Language: aid or hindrance

I was impressed by the 2016 sci-fi film ‘Arrival’ film. It is a serious movie, not the usual brainless special effects blockbuster, exceptionally well-made and intriguing. It is not everyday that the film cleverly makes use of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis crudely: (language shapes thought).
It set me thinking about the way perception of and action over the eco-crisis have been distorted by the language commonly used.
As the symptoms of that crisis of crises grew and became more evident, the phrase ‘global environmental change‘ became commonplace, especially in academic circles. It hardly connotes a crisis, suggesting that things will be different rather than radically worse. It also somewhat marginalises the fact that the crisis is not just happening bit is directly caused by human agency and, more specifically, by some people deciding to do certain things rather than pursue other options.
It was matched by the anodyne phrase ‘climate change‘. That is also called ‘global warming‘. The problem is not just that a bit more warmth may sound a good thing to many people. It also distorts ecological reality. We need a degree of global warming or we’d all freeze to death. The real problem is actually ‘global overwarming‘.
Sometimes, a word or phrase can simply elbow out others and thereby shape how the issue is framed. That happened with ‘carbon emissions‘ which pushed aside due consideration of other greenhouse gases especially methane and nitrous oxide, as well as the loss of balancing ‘sinks’ (ecological sequestration) and changes in the Earth’s albedo.
Similarly, the ‘climate crisis’ marginalised other elements of the total eco-crisis such as soil erosion, aquifer depletion and coming peaks in supplies of critical minerals eg so-called ‘peak phosphorus’ (
So we face a general eco-crisis in which ill conceived action to address just one symptom could easily make others worse. Only comprehensive solutions can work.
( Many touted solutions come prefaced with the word ‘clean‘. That sounds good and certainly better than ‘dirty’.
Yet many superficially ‘clean’ activities remain very destructive: large-scale monoculture, overtilling of the soil, overabstraction from waterways, blocking of rivers by large dams, channelisation, large-scale dredging, drainage of wetlands, deforestation, overhunting of wild species, living land buried under housing, roads and other structures, GMOs… Clean is not the same as the sustainable common good.
The dominant narrative about how to address ‘global environmental change’ has been structured by two phrases. First there was ‘sustainable growth‘, still to be found in many government papers and local development plans. Yet it is an oxymoron. Infinite growth cannot be sustained on a finite planet. At a local level, space is now often at a premium. Commonly, expansion on one variable will mean contraction on another, often to overall cost, not benefit.
Today, the phrase ‘sustainable development‘ is more common. Its power perhaps resides in the fact that it is essentially meaningless or, rather, all things to all men and women. Often, it means little more than ‘business-as-usual’ with a few tweaks here and there. The ‘barrel’ is deemed to be healthy apart from the odd rotten apple whose removal will allow things to continue as before without too much unsettling disruption.
Perhaps the most popular tweak is ‘efficiency‘. That too sounds good. Who on Earth could be for more ‘inefficiency.’ Well, there are real limits to efficiency. It is impossible to transcend entropic limits and, meanwhile, positive feedback and induced demand can cancel out whatever benefits efficiency might yield (;;
Actually, in some ways, inefficiency can be a good thing. Seemingly ‘redundant’ elements provide a fallback if other parts of a system break down, a prime example being the once rich diversity of plants and animals on the planet. Increasing efficiency at work (eg ‘Taylorism’) has often made the workplace an increasingly stressful and oppressive environment, as critics such as Harry Braverman showed. Meanwhile the ejection of human labour from economic activity has had all sorts of malign effects in wider society. It might be good to automate dangerous jobs but, again, beyond a certain point, overall negatives begin to crowd out any gains. Similarly, some people deem photosynthesis to be hopelessly ‘inefficient’. Yet the process does what is necessary as part of a total system. Greater efficiency could generate not gains but disruption of the ‘whole’.
