Mark S. Meisner “Resourcist Language: The Symbolic Enslavement of Nature,” in Proceedings of the Conference on Communication and Our Environment, eds. David Sachsman, Kandice Salomone and Susan Seneca, pp.236-243, Chattanooga: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 1997.
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THE SYMBOLIC ENSLAVEMENT OF NATURE
Mark S. Meisner
Conference on Communication and Our Environment
Chattanooga, Tennessee, March 30, 1995
Questions of language are becoming more prevalent within environmental thought. For advocates and other concerned people, language change–as part of a broader cultural transformation–is needed to accompany changes in philosophical and material relations with non-human nature. As a first step I suggest examining how current words and phrases degrade nature. To this end I outline a taxonomy of resourcist language which is meant to illustrate several of the many ways in which the anthropocentric-resourcist view of nature is manifested in language. I argue that environmental thinkers and activists should be more critically self-aware of their language and suggest that we may be using language that implicitly contradicts the messages we are trying to convey.
I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their comments. Professor Mora Campbell at York University also provided me with some challenging comments and suggestions. My studies are supported by the Eco-Research Doctoral Fellowship Programme of the Tri-Council Secretariat. Some funding to participate in the conference has been provided by the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University.
Questions of “language” are becoming increasingly important to those who theorize about the relationships between humanity and non-human nature. However, within environmental thought (which includes environmental ethics, deep ecology, ecofeminism, environmental sociology, etc.) there is little work that addresses language and nature in any more than passing or abstract ways. In this literature, when “language” is referred to, what is meant by it is not always clear, and what is said about it seems to be little more than the initial observation that it is important. To make matters worse, many people use “language” in a metonymical way to mean ideas, speech, discourse, or simply the things people say. Such uses only serve to confuse the issues in question.
In this paper I will explicitly consider one key linguistic issue relevant to environmental thought and communications: resourcist language. By resourcist language I mean words and phrases which reflect and in turn re-present a resourcist ideology of nature. By itself, resourcist language is but one of a number of such issues of language that relate specifically to concerns with the view of nature that dominates in Western industrial society (See Meisner, 1991). However, it is perhaps the most obvious and important of these eco-linguistic issues.
My contention, then, is that resourcist language is both an indicator and a key part of the utilitarian view of nature that dominates in Western industrial society. Furthermore, I will suggest that resourcist language is to the environmental movement as sexist language was to the early women’s movement. That is to say, there are many within the environmental movement who are still using language which contradicts the messages they are trying to convey, just as many early feminists used gender exclusive and androcentric language. Thus, there is a discontinuity between what is being advocated and how it is being done, between language and attitudes and ways of being. Both the women’s and human rights movements generally have, and continue to actively debate issues of language, but why hasn’t the environmental movement? Is language not seen as part of the problem?
THE RESOURCIST IDEOLOGY OF NATURE
This work proceeds from the understanding that how humans view, and indeed speak about, nature has a profound effect on how we relate to non-human nature. In other words, the complex synthesis of human attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, values, images, myths, ideas, concepts, and root metaphors that make up how we think and feel about the natural world (let us call it our environmental worldview) are central to the so-called environmental crisis. In a simplified framework, I see the hegemonic anthropocentric and resourcist view of nature being challenged by an emerging ecocentric and experiential sense of nature. However, I should note that the emphasis here is on non-human nature, and this should not be interpreted as a denial of the importance of such things as ethnocentrism, androcentrism, consumerism, etc. that characterize this same problematic worldview.
The idea that our view of nature is a central part of the environmental crisis has been widely discussed in the environmental thought literature, so I do not feel that I need to discuss it in detail here, except to summarize as follows (See, for example, Berman, 1981; Devall & Sessions, 1985; Evernden, 1985; Fox, 1990; Livingston, 1981b; McLaughlin, 1993; Merchant, 1980; Oelschlaeger, 1991; and Worster, 1985).
The anthropocentric-resourcist view of nature is characterized by the following six general beliefs: 1. an attitude of human-centredness, self-importance, and chauvinism towards the rest of nature (anthropocentrism); 2. the idea that non-human nature’s only real value is its utility–material, aesthetic, or even spiritual–to humans as a resource (resourcism); 3. the idea that humans are separate and distinct from the rest of nature (dualism); 4. the view of humans as superior to and above other beings (hierarchy); 5. the perception that non-human nature is a collection of things or objects (reification or objectification); and 6. the idea that nature is a collection of discrete parts (reductionism).
