Wednesday 9 August 2017

"Forget ‘the environment’"—problems of geosemantics and ecopoetics

George Monbiot has a typically provocative new article on The Guardian today:
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 would have inspired them.
His point is that the words we use have a great deal of power in terms of carving up the world and affecting how we react to things. See 'migrant' versus 'immigrant' or, as per Monbiot, 'climate change' versus 'climate breakdown.'

It is a highly relevant dispatch for me, as my PhD thesis basically investigates how we all came to be so convinced that we live in an 'environment.' In other words, how did this term come to be part of our spatial, political, poetic and worldly common sense?

Well, strictly speaking, my thesis covers the emergence of 'environment' and its cognates, in particular the French 'milieu,' up to the start of the twentieth-century. (A thesis is unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, a finite thing.)

'The environment' came to be during the 1960s. I am not yet, therefore, able to give a detailed account of how that happened. However, the broad strokes are simple enough.

In a book called The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the Earth in 1970, the ornithologist, conservationist and co-founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Edward Max Nicholson wrote that a "revolution in human affairs" was then taking place. The "obvious descriptive label" for this, he continued, "once so infrequent and now becoming so universal [is] 'environmental'" (p.5).

Until around that time, 'environment' was a rather dry, technical term. The word itself was coined a few times, probably independently. However, the person who made it catch on was Herbert Spencer, the social evolutionist and purveyor of the phrase "survival of the fittest."

In short, it was through evolutionary theory that 'environment' became an item of intellectual common sense. Darwin in fact didn't use the term until late in his career and was quite sceptical about it for a number of reasons. However, by the 1920s, the word was everywhere in its scientific (or seeming-to-be-scientific) sense.

It is unsurprising, then, that 'the environment,' while perhaps exciting to those preparing to be 'masters of the Earth' in the 1970s, has proved to be quite the ecopoetic sedative in the long term.

While, of course, there is much more to the world than words, Monbiot's call for creativity is therefore welcome:
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. […]
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.
I'm not convinced that 'natural world' is any less anodyne and affectless than 'environment,' although, off the top of my head, I have no bright ideas as regards alternatives.

However, one point that might be interesting comes from something I've just been researching in the past few weeks: the origins of the Italian and Spanish ambiente (the equivalent of environment in those languages – in Portuguese, it's meio ambiente).

One of the earliest uses of the adjective 'ambient' outside of Latin is found in the 1587 poem El Monserrate, by the Spanish poet Cristóbal de Virués:
Gozo divino, celestial aviso,
Lleno de sacra luz, claro desvelo,
Influye el rico clima eternamente
Del fértil y alto monte al ayre ambiente.
Translated (very literally) as:
Divine joy, heavenly warning,
Full of sacred light, clear sleeplessness,
Influence the rich climate eternally
From the fertile and high mountain to the ambient air. 
The development of 'ambient' and 'ambience,' it seems, is a largely poetic history. For example, in John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667):
How first began this Heav’n which we behold
Distant so high, with moving Fires adorn’d
Innumerable, and this which yields or fills
All Space, the ambient Air wide interfus’d
Embracing round this florid Earth, […]
Quite by contrast, the French 'milieu' that became the English 'environment' came originally as a translation of Isaac Newton's use of the word 'Medium,' then adopted in mechanistic nineteenth century biology before being taken up, in turn, by the rather nasty biosociology of Spencer.

So, long story short, the ambient has always had poetic qualities that the 'medium' and the 'environment' have not.

However, perhaps our problem is not just our combinations of words or their translations but the very worldviews or cosmologies that these vocabularies have been created to express?

As Keavy Martin writes in her book Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature, the Inuktitut word sila most commonly "refers to the environment, such as in the phrases silami qanuippa? (how’s the weather) or silaup asijjipallianinga (climate change)" but also "refers to wisdom, or cleverness, as in silatujuq (he/she/it is intelligent, sensible, or wise)."

Obviously, 'environment' is the go-to phrase for rendering anything like this into English. However, without her explanation, almost everything would be lost in translation.

And so, what kind of connection might we find here? What more might we need to do in order to transform the vocabularies with which we express – and not only express, feel – the worlds around us?

I have no great suggestions but we must stop complacently mouthing the same old stale slogans of yesteryear – of that I have no doubt.