“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” - Wendell Berry
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words (2017), Hamish Hamilton
In the late 2000s, scientists suggested that global warming was too limited a term for the effects of anthropogenic activity on our planet. Thus, we slowly transitioned to saying climate change instead, trading the implied endless summers for a phrase that conveys uncertainty and elicits unease. Recently, the phrase has evolved again to “climate crisis”, resolving that uncertainty with an assured cry: this is an emergency. While all three of these variations refer to the same thing, they evoke decidedly different emotions, holding immense power over our unconscious interpretations. This boils down to the power of language.
Language and its Ties to Identity
If you want to understand what people value, look first at their vocabulary. The Gaelic language, for example, once had hundreds of words to refer to Scottish peatlands and their characteristics, developed over centuries as they worked closely with the land. These words connected the Scottish people to the peatlands, establishing the moors as part of their community and identity.
However, as the nature of people’s work shifted from being outdoors to indoors and the world steadily urbanized, vocabulary surrounding peatlands has steadily disappeared from dictionaries across Europe. Tnis disappearance of words and knowledge eradicated the cultural connection we felt with these spaces, and the peatland paradigm shifted to one of wasted space and economic opportunity.
Technology has only accelerated the effect of shrinking word banks on our perception of the natural world. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized and distant from our environment, our fascination with nature is evaporating. A recent study done by the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) found that fewer than 10 percent of Dutch children regularly play in nature, and the rate amongst adults is even more grim: 60 percent of adults sampled in the UK never spend time in nature.
It’s a vicious cycle: the less time we spend in nature, the more our vocabulary of the natural world shrinks, and the less we regard it as an important part of our identity and experience, further reducing our motives to value nature. The consequences of this shift in collective consciousness are immense: once identification with a space is lost, it is infinitely easier to sell the narrative that nature exists to be capitalized upon. As author MacFarlane says, “Once a landscape goes undescribed and therefore unregarded, it becomes more vulnerable to unwise use or improper action”.
What can we do?
Several organizations within Amsterdam are actively fighting the process of nature’s eradication from the public consciousness.
The Green Living Lab exists to connect city-dwellers to nature through education and interactive experiences: https://greenlivinglab.org/
Anna’s Tuin, Tuinen van West, and other community gardens help bridge the gap between urbanites and local food sources: http://annastuinenruigte.nl/en/welcome/
And if direct activism is your sort of thing, check out some of ASEED’s events, which draw attention to the issues of food autonomy and reconnecting people to the global food system: https://aseed.net
As a final point: never forget there is a beautiful power that resides in each of us to elicit a response through language. As environmentalists, we have an opportunity with each word we speak to go beyond statistics and scientific jargon to communicate with people on an emotional level. Educate yourself, familiarize yourself with words both lost and common, and use them well.
Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks, available for purchase online: https://www.bol.com/nl/f/landmarks/9200000035763656/