In contrast to this is an emerging, diversely-interpreted, and contested alternative sense of nature which can be seen as comprising the following six characteristics: 1. an attitude of respect and humility towards other beings, human and non-human, whereby humans do not seek to dominate or control, but rather allow those other beings their freedom (ecocentrism); 2. the idea that non-human nature is valuable in itself, independent of any real or perceived value to humans (the intrinsic value of nature); 3. the view that humans are within and part of nature (unity); 4. the idea that humans are but one facet of nature, each of which is special in its own way, but none of which is superior (equality); 5. the perception that nature is a living, relational, embodied process (process); and 6. the idea that nature is a comprehensible and meaningful whole (holism). Central to this emerging paradigm of nature is the idea that it is not simply a different view of nature that is required, but also a different way of being. Thus, there is a call for humans to experience the world differently, to regain a sense of wonder about nature and to resist fixed views of it (Evernden, 1985; and McLaughlin, 1985 and 1993). It is for this reason that I call this sensibility ecocentric-experiential.
Since this paper focuses on just one dimension of the dominant Western view of nature, namely resourcism, that dimension bears some discussion. The concept of resourcism has been most succinctly described by John A. Livingston (1985, 4) as follows: “Resourcism sees the nonhuman world, which is all external to man [sic] and his [sic] structures, as raw material dedicated without reservation to the human purpose.” Neil Evernden (1985, 23) goes so far as to suggest that this perspective holds a special place in our worldview when he says that “resourcism is a kind of modern religion which casts all of creation into categories of utility”. What this means is that all of nature, including all other species, the soil, the water, the rocks, the air and so on, are seen as actual or potential economic and material resources for human use. As Livingston (1985, 5) continues, “the moment a human use is perceived in any thing, that thing becomes a resource.”
The ideology of resourcism is decidedly economic in its outlook. Nature is valued as a resource to the human economy, concern for which seems to be an obsession in this society. Furthermore, in this view, all of nature is seen through the lens of economics and commerce, a point made by Max Oelschlaeger (1991, 287-288) in his description of resourcism:
The value of wild nature is construed strictly in economic terms, either directly through operation of the market according to “laws” of supply and demand, or indirectly through cost-benefit analysis. The market makes a mountain meadow worth more as a ski development and resort, complete with condominiums and shopping centers, than as a wilderness preserve.
In Nature’s Economy, Donald Worster shows the historical intertwining of economics and ecological science, and argues that “the ‘New Ecology’ that emerged in the middle decades of the twentieth century sees nature through…the forms, processes, and values of the modern economic order as shaped by technology” (293). Not only does the extended economic metaphor of nature that permeates ecological science, and to a lesser degree society generally, suggest a degraded view of nature, but it also serves to reinforce the idea that nature is simply an extension of the human economy, thereby legitimizing our continuing exploitation of it.
Resourcism, however, is not limited to the material transformation of nature into human commodities. As Evernden points out, it can manifest itself in so-called non-consumptive uses of nature. For example, we have wilderness areas which are considered to be visual or aesthetic resources and which are deemed to be so through quantitative measurement. As he puts it, “even landscape beauty is now being commodified through attempts to measure the shape of the ‘stimulus’ that provides the sensation we deem indicative of aesthetic superiority” (Evernden, 1983b, 10; see also Evernden, 1983a).
In addition to valuing nature as an aesthetic resource, we also see it as having spiritual value, life support value (human society depends on a viable ecosphere), recreational value (boating, hiking, birding etc.), scientific value (beyond its material applications, there are some who pursue science as intellectual entertainment), “symbolic instructional value” (nature can teach us how to live), psychological value (nature as an aid to human psychological development) and more (See Ehrenfeld, 1981; Fox, 1990, 154-161; Livingston, 1981b; and Rolston, 1986). In keeping with the demands of our economic obsession, many of these are also converted into economic terms in order to satisfy the evaluative criteria (money) of the decision makers.
Of course humans must use facets of non-human nature, just as all species “use” others to live, and such ways of valuing it are all genuine and normal. However, when non-human nature is valued solely for human purposes, and when it is seen as dedicated to human interests and in strictly economic terms, then there is a problem, namely resourcism.
Aside from the fact that such a view is intimately part of the cycle of human consumption of non-human nature, and is manifesting itself in the destruction of habitat and the extinguishing of innumerable species, resourcism is also problematic because it is a hegemonic ideology. Resourcism is not simply a perspective; it is a thoroughly institutionalized way of being. As Livingston points out, resourcism is part of industrial society’s imperative towards “growth” and “development.” The claim by former Premier of Quebec Robert Bourassa that the rivers of Northern Quebec are “wasted” resources, allowing millions of kilowatt-hours of potential electricity to flow unused into the sea until they are “developed” and “harnessed” by humans is illustrative of this. Furthermore, Livingston argues that the resourcist ideology is part of the deeply rooted idea that humans were put on Earth with the express (Divine) purpose of domesticating, “improving” and exploiting non-human nature. He calls this the “development imperative” (Livingston, 1985; see also 1981a).
As a final note on resourcism, I want to say that this attitude and ideology is not directed solely towards non-human beings. The exploitation and domination of humans by humans which is so evident throughout history and which continues today in more subtle ways is part of the same instrumental orientation to the world. Indeed, the principal argument of Leiss (1972), not to mention many ecofeminists and social ecologists, is that these two forms of domination have an intimate and shared history.
LANGUAGE AND NATURE
Language is a central part of how humans view and act in the world. It is both a tool we use and a place where we live. Through the study of language we can learn about ourselves, and in this case, specifically about our relationships to the non-human world. So it is not that I think language is the problem that needs fixing. I prefer to think of it (with apologies to Susan Sontag (1978) and an awareness of the problems with the metaphor) as a sort of contagious symptom of an underlying disease. Treating language will not make the anthropocentric-resourcist ideology and its behavioural, economic and structural manifestations go away. But language is a sign of something wrong and it is a way to get the people concerned to think about the issues.
By “language” I simply mean words and ways of arranging them. I therefore distinguish between what people mean to say (propositional content), and how they say it (lexical and syntactic choices). For example, if a supporter of deep ecology were to say: “The natural resources should be conserved for their own sakes,” I would ask if “natural resources” was an appropriate label for facets of nature (it denies their independence from human valuation), and whether “conserved” was an appropriate verb for what we need to do for nature, in the context of arguing for nature for its own sake. In this example there is a contradiction between the message being attempted and the message implied in the word choices. Thus, the language is an issue in such a statement. To be so, it must be considered in light of its contexts: the speaker and their philosophical or political position, their propositions, and the discursive communities in which they participate.
The relationship between language and worldview is complex and uncertain. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserts the theories of linguistic determinism and relativity (Whorf, 1956). Though the strong version of this theory is not widely accepted, a weaker version is (e.g. Fowler, 1991; Lakoff, 1987). So, as Paul Chilton (1988, 47) puts it, “instead of making absolute claims about the necessary determination of all thought by all aspects of language, it is more useful to ask which parts of language influence which speakers in which contexts and to what degree.” In other words, we can say that language does not necessarily determine thought, but rather affects it; language does not set the limits of thought, but it does guide it in certain directions. This view is supported by Wendy Martyna who says of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: “it has come to be generally accepted in its moderate version: that language may influence, rather than determine, thought and behaviour patterns” (1983, 34).
Language is the dominant medium with which ideas of nature are constructed and maintained. Through language we encode, reinforce and legitimate categories, values, concepts, and feelings relating to the natural world. Since words carry values, the words we choose to name and characterize nature are a significant part of how we view it. Furthermore, language allows for multiple interpretations of meaning, and for ambiguities and manipulation. It also serves a powerful legitimating function and can tend to reinforce hegemonic ideologies. However, it is also a creative resource and provides opportunities for change and transformation. Language, thought, feeling, and worldview are then mutually shaping dimensions of an ongoing process of perception, conceptualization, representation, construction, legitimation, reproduction, and sometimes transformation of ideologies. There is no such thing as neutral language (See Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Connolly, 1983; Fairclough, 1989; Hall, 1980; Spender, 1985; and Williams, 1983).
The feature of language that most influences our views of nature is metaphor. Since metaphors have been widely theorized (See for example, Black, 1979; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Ortony, 1979; and Sacks, 1979), and since I have explored their environmental significance elsewhere (Meisner, 1995), I do not feel I need to go into detail here. It is enough to say that metaphors are pervasive in our linguistic constructions of nature, and that all representations of nature draw upon them. They serve to cognitively and emotively massage our understanding of the world. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) assert, metaphors are part of thought and action as well as language. As they say,
in all aspects of life,…we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor. (158)
In addition to thinking about metaphors, I also find the concept of linguistic registers useful for looking at issues of language and nature. A register is a variety of language that is particular to a field of use (See Cameron, 1985; and Fowler, 1991). In the case of words, we can speak of lexical registers that are associated with specific situations. As Fowler (1991, 84) suggests, lexical registers can “mark off socially and ideologically distinct areas of experience: they have a categorizing function.” So, in the case of resourcism, I think it is possible to say that there is a distinct lexical register associated with this environmental ideology. What is even more interesting, though, is the possibility that ecocentric environmental advocates are still using a resourcist register to refer to non-human nature. Furthermore, some of them–including Monte Hummel, President of WWF Canada–employ code-switching tactics to better reach their more extraction-oriented audiences (Hummel, 1991). To explore that register, I now turn to my taxonomy.
