Global Issues: A Further Introductory Activity
This is our second introductory activity for introducing, understanding, and working with global issues. The materials on this page can be used in conjunction with (we suggest after) the first introductory activity, or it can be used on its own. The activities are intended to be straightforward. They ask students to identify global issues in a range of texts, both literary and non-literary, and to think about the ways writers and different text types represent global issues in a variety of ways.
Introducing the Blue Marble in Quotes
At the outset of the lesson(s), begin to orientate students towards thinking about global issues. If beginning to consider global issues for the first time, you and your students could look at images of planet Earth or watch clips on YouTube (see below) or similar; our planet is a remarkable thing, and not least when viewed from space!. Present students with quotations (below) about Earth and ask them to identify and discuss the ones they most like or find interesting. You could also ask them to write a 'memorable aphorism' of their own about our planet.
What is This Thing Called a Global Issue?
Begin to get students to think about what a global issue is and to develop examples of possible global issues. Using the extract (below) from Global Issues: An Introduction and the follow-up discussion questions will establish a good foundation for the activities that follow.
Identifying Global Issues in Texts
Begin by asking students to consider the non-literary extracts (below), taken from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Ask students to identify a (different) global issue expressed in each of the extracts; hopefully, this will be reasonably uncomplicated. Ask students to be as precise as possible. For example, when students are working with the extract from The Spirit Level, they may identify the global issue as 'materialism' or 'material consumption'. Such answers are not of course wrong, but they are rather too broadly expressed. A better global issue might be something like 'material consumption and its impact on psychological and social wellbeing'. Since both texts are polemical, it is useful, at this stage, to ask students to identify the writer's perspective on the global issue and to say something about the ways this perspective is constructed. We suggest you pair - share, or pair - jigsaw - share the activity.
FOR STUDENTS: QUESTIONS & INSTRUCTIONS
Identify a (different) global issue in each of the texts, The Spirit Level, and Caste.
In each text, what is the writer's perspective on the global issue, and how is this view established?
It is a remarkable paradox that, at the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life. Lacking the relaxed social contact and emotional satisfaction we all need, we seek comfort in over-eating, obsessive shopping and spending, or become prey to excessive alcohol, psychoactive medicines and illegal drugs.
How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? Often what we feel is missing is little more than time enjoying the company of friends, yet even that can seem beyond us. We talk as if our lives were a constant battle for psychological survival, struggling against stress and emotional exhaustion, but the truth is that the luxury and extravagance of our lives is so great that it threatens the planet.
Research from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation (commissioned by the Merck Family Foundation) in the USA shows that people feel that ‘materialism’ somehow comes between them and the satisfaction of their social needs. A report entitled Yearning for Balance, based on a nationwide survey of Americans, concluded that they were ‘deeply ambivalent about wealth and material gain’. A large majority of people wanted society to ‘move away from greed and excess toward a way of life more centred on values, community, and family’. But they also felt that these priorities were not shared by most of their fellow Americans, who, they believed, had become ‘increasingly atomized, selfish, and irresponsible’. As a result they often felt isolated. However, the report says, that when brought together in focus groups to discuss these issues, people were ‘surprised and excited to find that others share[d] their views’. Rather than uniting us with others in a common cause, the unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others.
Mainstream politics no longer taps into these issues and has abandoned the attempt to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring us to create a better society. As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different. Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within the existing society.
The contrast between the material success and social failure of many rich countries is an important signpost. It suggests that, if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies. However, as soon as anything psychological is mentioned, discussion tends to focus almost exclusively on individual remedies and treatments. Political thinking seems to run into the sand.
“It is now possible to piece together a new, compelling and coherent picture of how we can release societies from the grip of so much dysfunctional behaviour. A proper understanding of what is going on could transform politics and the quality of life for all of us. It would change our experience of the world around us, change what we vote for, and change what we demand from our politicians.
The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009) by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
The inspector was facing the mystery of the misshapen ceiling, and so he first held a sensor to the surface to detect if it was damp. The reading inconclusive, he then pulled out the infrared camera to take a kind of X-ray of whatever was going on, the idea being that you cannot fix a problem until and unless you can see it. He could now see past the plaster, beyond what had been wallpapered or painted over, as we now are called upon to do in the house we all live in, to examine a structure built long ago.
Like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton, a caste system that is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home. Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light.
A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.
Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.
As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.
As a means of assigning value to entire swaths of humankind, caste guides each of us often beyond the reaches of our awareness. It embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics and sets forth the rules, expectations, and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species. In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man, for caste.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) by Isabel Wilkerson
Identifying Global Issues in Literary and Non-Literary Texts
While students do no have to compare and contrast in their Individual Oral (IO), they do have to discuss the representation of one global issue in both a non-literary extract and work/body of work and a literary extract and work. In this activity (below), ask students to find global issues represented in two photographs and two literary extracts. In effect, you are asking students to 'match' a literary extract (from prose fiction) to a non-literary text (photographs), and to identify a global issue that unifies both pairs. Note that the activity does not ask students to make connections between texts/extracts and works/bodies of work (as the IO does). In organising the activity, you could present pairs/groups of students with all four texts, or you could jigsaw (pairs - fours) the activity, giving some students copies of High Rise and the image of the tower block, and other students copies of Birdsong and the WW1 photograph. You choose. Again, it is very useful, with the IO in mind, to ask students to consider the ways in which the global issue(s) is (are) represented differently in each of the texts.
FOR STUDENTS: QUESTIONS & INSTRUCTIONS
You have four texts/extracts. Two texts are extracts from prose fiction (novels), and two the texts are photographs. Pair or match one prose extract with one photograph. For each pair, identify a (different) global issue.
In each text, how is the global issue represented?
The tampering with the electricity system had affected the air-conditioning. Dust was spurting from the vents in the walls. Exasperated, Wilder drove his fists together. Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them. Wilder tried to close the grilles, but within minutes they were forced to take refuge on the balcony. Their neighbours were crowded against their railings, craning up at the roof as if hoping to catch sight of those responsible.
Leaving his wife, who was wandering light-headedly around the apartment and smiling at the spurting dust, Wilder went out into the corridor. All the elevators were stationary in the upper section of the building. A large group of his neighbours had gathered in the elevator lobby, pounding rhythmically on the doors and complaining about various provocative acts by the residents on the floors above.
Wilder pushed his way towards the centre, where two airline pilots were standing on a lobby sofa and selecting the members of a raiding party. Wilder waited his turn, trying to catch their attention, until he realized from the excited talk around him that theirmission consisted solely of going up to the 35th floor and publicly urinating into the water.
Wilder was about to argue with them, warning that a childish act of this kind would be counter-productive. Until they were organized the notion of a punitive expedition was absurd, as they were far too exposed to retaliation. However, at the last moment he turned away. He stood by the doors to the staircase, aware that he no longer felt committed to this crowd of impulsive tenants egging each other on into a futile exercise, Their real opponent was not the hierarchy of residents in the heights far above them, but the image of the building in their own minds, the multiplying layers of concrete that anchored them to the floor.
A cheer went up, followed by a chorus of catcalls. An elevator was at last descending from the 35th floor, the indicator numerals flashing from right to left. While it approached, Wilder thought of Helen and the two boys-he knew already that his decision to dissociate himself from his neighbours had nothing to do with any feelings of concern for his wife and children.
The elevator reached the 2nd floor and stopped. As the doors opened there was a sudden hush. Lying on the floor of the cabin was the barely conscious figure of one of Wilder's neighbours, a homosexual air-traffic controller who dined regularly in the 35th-floor restaurant. He turned his bruised face away from the watching crowd and tried to button the shirt torn from his chest. Seeing him clearly as the crowd stepped back, awed by this evidence of open violence. Wilder heard someone say that two more floors, the 5th and 8th, were now in darkness.
High Rise (1975) by J. G. Ballard
By the afternoon of the third day, Stephen began to be worried about the effects on all the men in his platoon. He felt like a useless and unused link in the chain. The senior officers would not confide in him; the men took direction from the NCOs and comfort from themselves. The bombardment continued.