A related word is ‘dematerialisation‘ (aka the ‘weightless economy‘) Again, who would be in favour of wasteful use of materials? It sounds like the ideal way forward. But, as with efficiency, it may offer some solutions in some cases but it is not a complete fix thanks to the inescapable limits to growth (–files/us-energy-use/Trainer%20Energy%20intensity.pdf and
Another warm-sounding word is ‘storage‘ (as in electricity and carbon storage). It conjures up images of cupboards and sensibly putting away things for a rainy day, Again, who could be against that? In reality, storage systems take up considerable physical space, cost energy to construct and operate, often require expensive management and maintenance, and can be prone to dangerous leaks (eg;;
Many of the above ideas are linked to another word: ‘resource‘. Clearly all species need resources in the sense of living spaces, food, water, shelter and so forth. Human society today depends on an unprecedented scale and variety of energy and raw material supplies, often sourced from very distant places (as in ‘food miles’). The problem is ‘resourcism‘, the treatment of habitats, other forms of life and indeed human beings as nothing but ‘resources’ (as in ‘human resources departments’). Thus they are deprived by linguistic (and then often legal means with ‘no standing’ in law) of intrinsic value, worthy in their own right of respect and care. They merely possess instrumental value and if a better instrument comes along they can be just discarded
The danger becomes worse when attempts are made to put a monetary value on their worth. Often it is simply not possible in many meaningful way, attempting to put a price on the priceless. All that happens is a commodification that can rationalised further exploitation and destruction. [The reasons why this cannot be  a long-term rationale for sustainable common good of all are brilliantly explored in ‘The “Economizing” of Ecology: Why big, rare whales still die”. by R. Michael McGonigle (1980) and the ‘Arrogance of Humanism’ by David Ehrenfield (1981)]
Biodiversity‘ is a particularly dangerous word. It is so commonly used that its meaning is seldom even considered. Yet it actually implies value in sheer numbers. But greater numerical diversity is often highly destructive as in the case of invasive species (eg; The real issue is biocomplexity ie the structures of fauna and flora created by co-evolution down the millennia. It is what creates durability and resilience (eg
Similarly many people defend ‘cultural diversity‘. Clearly people should be allowed to get on with their lives. It is equally clear that there is a degradation of overall human culture when we lose the knowledge and skills of those ‘vernacular cultures’ in which certain groups have learned to live sustainably in particular places. The loss of  linguistic diversity is another example of such impoverishment ( Language is of course forever mutating but that is not the same as the imposition of a linguistic monoculture thanks to spreading American-style consumerism (
Yet there is a proviso. It  is that cultural systems ought not oppress or exploit other people nor degrade the life-support systems on which all depend. Otherwise the slogan of ‘diversity’ could mean the tolerance of slavery, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, child brides, sati, stoning to death of ‘adulterers’, human sacrifices, cannibalism, cruelty to animals and much more. No-one has the ‘right’ to degrade their local environment since, in a connected world, it must impact on other peoples. As the saying goes, “we all live downstream”. The fewer interventions to restrict what people do the better but there cannot be a carte blanches issued with the word ‘diversity’.
Here is one last example of the problems of language and conceptualising the social and environmental challenge we face. It comes from journalist and campaigner George Monbiot. In his Guardian column (November 23, 2016), he made the point that overly ‘complex‘ societies are doomed to fail. He cites a recent essay by Paul Arbair (“the most interesting I have read this year”) as support.
Actually, the basic idea has been around a long time. It is part of the overall limits-to-growth perspective. Indeed the emergence of an overly centralised, bureaucratised and complicated society was indicted by Henry Thoreau way in 1854. Similar critiques have been voiced by John Muir, Lewis Mumford (the ‘megamachine’), Baker Brownell (eg ‘The Human Community’, 1950), Leopold Kohr (eg ‘The Breakdown of Nations ,1957) and, of course, Fritz Schumacher (“Small in Beautiful”).
Much of the data was synthesised by Joseph Tainter (see: and Jared Diamond (eg his study ‘Collapse). A particularly useful application of general limits-to-growth analysis to organisations was delivered by Duane Elgin:
To take a more recent and specific example, several commentators on the 2008 financial crisis pointed out that leading figures in the business community no longer understood the new and incredibly complicated financial ‘instruments’ that were being deployed and the dangers they posed. Actually, the word ‘instruments’ is another abuse of language, suggesting that these were wealth creating tools. Institutions such as the so-called ‘City’ actually create nothing: at the very best they only oil the wheels of commerce. Overall the financial sector is a wealth-redirecting machine, extracting wealth from the labours of others (in turn dependent on the ecological foundations of all value) and putting it mainly into the pockets of a few already very rich individuals
So, typically, Monbiot, the ever impressionistic journalistic, latches onto a particular bit of writing to construct a thesis on which he had become hooked (in this case, an unavoidable apocalypse around the corner). We will leave aside his overall message. The problem is that word complexity.
The problem we face is not complexity. It is over-complicatedness.  As noted above, ecosystems are incredibly complex, perhaps beyond human comprehension (especially when we try to understand them via reductionism, breaking them into tiny little parts and analyse them as if there were bits of machines). Even a little pond is a complex system. Yet, though ecosystems change they seldom collapse. Indeed they can cope with volcanic eruption and earthquakes, ‘healing’ the damaged land with a new coat of vegetation. Individual species die out but are replaced by replacement ones so the ‘whole’ continues to endure. A complex web of checks and balances ensures overall sustainability.
However the shocks to the system being administered by human activity are too big and too rapid. Indeed the main blow is not human action that it is making global ecosystems more ‘complex’. Rather it is ecological ‘simplification‘, courtesy of farming and forestry monocultures, vast mine, huge HEP dams, and, of course, the spread of tarmac, brick and concrete.
Most long-lasting societies have also been characterised by quite complex structures, with a dense mix of rituals, taboos, and myths. Many served to keep such cultures from overexploiting their environments (eg restrictions on hunting). Pre-Columbian native cultures in North American were a much more complex matrix than the comparatively uniform consumer cultures that now predominate. So complexity is not ipso facto a cause of crisis but, often, it check on things going from bad to worse. After all, the complexities of parliamentary democracy, with their checks and balances, are far better than the brutal simplicity of totalitarian rule.
The final word on language might go to George Orwell (eg But, this time, let’s give it to Camus and one of his characters in ‘The Plague’. “All our troubles  spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language. So I resolved always to speak — and to act — quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting oneself on the right tracK”. One might questions the word “all” but he had a point!
See also: