How Language Shapes Our Relationship to the Environment

Photo Credit: Yoel Gonzalez

Photo Credit: Yoel Gonzalez

How often do you think about the way you speak and use language every day? Since it is something we do all of the time and is such a habit, you might not actually think about the act of speaking or consider how language affects your life very often. It is important to take a look at it once in a while, however, especially when it comes to important issues like our relationship to the environment.

Think for a moment how we describe many things that come from the natural world around us such as rocks, metals, water, or soil. The term ‘natural resources’ is often used. This implies that the environment and all of the different, special types of substances that make up the natural world are just waiting to be used by humans. It’s almost as if the earth were a large warehouse, where you go to grab more materials as you need them.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger describes this phenomenon as viewing the world as a “standing reserve”—where natural resources are calculable quantities that can be isolated from each other and from the earth for our own purposes. Clearly, we depend on the earth’s resources for shelter, sustenance, and advances in human development, but is it dangerous to solely view the environment as a pile of resources?

Even as I am writing this, it is difficult to get away from the nomenclature of ‘resources’ to describe the earth, which is problematic if we want to think about it in a different way, or in several different ways. Imagine if we were to recognize the natural environment around us as a living system that we should interact with rather than just take materials from. If we were to discuss our interactions with the environment as a relationship, we could nurture and care for that relationship as we do human to human relationships, and it could be mutually beneficial to both humans and the environment.

The destructive environmental problems that we face today—climate change, deforestation, endangered species, etc.—could be slowed or even reversed if we started to use language about the environment in a way that acknowledges our mutually dependent relationship with the world around us. Of course, it is easier said than done to change the language of a society, but from history we know it can be done. New words are infused into our language each decade while others fall into obsolescence. It can be done, but it takes a self-awareness of your own language, and a commitment to actively change.

How realistic do you think this is as a way to change our relationship to the environment? I would love to hear what you think and discuss it further.

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