How language affects our relationship with nature

How language affects our relationship
with nature

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

How language affects our relationship with nature

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

By Emily Jerome, Digital Engagement Assistant, National Environmental Treasure

Biodiversity Action Agenda Item 3.8

RE-FRAME THE ISSUE: Re-frame the issue from the traditional ‘humans apart from nature’ to ‘humans and biodiversity conservation’ as a key climate solution. Language affects our relationship with nature. Changing how we talk about the natural world can help us form a stronger relationship.

Western society often views the world in fragmented and isolated pieces, most notably that humans and nature exist separately. But, humans and nature are far from being like oil and vinegar. In part, the way we use language to speak about the natural world affects our relationship with nature. By changing how we talk about nature, we can begin to further understand how interconnected we are. This can also help inform our actions to address biodiversity loss, further conservation efforts and engage in climate solutions.

Spider web in yellow flowers
Photo by Sam Valdez from Unsplash

The Connotations of Language

In recent years, the use of certain language or terms has faced scrutiny from media outlets, public figures and non-profit organizations alike. In 2019, The Guardian adapted their style guide to reflect the imminent threat of environmental degradation and commodification of nature. This includes using the terms  “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” in place of “climate change” and “fish populations” instead of “fish stocks.” United Nations leaders, climate scientists and environmental activists, including Greta Thunberg, have been leading the charge in using socially responsible and situationally accurate language to denote the seriousness of climate breakdown.

mushrooms and moss in old growth forests
Photo by Ruston Jones from Unsplash

Often language denotes our power over nature and speaks about nature in terms of monetary opportunities. Even government departments responsible for overseeing nature are referred to as departments or ministries of natural “resources.”  Furthermore, many sectors employ specific language to remove obstacles to profit. For example, the logging industry describes old growth forests as “decadent” or “over-mature” despite their bountiful biodiversity and ability to help regulate the climate through vast carbon sequestration.

Learning from Indigenous Ways of Knowing

But, there are ways to heal the separation between humans and nature. One such way is learning about Indigenous ways of knowing and the essence of Indigenous languages. For the Indigenous people of the Syilx Okanagan Nation, the Nsyilxcən language refers to “the land and our bodies with the same root syllable… The soil, the water, the air, and all the other life forms contribute parts to be our flesh.” As Jeanette Armstrong, traditional knowledge keeper of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and award-winning writer and activist, said in Sharing our Skin, “We are our land/place. Not to know and to celebrate this is to be without language and without land.”

In the revered book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, author, scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer draws a comparison in the use of “it” in the English and Potawatomi languages. As Kimmerer writes, “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.” Kimmerer goes on to say “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.”

Realigning the English Language

So, how can we realign the English language to reflect the intrinsic value of nature? Kimmerer tells us that in Potawatomi, not only are the plants and animals animate but so are the rocks, mountains and rivers. “The language reminds us, in every sentence, of our kinship with the animate world,” Kimmerer wrote in Braiding Sweetgrass. American psychologist and writer, James Hillman goes against the grain of mainstream psychology to say that seeing character in life outside of humans isn’t projection, rather it’s animation. If we begin to view and talk about the world as if it’s alive, we can help engage our imagination, create magic out of the perceived mundane and better relate to the world around us.

To quote, acclaimed 20th-century ecology thinker, Aldo Leopold from his novel A Sand County Almanac, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” If our language expresses more care and responsibility, we can help address the misperception that nature is simply a “resource” for human consumption and promote awareness of the interconnectedness of humans with nature. This understanding may help us realize the wonder of biodiversity, heal our relationship to the landscape and help humans act in the best interest of all life.

Woman running hands through grasses in nature
Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

How can you make biodiversity count?

1. Learn about the beauty and aesthetics of nature with Dr. Hilary Leighton on our podcast “What the f*** is biodiversity?” here or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and other platforms.

2. Read and learn from Indigenous writers, poets and activists and amplify Indigenous voices throughout your community and the social media landscape. Visit Raven Reads “Canadian History Books by Indigenous Authors” or CBC’s “35 books to read for National Indigenous History Month” for book ideas.

3. Abandon language that reduces nature to objects and commodities. It will take some practice but continue to notice how you talk about nature and what language you use. 

4. Be inspired by art. Explore the photo essay “The Path of Least Resistance” published in Emergence Magazine. It “explores the harmonic balance between human existence and the natural world” and “demonstrate(s) that everything in the universe shares a common origin.”

River running through forest
Photo by Lukas Bischoff from Getty Images/Canva

About Making Biodiversity Count Series

In February 2019, the Biodiversity Action Agenda, authored by Women for Nature was published. It asks all Canadians to take immediate action on biodiversity loss as there is no recovery from extinction. As a 24-point action agenda, it offers a combination of actions, including low-hanging fruit as well as long-term systemic changes. Follow our blog for regular posts exploring each action.