TAXONOMY OF RESOURCIST LANGUAGE
In this section, I will look at the resourcist register and outline a taxonomy of types of resourcist language. My purpose, I should say again, is not to proscribe or prescribe any sort of linguistic practices, but rather to suggest that these words and phrases may be part of the problem and allow readers to make up their own minds as to their significance. However, I am not indifferent to the issue, so I also want to assert that resourcist language is a real phenomenon, and that having named it, we can now look at how its critique offers an opportunity. Furthermore, I should point out that though I am dealing here strictly with lexical issues, resourcism is also encoded through syntactical choices. Some readers may know that there have been random murmurings about this sort of language for some time, so as much as possible, I have tried to draw from those murmurings to illustrate my taxonomy.
Resourcist language can take many different forms and occurs in many contexts. It can be thought of as any word or phrase choice which implies that the value of a facet of non-human nature is simply its value to some human purpose. In other words, resourcist language is language which suggests that nature exists simply to supply human needs and wants, be they material, economic, recreational, aesthetic, or spiritual. It appears in various forms including managerial and directly resourcist word choices, proprietary language, economistic language, mechanistic metaphors, and aesthetic and spiritual language. The following taxonomy is an analytical tool, and is meant to help make sense of the range and scope of the issues and to show examples of how language can reflect the various dimensions of resourcism. I am not attempting to catalogue all of the possible examples of these issues, only to illustrate them. Furthermore, just as the dimensions of the ideology are intertwined and overlapping, so too are some of the linguistic issues.
Managerial language is that which implies that humans do or ought to control and manage nature, as suggested particularly by the use of those two terms and their derivatives. It also includes language which metaphorically constructs wild nature as an agricultural crop. This includes such phrases as “tree farm,” “harvest the fish stocks,” “sustainable yield,” “surplus,” “weed species,” “wasted resources” and so on. When applied to non-domesticated species, such phrases suggest that all of nature is necessarily under human control. However, as Livingston (1986, 25; see also 1981b, 29-30) says, you cannot harvest something that you have not sown . Such metaphors seem to legitimize the Western industrialist agenda of global domestication.
Probably the most blatant type of managerial resourcist language is that which directly asserts a resourcist view. This includes words and phrases which carry the presuppositions of resourcism, including “conservation,” “resource,” “natural resources,” “furbearer,” “fisheries,” “parks,” “wildlife reserves,” “logging,” and “timber.” These words are part of the registers of the forest-cutting, animal-trapping, and fish-catching industries. Livingston (1989, 241) has said this about the word “resource”:
Here we must note the power of language. The word “resource” implies human benefit, for example. But it also implies dedication to the human purpose of something that is non-human. Further, it insists on the human right, and even the human duty, to exploit it. This is why the use of the term “resource conservation” is so sadly inappropriate when applied to wild species, communities, and spaces. The expression itself indicates that we regard as property and utilities those very beings and places we would protect. It projects a tame or domesticated status upon all of wild nature.
Living beings that are labeled “resources” soon start to be seen only as resources. This implicitly denies all other facets of their existence, and encourages a myopic utilitarian worldview. To use words that presume resourcism is to subtly reinforce its way of seeing nature, and of being.
A variation on managerial language is what I call proprietary language. This consists of those terms or expressions which directly assert human ownership of facets of nature. Managerial language can imply or presuppose ownership, but it does not always come out and say it. Proprietary language does, and it includes the use of the possessive determiners “our,” “their,” and “my” to refer to facets of nature, as in “our land.” It can also be manifested in such terms as “natural heritage,” “legacy,” “ancestral land,” “territory,” and in such phrases as “we’ve got fewer species left,” and “we’re losing ecosystems.” Arguably the terms “public land” and “national forest” are also proprietary. Livingston (1989, 244) laments that many reform environmentalists use the proprietary “our” and “heritage” in their advocacy statements. Proprietary language reflects and reinforces an attitude of selfishness and possessiveness in relation to the rest of nature. But it is easily avoided as it represents a conceptualization that may be abandoned rather than re-worded.
