What’s in a word? How language shapes sustainability

Sustainability words

Originally posted on my previous blog earlier this year, this is one of my all-time favourite posts. Maybe my enthusiasm for ‘green words’ really showed, as I received a couple of great comments via Twitter and some retweets. I hope you enjoy reading it.

My aim in this blog post is to get you excited about words – more specifically, green words. My first thoughts about the language used to discuss sustainability were shaped by an academic study in which the authors took a linguistic approach and looked at compounds starting with the word ‘carbon’, e.g. carbon finance and carbon footprint, to name but two. The research highlighted how quickly language is changing to catch up with environmental challenges – language has always evolved, and it’s a fascinating process to stand back and consider.

However, words can and do pose problems for the sustainability movement, a subject The Guardian online has recently produced several articles on. Are people tired with the word ‘sustainability’? Opinion is divided, because the word can have a variety of definitions and be negatively associated with green-washing, whilst others like it. Is the term ‘nexus’ really engaging enough to excite policy makers about the interconnectedness between food, energy and water? Not really – some policymakers are reported to be getting fed up with the amount of dry jargon they are being subjected to. Recently, The Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey, commented on how the term ‘global warming’ actually sounds rather nice to some who are unfamiliar with how climate change brings about its effects: it sounds as though “we could be sitting out on our verandahs of an evening sipping Sauvignon Blanc from our own vineyards. Who wouldn’t want that?”

So far we have discussed problems with individual words and terms. However, an all-encompassing issue that exists with our choice of vocabulary is that we cannot separate communication on a subject from how we conceptualise it. That means that how we talk about something affects how we feel about and understand it. Our choice of language is shown in studies to shape our attitudes and behaviours, because a particular use of language can evoke frames, powerful devices that act to strengthen or weaken our core values.

Think about the term ‘protecting nature’. Professor of cognitive science and linguistics, George Lakoff, argues that this term is unhelpful – it suggests that we are separate from nature, and in control of it. Viewing ourselves as separate from nature is a bad thing, because we forget that without nature we would not ourselves exist. I recently attended a lecture at which the speaker said some cultures do not actually have a word for nature, because they do not see it as something separate. Returning to the point, these two simple words ‘protecting nature’ evoke a series of ideas and values – a whole way of thinking about ourselves and our relationship with the world around us.

Are words important in shaping our feelings, values and actions on green issues? Will they help shape the debate and even what happens over the next few years? Yes. Are the words we currently use fit for purpose? I think this will be an ongoing debate for some time. Now are you interested in the language of sustainability?

This article was originally published on my previous blog on 20 March 2014.

Janine completed an MA in Professional Communication with distinction, and for her dissertation conducted an academic study into the communication by businesses of climate change through visual imagery. Her work touched on subjects as diverse as language use, behaviour change, psychology and issue framing. If you would like to get in touch directly, email janine@bloominggoodcommunications.co.uk or call 015394 69034 / 07707 038 092.

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