Stephen talked briefly to Harrington, the lieutenant who also shared Gray's dugout, then drank the tea Riley produced promptly at five. He went out to look at the late afternoon light. It had begun to rain again, but the shells kept coming along the blackened skyline, their flares like unexpected stars, in the grey-green, turbulent darkness.
Toward midnight Weir came to the dugout. He had run out of whisky and wanted some of Stephen's. He waited till Gray had gone out.
“How was your rest?" said Stephen.
“A long time ago," said Weir, drinking deeply from the flask Stephen pushed over to him. "We've been back for three days.”
“So you've been underground. It's the safest place to be.”
“The men come out of the hole in the ground and they find themselves under this. They don't know which is worse. It can't go on, can it? It just can't.”
“Take it easy, Weir. There's not going to be an attack. They're there to stay. Those big guns take almost a week to dig into their pit.”
“You're a cold bastard, aren't you, Wraysford? Just tell me something that'll make me stop shaking, that's all.”
Stephen lit a cigarette and put his feet up on the table. "Do you want to listen to the shells or do you want to talk about something else?”
“It's that idiot Firebrace with his trained hearing. He's taught me how to distinguish between each gun. I can tell you the size of it, the path of the shell, where it's going, the likely damage.”
“But you liked the war when it started, didn't you?"
“What?" Weir sat up in his chair. He had a round, honest face with receding fair hair. What was left of it was generally standing on end, or uncombed after he had removed his cap. He was wearing a pyjama jacket and a white naval jersey. He settled back a“little on his seat as he contemplated what Stephen had said. "It seems impossible to believe now, but I suppose I did.”
“Look at Price, our CSM. He's flourished here, hasn't he? What about you? Were you lonely?"
"I don't want to talk about England," said Weir. "I've got to think of staying alive. I've got eight men underground with a German tunnel coming at us the other way."
"All right," said Stephen. "I'm going out to check on my men in half an hour anyway."
The dugout shook with the reverberations of a huge shell. The lantern swung on the beam, the glasses jumped on the table, and bits of earth fell from the ceiling. Weir gripped Stephen's wrist.
"Talk to me, Wraysford," he said. "Talk to me about anything you like."
"All right. I'll tell you something." Stephen blew out a trail of cigarette smoke.”
“I'm curious to see what's going to happen. There are your sewer rats in their holes three feet wide crawling underground. There are my men going mad under shells. We hear nothing from our commanding officer. I sit here, I talk to the men, I go on patrol and lie in the mud with machine guns grazing my neck. No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded. I am deeply curious to see how much further it can be taken; I want to know. I believe that it has barely started. I believe that far worse things than we have seen will be authorized and will be carried out by millions of boys and men like my Tipper and your Firebrace. There is no depth to which they can't be driven. You see their faces when they go into rest and you think they will take no more, that something in them will say, enough, no one can do this. But one day's sleep, hot food and “wine in their bellies and they will do more. I think they will do ten times more before it's finished and I'm eager to know how much. If I didn't have that curiosity I would walk into enemy lines and let myself be killed. I would blow my own head off with one of these grenades."
"You're mad," said Weir. "Don't you just want it to be over?”
Birdsong (1993) by Sebastian Faulks
Identifying Global Issues and Selecting Appropriate Texts
In preparing for their IO, students need to judiciously select a literary and non-literary text/extract through which they will discuss the presentation of their global issue. Clearly, some texts/extracts will work better for this than others, and students must make their selection on the basis of careful deliberation. In this final activity, tell your students that they will be given six text/extracts - three of which are literary, and three of which are non-literary. They should separate the literary from the non-literary, motivating their decision. After this, they should identify one global issue that is represented in one literary text/extract and one non-literary text extract (thereby discarding the other four). Finally, they should discuss how each of their (two) texts presents the global issue of their choice. Probably, this activity is best done in pairs/small groups, with feedback to the whole class.
FOR STUDENTS: QUESTIONS & INSTRUCTIONS
You have six texts/extracts. Three are literary and three are non-literary. Separate the literary from the non-literary and explain your decision.
Next, choose two texts/extracts - one literary, the other non-literary - that present the same global issue. What is the global issue (in your view), and why did you choose these two texts?
In each of your texts, how is the global issue presented?
She can’t hear if her audience laughs or groans. She taps on the side of the podium. The thump is muffled under her fingers. Everything in the hall is muted.
“My whole life, I’ve been an outsider. But many others have been out there with me. We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.”
“Here’s a little outsider information, and you can wait for it to be confirmed. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”
Her words sound far away, cork-lined and underwater. Either both her hearing aids have died at once or her childhood deafness has chosen this moment to come back.
“We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So we make sure nothing looks like us! Until a short while ago, we didn’t even let chimpanzees have consciousness, let alone dogs or dolphins. Only man, you see: only man could know enough to want things. But believe me: trees want something from us, just as we’ve always wanted things from them. This isn’t mystical. The ‘environment’ is alive—a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other. Love and war can’t be teased apart. Flowers shape bees as much as bees shape flowers. Berries may compete to be eaten more than animals compete for the berries. A thorn acacia makes sugary protein treats to feed and enslave the ants who guard it. Fruit-bearing plants trick us into distributing their seeds, and ripening fruit led to color vision. In teaching us how to find their bait, trees taught us to see that the sky is blue. Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.”
“Men and trees are closer cousins than you think. We’re two things hatched from the same seed, heading off in oppositedirections, using each other in a shared place. That place needs all its parts. And our part . . . we have a role to play in the Earth organism, and this . . .” She turns to see the image projected behind her. It’s the Arbre du Ténéré, the only thing up on a trunk for four hundred kilometers in every direction. Hit and killed by a drunk driver. She clicks on a Florida bald cypress one and a half millennia older than Christianity, killed a few months ago by a flicked cigarette. “This can’t be it.”
Another click. “Trees are doing science. Running a billion field tests. They make their conjectures, and the living world tells them what works. Life is speculation, and speculation is life. What a marvelous word! It means to guess. It also means to mirror.”
“Trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics. Tagore said, Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven. But people—oh, my word—people! People could be the heaven that the Earth is tring to speak to.”
The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers
It was getting hotter.
Frank May got off his mat and padded over to look out the window. Umber stucco walls and tiles, the color of the local clay. Square apartment blocks like the one he was in, rooftop patios occupied by residents who had moved up there in the night, it being too hot to sleep inside. Now quite a few of them were standing behind their chest-high walls looking east. Sky the color of the buildings, mixed with white where the sun would soon rise. Frank took a deep breath. It reminded him of the air in a sauna. This the coolest part of the day. In his entire life he had spent less than five minutes in saunas, he didn’t like the sensation. Hot water, maybe; hot humid air, no. He didn’t see why anyone would seek out such a stifling sweaty feeling.
Here there was no escaping it. He wouldn’t have agreed to come here if he had thought it through. It was his home town’s sister city, but there were other sister cities, other aid organizations. He could have worked in Alaska. Instead sweat was dripping into his eyes and stinging. He was wet, wearing only a pair of shorts, those too were wet; there were wet patches on his mat where he had tried to sleep. He was thirsty and the jug by his bedside was empty. All over town the stressed hum of window-box air conditioner fans buzzed like giant mosquitoes.
And then the sun cracked the eastern horizon. It blazed like an atomic bomb, which of course it was. The fields and buildings underneath that brilliant chip of light went dark, then darker still as the chip flowed to the sides in a burning line that then bulged to a crescent he couldn’t look at. The heat coming from it was palpable, a slap to the face. Solar radiation heating the skin of his face, making him blink. Stinging eyes flowing, he couldn’t see much. Everything was tan and beige and a brilliant, unbearable white. Ordinary town in Uttar Pradesh, 6 AM. He looked at his phone: 38 degrees. In Fahrenheit that was— he tapped— 103 degrees. Humidity about 35 percent. The combination was the thing. A few years ago it would have been among the hottest wet-bulb temperatures ever recorded. Now just a Wednesday morning.
Wails of dismay cut the air, coming from the rooftop across the street. Cries of distress, a pair of young women leaning over the wall calling down to the street. Someone on that roof was not waking up. Frank tapped at his phone and called the police. No answer. He couldn’t tell if the call had gone through or not. Sirens now cut the air, sounding distant and as if somehow submerged. With the dawn, people were discovering sleepers in distress, finding those who would never wake up from the long hot night. Calling for help. The sirens seemed to indicate some of the calls had worked. Frank checked his phone again. Charged; showing a connection. But no reply at the police station he had had occasion to call several times in his four months here. Two months to go. Fifty-eight days, way too long. July 12, monsoon not yet arrived. Focus on getting through today. One day at a time. Then home to Jacksonville, comically cool after this. He would have stories to tell. But the poor people on the rooftop across the way.
Then the sound of the air conditioners cut off. More cries of distress. His phone no longer showed any bars. Electricity gone. Brownout, or blackout. Sirens like the wails of gods and goddesses, the whole Hindu pantheon in distress.
Kim Stanley Robinson. The Ministry for the Future (2020) by Kim Stanley Robinson
I robbed the Woods —
The trusting Woods.
The unsuspecting Trees
Brought out their Burs and mosses
My fantasy to please.
I scanned their trinkets curious — I grasped — I bore away —
What will the solemn Hemlock —
What will the Oak tree say?
’Poem 41’ (1896) by Emily Dickinson
According to the dictionary definition, language is what people use when we talk to each other. Looked at this way, we are the only beings who can use language, because the concept is limited to our species. But wouldn’t it be interesting to know whether trees can also talk to each other? But how? They definitely don’t produce sounds, so there’s nothing we can hear. Branches creak as they rub against one another and leaves rustle, but these sounds are caused by the wind and the tree has no control over them. Trees, it turns out, have a completely different way of communicating: they use scent.
Scent as a means of communication? The concept is not totally unfamiliar to us. Why else would we use deodorants and perfumes? And even when we’re not using these products, our own smell says something to other people, both consciously and subconsciously. There are some people who seem to have no smell at all; we are strongly attracted to others because of their aroma. Scientists believe pheromones in sweat are a decisive factor when we choose our partners—in other words, those with whom we wish to procreate. So it seems fair to say that we possess a secret language of scent, and trees have demonstrated that they do as well.
For example, four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.
Similar processes are at work in our forests here at home. Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to “spoil the pest’s meal. Trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn’t mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.
This ability to produce different compounds is another feature that helps trees fend off attack for a while. When it comes to some species of insects, trees can accurately identify which bad guys they are up against. The saliva of each species is different, and trees can match the saliva to the insect. Indeed, the match can be so precise that trees can release pheromones that summon specific beneficial predators. The beneficial predators help trees by eagerly devouring the insects that are bothering them. For example, elms and pines call on small parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside leaf-eating caterpillars. As the wasp larvae develop, they devour the larger caterpillars bit by bit from the inside out. Not a nice way to die. The result, however, is that the trees are saved from bothersome pests and can keep growing with no further damage. The fact trees can recognize saliva is, incidentally, evidence for yet another skill they must have. For if they can identify saliva, they must also have a sense of taste.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015) by Peter Wohlleben
If we want people to engage with the living world, we should stop using such constipated terms to describe our relationship to it.
If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it.
So why do we use such language to describe the natural wonders of the world? There are examples everywhere, but I’ll illustrate the problem with a few from the UK. On land, places in which nature is protected are called “sites of special scientific interest”. At sea, they are labelled “no take zones” or “reference areas”. Had you set out to estrange people from the living world, you could scarcely have done better.
Even the term “reserve” is cold and alienating – think of what we mean when we use that word about a person. “The environment” is just as bad: it’s an empty word, that creates no pictures in the mind. Animals and plants are described as “resources” or “stocks”, as if they belong to us and their role is to serve us – a notion disastrously extended by the term “ecosystem services”.