Economistic language is another variation on the theme. It is language that characterizes nature in metaphorical terms derived from the world of business, industry and economics. This includes such phrases as “bankrupting the resources,” “biological richness,” “ecological capital,” “nature’s interest,” “impoverished habitats,” “ecological inventory,” “investment of resources,” or ecology’s “producers,” “consumers,” and “efficiency.” In applying an economic metaphor–and the mode of thinking that goes with it–to nature, such terminology may be subtly reinforcing the utilitarian view that sees nature’s only value as being to the human economy. As Livingston (1985, 8) puts it, “by seeing ecosphere [sic] as functioning in ways analogous to a human economy, it then becomes possible to perceive all of nature as a natural and necessary element of the human economy.”
Furthermore, economic language may give a false idea of how or what nature is (not that we can ever really know nature…). For example, does nature really represent a form of capital which produces biological interest that can be skimmed off the top without affecting the ability of nature to continue to produce, as is believed by those (See IUCN, 1980; WCED, 1987) who advocate “sustainable development”? Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy contains what is probably the best exploration of the application of economic thinking to nature. In particular he shows how ecology is pervaded by economics and how scientific ecologists use a predominance of economic metaphors in describing how nature “works”:
The metaphors used here are more than casual or incidental; they express the dominant tendency in the scientific ecology of our time. In their most recent theoretical model, ecologists have transformed nature into a reflection of the modern corporate, industrial system. (292)
The implications of this, suggests Worster, are an increasingly technocratic, utilitarian, and managerial approach to nature.
In less obvious ways, resourcism can be implied in language through the entailments of certain metaphors of nature that themselves are not obviously resourcist. A key case of this is found in mechanistic language, in which nature or facets of it are variously constructed as some sort of machine. Familiar examples include clocks, spaceships, computers, airplanes and so on. A key entailment of a machine metaphor is that the machine requires an operator. So, to see nature as a technological system is both to reify it, and to see humans as the control mechanism for the system, thereby legitimizing even more human manipulation and domestication of nature. Another entailment is that the machine serves the purposes of some owner, and that owner is likely to be us. Again, the resourcism is implicit. Aside from metaphors which liken nature to specific pieces of machinery, such generic terms as “repair,” “maintain,” “linked,” “connections,” “function,” “works,” “integrated,” and “environmental technician” are also indicative of a mechanistic view.
A more recent version of mechanistic language is comprised of a set of metaphors that characterize nature as a system. Such cybernetic language includes words such as: “ecosystem,” “natural system,” “biocomputer,” “spaceship earth,” “the life-support system,” “early warning signals,” “interface,” and “ecological information networks,” for example. These technological metaphors are perhaps even more degrading and human-centered than their predecessors, the mechanistic models. And this is despite the fact that system metaphors appear to be more process-oriented and holistic. Livingston (1986, 25) expresses this point with irony:
Today the clockwork solar system is viewed as an amusing archaism. Now that we know better, this planet is viewed as either a spaceship or as a giant information network–depending on your preference. In the days of the clockwork planet and solar system, God was still keeping the pendulum moving. Today, guess who is at the controls of the spaceship and programming the great computer.
So as Livingston says, under such a view of nature, as on a spaceship or in a computer program, nothing can be left to chance; everything must be controlled. Similarly, Wayland Drew (1986, 21) had this to say about the spaceship earth metaphor:
‘Spaceship earth’, a current catch-phrase among environmentalists, indicates their cooptation by the technological rationale, for the spaceship is the absolute in technical perfection. In its operation there is no room for the irrational and nothing can be left to chance. The survival of those who inhabit it depends on their subservience to technical processes, and hence on their diminishment as humans.
The managerial imperative that these metaphors suggest represents a central conceit of the dominant worldview. These metaphors are both anthropocentric and resourcist as well as being an extension of mechanism.
Finally, resourcism may even be implied in various forms of sublime language. So, for example when we talk of the “beauty of a landscape” we may implicitly be making nature into a visual resource to satisfy human aesthetic desires (On seeing nature as a visual resource see Evernden, 1983a). “Beauty” is clearly part of aesthetics, but so too is “landscape” since its meaning is scenery. A phrase like “nature appreciation” could also fall into this category, as could the use of such cultural metaphors of nature as a “mosaic”, a “tapestry”, a “symphony,” or simply an “irreplaceable” art object. Benign as it may seem, there is nevertheless the potential for such language to reinforce an attitude of resourcism because of the way it lets us objectify facets of nature. A similar argument can be made for language that asserts the spiritual value of nature as a “cathedral forest,” “sacred landscape,” and so on.
Furthermore, the degree to which a natural place is considered aesthetically valuable will have direct implications for its preservation, or, more likely, conservation. However, as John Rodman (1983, 85) puts it, “in general, esthetic considerations are very subjective and therefore shaky foundations on which to base any kind of ethic.” I should be clear here that I am not trying to argue that non-human nature can not have aesthetic or spiritual value to humans, but rather that there exists the potential for this way of speaking to reinforce a resourcist ideology, however benign such versions of it may seem.
When we use resourcist language it is easy to forget that we are talking about living beings, with their own lives independent of us. The practice of resourcism is akin to slavery and resourcist language only serves to reinforce the view of nature as existing solely for human purposes. However, despite the entrenchment of it in our vocabularies and ways of thinking, resourcist language is often avoidable. Again, I want to say that I am not attempting to tell people what a “correct” environmental vocabulary should look like, merely to suggest that there are other ways of speaking about nature than those currently used by many environmentalists. Furthermore, although my purpose is to critique various types of words for seeming to reinforce a resourcist view of nature, I do not want to suggest that mine is the only possible reading of such words. What I do believe is that in some contexts these words can be seen in this way.
What alternatives are there to resourcist language? Generally speaking, there are four broad options available to those who may wish to affect language use and its meanings. First, they can avoid using certain terms altogether and thereby avoid the concepts and categories those words assert. The label “natural resources” seems an obvious candidate for this. Secondly, they can try to find different (existing) words for the same concepts. For example, instead of using “timber stand,” one could say “forest community,” and “biological diversity” instead of “richness.” This use of different but existing words includes using new metaphors. So, instead of using mechanistic language, one could use organic metaphors such as nature as a living being which can be “harmed,” “injured,” “healed,” and so on. These have the effect of suggesting not an inanimate object, but a being with its own subjectivity.
A third approach to language change is to try to introduce new words (neologisms) into the vocabulary, but this is rarely successful. The term ecocentrism comes to mind in this context as one that has started to take root, although I do have problems with its implication of any sort of centredness, when really what it is about is a de-centredness (“eco-decentrism”?!). A final tactic is to try to take control of the meanings of the problematic words in the way such pejoratives as “queer” and “Quaker” have been re-appropriated by those who they were originally intended to insult. This is possible because meanings are in people and their discourses, and not in the words themselves. However, this strategy is a little bit different in the case of nature because it is not the animals and plants themselves that are speaking back. Nevertheless, I have noticed some people using the term “weeds” in this way, as a kind of term of endearment.
Changing the language we use to talk about non-human nature is not a solution. As I suggested, language is not the problem. Rather, it seems more like a contagious symptom of a deeper and multi-faceted problem that has yet to be fully defined. Resourcist language is both an indicator and a carrier of the pathology of rampant ecological degradation. Furthermore, language change alone can end up simply being a band-aid solution that gives the appearance of change and makes the problem all the less visible. In a recent article on feminist language reform, Susan Ehrlich and Ruth King (1994) argue that because meanings are socially constructed, attempts at introducing nonsexist language are being undermined by a culture that is still largely sexist. The words may have shifted, but the meanings and ideologies have not. The real world cure for the sick patient matters more than the treatment of a single symptom. Consequently, language change and cultural change must go together with social-structural change. It is naive to believe either that language is trivial, or that it is deterministic.
In addition to being a site of struggle over the representation of nature, language debates can also be a part of environmental education. From my own experience, I have found that people who are unfamiliar with the issues of anthropocentrism and resourcism find discussions of language an accessible point of departure. So, debates about language, if framed correctly, can be the catalyst for debates about ideology and power, as well as about ways of living and being.
In this paper, I have outlined several ways in which I see certain word choices as having the potential to reflect and reinforce a resourcist view of nature. As indicated, I have presented these for consideration. The women’s movement and the civil rights movement, among others, have noted and continue to explore the importance of language, but the environmental movement seems not to have done so in any systematic way. In particular, those advocating cultural transformation of human sensibilities of nature need to look specifically at the role of language in the degradation of the natural world. In this light I urge not a dogmatic code of linguistic behaviour, but rather a critical self awareness about language and a leadership by example wherever possible. New words can rupture old structures and plant seeds for new ways of thinking.
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