Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What do you call it?

If a problem is "environmental", does that mean the environment needs fixing? That is what it seems to imply to most people. That is what drives the ecomodernism stance of continued technologisation, of continuing down a path of trying to find abundance and infinity in a finite and fragile world. And that is what drives geo-engineering projects...that it is not our behaviour that is at fault, but rather the ways in which the environment around us changes in response to our behaviour that is the real issue. Therefore, we feel that human intervention in the environment is what the solution should look like.

But what fundamentally needs to change? The environment? Or how we behave? I would say the latter, for an environmental problem exists only if we've created it (like pollution in water, like climate change), or if we perceive it (like the threat of hailstorms and tornadoes). Yet, if we call a problem "environmental" without also tagging the word "social" with it, then we fail to address the true causes of the problems.

This goes back to what I was trying to say in my last post. What we call things matters in how we perceive them. Words and names have the capacity to connote, and depending on our backgrounds, words bring to the surface a plethora of emotions, feelings, thoughts, and actions. Consequently, there are associations that I would not make, because they are incommensurable, because the existence of one thing makes the other impossible (or close to impossible). For example, a drastic re-envisioning of the world would be one in which food we eat would not be, as Michael Pollan states, marinated in crude oil. In an ecologically sustainable world, food that travels fifteen hundred miles before it lands on your plate just would not exist. Ecologically sustainable food provided to you graciously by Exxon? No, thank you. More and more "environmentally-friendly" cars that constantly require newer and newer materials and more and more material extraction from the Earth? No, thank you.

Associations matter. If I call something collaborative rather than competitive, that would at least provide some rhetorical force to collaboration. Customs, on an individual scale, and customary international law on a larger scale, are rhetorical forces. They associate practices with social relations, and consequently outcomes. (Of course, many of these customs need to change or be altogether done away with.)

What is required is changes in language and diction. We need a new vocabulary to describe the world around us. It would be nice if that vocabulary wasn't hijacked by those who profit most from keeping things the way they are. But I'm not holding my breath on it. Therefore, we must associate things that are commensurable, and avoid associating things that are not. We are avoiding the issue if we do the latter.

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