Our assaults on life and beauty are also sanitised and disguised by the words we use. When a species is obliterated through human action, we use the term “extinction”. This conveys no sense of agency, and mixes up eradication by people with the natural turnover of species. It’s like calling murder “expiration”. “Climate change” also confuses natural variation with the catastrophic disruption we cause: a confusion deliberately exploited by those who deny our role. (Even this neutral term has now been banned from use in the US Department of Agriculture). I still see ecologists referring to “improved” pasture, meaning land from which all life has been erased other than a couple of plant species favoured for grazing or silage. We need a new vocabulary.
Words possess a remarkable power to shape our perceptions. The organisation Common Cause discusses a research project in which participants were asked to play a game. One group was told it was called the “Wall Street Game”, while the other was asked to play the “Community Game ”. It was the same game. But when it was called the Wall Street Game, the participants were consistently more selfish and more likely to betray the other players. There were similar differences between people performing a “Consumer Reaction Study” and a “Citizen Reaction Study”: the questions were the same, but when people saw themselves as consumers, they were more likely to associate materialistic values with positive emotions.
Words encode values, that are subconsciously triggered when we hear them. When certain phrases are repeated, they can shape and reinforce a worldview, making it hard for us to see an issue in a different light. Advertisers and spin doctors understand this all too well: they know they can trigger certain responses by using certain language. But many of those who seek to defend the living planet seem impervious to this intelligence.
The catastrophic failure by ecologists to listen to what cognitive linguists and social psychologists have been telling them has led to the worst framing of all: “natural capital”. This term informs us that nature is subordinate to the human economy, and loses its value when it cannot be measured by money. It leads almost inexorably to the claim made by the government agency Natural England: “The critical role of a properly functioning natural environment is delivering economic prosperity”.
By framing the living world in this way, we bury the issues that money cannot measure. In England and Wales, according to a parliamentary report, the loss of soil “costs around £1bn per year”. When we read such statements, we absorb the implicit suggestion that this loss could be redeemed by money. But the aggregate of £1 billion lost this year, £1 billion lost next year and so on is not a certain number of billions. It is the end of civilization.
On Sunday evening, I went to see the beavers that have begun to repopulate the River Otter in Devon. I joined the people quietly processing up the riverbank to their lodge. The friend I walked with commented, “it’s like a pilgrimage, isn’t it?”. When we arrived at the beaver lodge, we found a crowd standing in total silence under the trees. When first a kingfisher appeared, then a beaver, you could read the enchantment and delight in every face. Our awe of nature, I believe, and the silence we must observe when we watch wild animals, hints at the origins of religion.
So why do those who seek to protect the living planet – who were doubtless inspired to devote their lives to it through the same sense of wonder and reverence – so woefully fail to capture these values in the way they name the world?
Those who name it own it. The scientists who coined the term “sites of special scientific interest” were – doubtless unwittingly – staking a claim: this place is important because it is of interest to us. Those who describe the tiny fragments of seabed in which no commercial fishing is allowed as “reference areas” are telling us that the meaning and purpose of such places is as a scientific benchmark. Yes, they play that role. But to most people who dive there, they represent much more: miraculous refuges, thronged with creatures that thrill and astonish.
Rather than arrogating naming rights to themselves, professional ecologists should recruit poets and cognitive linguists and amateur nature lovers to help them find the words for what they cherish. Here are a few ideas. Please improve and add to them.
If we called protected areas “places of natural wonder”, we would not only speak to people’s love of nature, but also establish an aspiration, that conveys what they ought to be. Let’s stop using the word environment, and use terms such as “living planet” and “natural world” instead, as they allow us to form a picture of what we are describing. Let’s abandon the term climate change and start saying “climate breakdown”. Instead of extinction, let’s adopt the word promoted by the lawyer Polly Higgins: ecocide.
We are blessed with a wealth of nature and a wealth of language. Let us bring them together and use one to defend the other.
’Natural Language’ (2017) by George Monbiot