Dead metaphors, dying symbols and the linguistic tipping point

September 5, 2018

 

INTERVIEW WITH ROB NIXON, PROFESSOR IN HUMANITIES AND ENVIRONMENT AT THE PRINCETON ENVIRONMENTAL INSTITUTE 

 

Q. You wrote an article on how climate change can transform language where you talked about dead metaphors, dying symbols and the linguistic tipping point. How far off are we from reaching this tipping point? 

 

I don’t believe there is a single linguistic tipping point, but I do believe that cumulatively the physical effects of climate breakdown are transforming the possibilities of language itself. Language bends and buckles under pressure of climate collapse. This is evident, for example, in the many English idioms that take for granted certain characteristics of the cryosphere—Earth’s frozen realm, the realm of ice and snow. Can we still complain that the bureaucracy is moving at “a glacial pace,” when glacial loss is accelerating at alarming speed? I’d suggest that a routine phrase like “glacial pace” is on the verge of being decommissioned because it depends on a set of shared assumptions about the cryosphere and environmental time that no longer exist. As a result, the phrase is confusing and anachronistic.

 

English developed in a northern, chilly country and acquired its distinctive character during the Little Ice Age, which stretched from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries, when the median Northern Hemisphere winter was significantly colder than it is today. Glaciers were more often advancing than retreating. When English spread globally, often to warmer, more arid environments—Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, southern California—it carried with it a whole slew of idioms that assumed the climatic norm was cold and frozen and wet. Hence: “The tip of the iceberg,” “skating on thin ice,” “blanketed with snow,” “moving at a glacial pace,” “threatening to rain.” These idioms may not have made climatic sense in Delhi or Perth or Los Angeles, but they traveled with the language as dead metaphors, phrases people used without thinking about their implications.

 

We’re now witnessing, under pressure of climate collapse, stirrings in the cemetery of dead metaphors. “Glacier,” “ice,” and “snow” have become words supercharged with self- consciousness about climate breakdown. In the Alps and Rockies, for example, ski slope operators are resorting to artificial thermal blankets to shield the blankets of snow that have become so threadbare they are unrecognizable and unusable. And what does the term “permafrost” mean when permafrost is edging toward impermanence?

 

As in the physical world, the impact of climate on language involves a series of non-linear effects. What interests me is how abrupt climate change is incrementally shifting some of the baselines of language.

 

Q. The language we use to articulate our concerns and hopes for climate change seems to be quite abstract, defensive and sluggish. Would you agree with that assessment? What do you think of the communication around climate change?

 

The language we use to describe “climate change” has profound implications for how we act to arrest or mitigate that change. While “climate change” remains the dominant term, we’re witnessing a quest for more dramatic alternatives:  climate crisis, climate catastrophe, climate swerve, abrupt climate change, climate collapse, climate emergency, climate disruption, and climate breakdown are all in circulation. I lean toward “climate breakdown,” as most descriptive of the radical disordering of the relatively stable climatic conditions that have proved vital to the viability of human cultures. We could talk of the “climate crisis,” but what isn’t a crisis these days? Crisis itself feels a bit ho-hum.

 

George Monbiot, in advocating for the term “climate breakdown,” argues that calling what’s happening to the planet “climate change” is like calling a “foreign invasion” “unexpected guests.” I agree with that. Euphemism can have brutal consequences.

 

Q. Is there an established climate change narrative to speak of? And if so, do you see any variations between the established narrative and the ‘active’ imagery it conjures up compared with the reality of our response?

 

I don’t think there is one established narrative. It varies from place to place. But I do think that for the majority of Americans, the issue has settled into a kind of back burner urgency. It’s recognized as real but not immediate, even though in front-line communities around the world climate breakdown has morphed into an already unfolding threat.

 

We’re going to depend a great deal on artists and writers, on inventive communicators across a whole range of platforms, to devise imaginative ways of making the issue feel not just urgent but fresh. Acting to avert the worst, most irrevocable impacts of climate breakdown is the most pressing issue of our time. And it can feel like—at least in the U.S.—the climate issue has been around forever. It’s tired. And that’s partly because it hasn’t been confronted as an issue but has been framed as a debate—does it exist or does it not? —which has resulted in interminable, costly prevarication.

 

The scale of the climate issue can make it feel unmanageably abstract. I believe it’s the role of artists and gifted climate communicators to help bring home the perturbing changes, to make them visceral, textured, intimate.

 

Q. ‘Optimism’ is a word that is frequently used to define someone’s personal position on climate change. What does it mean to be a climate change optimist and is it responsible to continually frame climate change as a manageable event, in the spirit of being optimistic, when we’re still not quite sure how we are going to manage it, i.e. meet targets and secure a sustainable future?

 

Certain kinds of optimism make me deeply pessimistic. Geo-engineering optimism, for example. And all kinds of technophilia that involve a disconnect between the potential of technologies to advance the necessary changes and the challenges of equitable governance. We need concerted action on climate but in a plutocratic age we cannot afford even more centralized power. That’s why in my book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, I insist that we engage climate breakdown and rising inequality as two sides to the same problem. Adaptation by the few for the few is to be avoided at all costs.

 

There are areas where we’re making huge strides in technology while also democratizing access, solar being a striking example. Solar technologies are becoming more efficient, more affordable, and more accessible. Storage is improving. Thus, for example, in trying to redress energy poverty in rural regions of Africa, solar is more cost-effective, nimble and appealing than trying to play catch up by laboriously constructing an old-fashioned coal- or gas-driven power grid.

