Rewriting the Narrative: Language and Our Relationship with the Natural World
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
During the shift from Native American control to British control over American land, the general ‘American relationship’ with the natural world drastically shifted. Native American tribes have and continue to have a mutualistic relationship with the earth. However, when Europeans settled in the United States, not only did those European settlers push Native American tribes out of their homelands, but those settlers turned this mutualistic relationship with the earth into a philosophy that the earth exists solely for human benefit.
Language is a representation of power dynamics, and power dynamics control how humans understand each other and everything that they come in contact with. So, observing the power dynamic of the English language surrounding nature can help us understand our problematic attitude towards and relationship with the earth.
In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, discusses the impact of nature as an “it.” She says, “We never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it” because “it robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. In Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.”
In addition to the point that Kimmerer brings up, I believe that understanding nature as a being would allow us to internalize the fact that it is ever-changing, just as we are. If the natural world were spoken about as an ever-changing being, its changes due to human development would become a part of the language.
In addition to understanding nature as a whole as an “it,” our language has also removed a sense of life from specific aspects of nature. We often describe parts of nature as “resources,” focusing on their importance in our destruction and use of them, rather than their independent existence. Similarly, we often call populations of fish “fish stocks.”
Environmental journalist Emily Jerome discusses how our language eliminates our sense of guilt from how we treat the environment. For example, by so often saying “climate change” instead of “climate crisis” or “climate emergency,” humans take the blame off of themselves, while also understating the impact that our destruction of the earth has made.
The global climate crisis is a result of our individualistic perspective of nature. By creating an artificial relationship with the natural world for our own benefit, humans have taken advantage of what was thought to be an endless supply of resources.
The climate crisis is real, and it is because of our problematic relationship with the earth. To save the earth, we must start by reenvisioning it as something that needs to be saved.
Jerome, E. (2022, July 5). How language affects our relationship with nature. National
Environmental Treasure. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from https://www.oursafetynet.org/2021/03/26/how-language-affects-our-relationship-with-nature/