‘Sustainable ocean management ’. ‘Natural capital ’. ‘Ecosystem services ’. What’s wrong with these terms? They seem innocent enough, but they could be helping to maintain the prevailing view of nature which has led us to the climate and ecological emergency in the first place.
Language can mould our thoughts and influence the way we perceive the world. Some labels and expressions anchor us to an outdated mindset which is holding us back. We could begin by ditching ones which imply that nature exists to serve humankind and others indicating that what matters most in this world is money. We often hear about needing system change to end our assault on the natural world and tackle the climate crisis. I believe that re-thinking the language we use to speak about nature and conservation is pivotal in helping propel this change.
But if it gets the job done?
The words we use to talk about nature might seem incidental. What does it matter if certain language reflects the master-servant dynamic between humankind and the natural world if we are more likely to stop clear-felling forests, extracting fossil-fuels and emptying seas?
When it comes to taking protective action, it is becoming clear that we have a more profound problem to face, which underpins any new policy or initiative: how we regard the natural world in general and the way we see ourselves within it.
The industrial revolution ‘de-natured’ societies, putting millions of us in towns and cities of concrete, glass and steel. We became detached from the wild places we once inhabited and from the wild creatures living around us. Nature became a stranger. As journalist Ian Johnston writes, “simply put, humans don’t protect what they don’t know and value”.
Given that language can shape our thoughts and attitudes, and the way we think determines what we do, it follows that the words and expressions used in planning policies and devising strategies to protect nature matter considerably.
How do you manage an ocean?
As a writer on marine conservation I come across some terminology I’m not comfortable with . ‘Fish stocks’ for instance gives the impression that wild fish living in the sea exist purely for human consumption, like tins of beans in the kitchen cupboard or on a supermarket shelf. Rather, they are populations of wild fish.