Brice Bunner

We’ll need a new vocabulary to say what we really mean about the environment


The future depends on having words to frame itWe often use language to frame our social and generational existence—it makes us who we are. Need proof? Go google it.

See? Verbing the word google is a perfect example of how we create language to give context, express emotion, and categorize the things going on around us. It’s the taxonomy of life. And, with recent changes in our world, it seems we are lacking in language that fully captures the ethos of what we are up against. So, who is the oracle for sustainability? Some say it could be this farmer.

Farmer turned philosopher – Farmosopher!

Glenn Albrecht, self-proclaimed farmosopher, uses his connection to the earth and knowledge of language to bridge the divide we feel as we walk this troubled planet: solastalgia. It’s a heady word, to be sure. Which brings into question whether or not it’s the right word.

Language is imperative to codifying thought. And we have examples of this with cultures where something is important to them that might not be to us. For instance, how many words do you have for snow? Likely, not nearly the number that Inuit people have since it is crucial to their way of life.

Similarly, the French have words for epicurean endeavors that make our “sear” and “sizzle” pale in comparison—and only as you increase your interest in gastronomies do you begin to understand, much less use, such language in the kitchen.

If anything, the lack of words we have to describe the environmental crisis we are in shows just how far we truly are from the reality of what we’re doing to the planet. Giving words to these emotions we feel about the climate change, e-waste, ocean plastics… it helps to show that this is more than merely anecdotal pain we are experiencing. The hurt is real, and it is specific to the state of the environment; a kind of terrafurie, according to Albrecht.

Be careful: you are what you speak

Words create thought—well, communicable and detailed thought, at least. We see this with children as they develop and even in those rare cases of people who, by some tragedy, have been denied language learning. Anything more than oblique reactions to things requires language, but that language also forges a distinction in those reactions; an emotional agenda is created. 

We can see this with IT equipment in the industry. The term End-of-Life, for instance, has a negative finality to it that doesn’t adequately describe the very real potential value those devices have. Yet, because we call it End-of-Life, recycling perfectly good devices doesn’t seem as appalling as it should. Language matters.

But the problem with Albrecht’s lexicon isn’t its possible agenda, it’s that it doesn’t have mass appeal. Perhaps it’s too academic for popular culture, or that it’s not visceral enough, but the truth is Albrecht is just making these words up. New ways of speaking come from a community’s emotional stimulation—a collective voice and are rarely a mash-up of Latin. Not since the days of Shakespeare have we seen a single person drive language in any one direction like that.

However, it is safe to say that the farmosopher is on the right track. It’s just that people have to be using it fluently before it truly starts to change how we think about things.

One thing is for certain, though. We are in desperate need for language to catch up to the climate crisis we are experiencing. Otherwise, we risk falling into ecoagnosy.

Hero Image ©: Salon

Looking for more like this? Try this one: Will civil disobedience help fight climate change?

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