 

Q. Are we doing vulnerable people a disservice by watering down words and downplaying the danger we face?

 

Yes. I understand why a term like “climate change” has become orthodox. I’ve used the term myself. It initially arose as a preferable alternative to “global warming” because the latter—while an accurate depiction of the planet’s general trend—didn’t account for circumstances where shifts in climatic conditions result in certain regions being subjected to unseasonable cold spells.

 

“Climate change” possesses a dispassionate aura. It gained favor among scientists who wished to deflect the charge that they were politicizing science by talking of, say, “climate breakdown” or “climate collapse.” But isn’t “climate change” too milquetoast for a time when the very evidentiary methods that underpin science itself are under concerted attack? We need to ask: what are the circumstances that produce this watering down, this rhetorical defensiveness?

 

I cannot overstress the degree to which the U.S. is a global outlier. No other society has been subjected to remotely like the volume of well-funded, meticulously organized climate disinformation that we have. The climate denial and climate uncertainty industries operate with a unique energy, cunning, and determination. Their logic has permeated much of the media and has impacted state policy through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In Florida and Wisconsin, for instance, the Republican legislatures have forbidden state employees from even using bland terms like “climate change” and “global warming.”

 

Meanwhile, in the most vulnerable societies—like Samoa, Vanuatu, the Maldives, Tuvalu, and Bangladesh—we see political leaders reaching for an entirely more dramatic vocabulary. We hear them depicting climate breakdown as a kind of terror—or even terrorism, given that those most responsible for perpetuating this disaster are not those existentially threatened by its effects. So, yes, in poor, low-lying countries, and in the rapidly aridifying nations of the Sahel, climate breakdown is more frequently depicted very differently from the way it is in dominant narratives in the U.S. The former Tuvaluan Prime Minister, Saufatu Sopoaga, for example, has likened climate change to “a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.”

 

Q. The rationale so far has been that if we were to be anything but positive about climate change, it would cause panic. Some would argue that in the absence of direction and openness, we’re left with misplaced enthusiasm and a series of uncoordinated game plans that are as ambiguous as they are ambitious. 

How do you create an urgent campaign for change and action and what role will language play in the creation of such a campaign?

 

I think this campaign will play out on many fronts. One of those fronts will be language. If you think, for example, about how the coal industry adopted the term “overburden” for the mountain tops they wreck en route to the coal seams beneath. Well, the “overburden” is life itself: the top soil, the forests, the wildlife, the stream sources, entire ecosystems on which human and nonhuman life depends. When that’s what’s represented as burdensome, industry euphemism creates an upside-down idea of value.

 

Similarly, the corporate media has now adopted, almost universally, the oil-and-gas industry’s preferred term “natural gas,” and phased out the more negative “fracking” and the more technologically accurate “hydraulic fracturing.” No-one is disputing that the gas occurs naturally; but a lot of people are alarmed at the denaturing impacts of extracting it—the seismic activity, the unmonitored emissions of methane (an especially harmful greenhouse gas), the carcinogens pouring into groundwater supplies. All of this is happening in a political climate of anti-regulatory mayhem. In this context, “natural gas” becomes a particularly noxious euphemism. 

 

So, yes, language matters. But clearly language cannot, in isolation, effect the change we need to slow down the cumulative effects of climate breakdown. For one thing, in our all-digital-all-the-time era, language and image are much more intimately entangled than they were in the twentieth century. This entanglement, across proliferating platforms, can contribute creatively to campaigns that push back against climate inaction.

 

We are seeing a slew of hopeful actions—hopeful in and of themselves and as pace-setting precedents—emerging at state and city levels across many societies. We see this in California’s response to record wildfires by bringing forward its target date for shifting to 100% clean energy. We see this in the way scores of cities and towns across Germany have deprivatized their utility grids, returning them to public ownership in order to accelerate the transition to cleaner energy sources. And this trend is now spreading to other countries.

 

Q. People taking a position on climate change are for the most part compartmentalized as either ‘optimists’ or ‘deniers’. There is no designated grey zone, where critics can voice their concerns about the pace, execution and rationale of the overall game plan. Would you agree and do you see this changing? 

 

I’d say there are climate breakdown realists—who acknowledge the scientific consensus—some of whom are optimists and some pessimists. Likewise, in the anti-science camp, there are deniers and skeptics, who tend to end up playing on the same team. But overall, I agree with you that the tenor of the conversation is unproductively Manichean.

 

Let me end on a note of at least conditional hope. For millennial Americans, addressing climate breakdown is a much more urgent issue than it has been for their predecessors. Politically, they’re very animated and enraged by inter-generational injustice—around climate debt, student debt, soaring inequality, terminally unaffordable housing.

 

Polls indicate that within their generation, socialism is now more popular than capitalism. Of course, the socialism they’re advocating for is social democracy—it has nothing in common with Soviet state socialism. They see themselves as casualties of the excesses of an unrestrained neoliberal capitalism that pays no heed to protecting future prospects from the ransacking of the present. They are pushing back against a system that shreds social safety nets, so if you slip you don’t just fall, you plummet. They are reacting viscerally and creatively against neoliberalism’s demonizing of the public good and evisceration of the commons—the air, the water, the land, the glorious human and more-than-human diversity on this, our only planet.

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