experience. As Morrison points out, this is the power of language: as the cornerstone of culture, it immortalizes us individually and collectively. On levels both conscious and unconscious, what we say matters.

 

It matters when the President of the United States responds to a series of mass shootings by saying that mental health, rather than a capitol controlled by the NRA, is to blame. It matters when 103 climate experts from 52 countries come forward saying that we have no choice but to drastically overhaul our food system if we want to avoid widespread starvation in the future (if you have been thinking about cutting back on meat, scientists say the time is now).

 

This year has seen a remarkable shift in the collective consciousness surrounding environmental urgency, and it would be naive to ignore the role that language has played in this. In May, The Guardian declared that it would be changing its verbiage used in environmental coverage, replacing “climate change” with “climate crisis,” which impacted a number of other outlets to do the same. “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue,” said the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. “The phrase ‘climate change,’ for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

 

Consider the case of the word “natural,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.” On a semantic level, we have divorced ourselves from nature. Psychology tells us that we are less likely to care about issues that we don’t feel connected to. So when our very language keeps us disconnected from the rest of the Earth, how could this rhetoric not reverberate in our thoughts and actions? Is it possible to write a new definition for how we see ourselves—not separate from, but directly entwined with the larger sphere of nature?

 

This question was among the starting points for our first volume, Neo-Natural, of which we have spent the last few months giving you glimpses. Today, we are pleased to share with you a more expansive look at this issue. On Atmos.earth, you can now explore every story from the magazine in depth, from our Q&A with Yoko Ono to ANOHNI’s diatribe on the Divine to the pioneers of Neo-Natural resources.

 

The impact of language on consciousness has been carefully considered by a number of philosophical traditions throughout time. As Buddhist Thích Nhất Hạnh put it, “The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing. And the deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature.”

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