Saturday, 26 October 2013

Marram grass in Lindisfarne

"The monks of Lindisfarne must have been aware of he island's remarkable natural environment. The monks who illustrated the gospels with bird and plant designs had a keen understanding of their form and detail. St. Cuthbert's mysterious power over the natural world was well documented in early accounts of his life."

From a visitor display at the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre, Holy Island, Northumberland.

'...a keen understanding of their form and detail.' Our natural environment has such a breadth and almost unfathomable wealth of beauty and intricacy. How is it, then, that the ideal relationship with the environment within which we live is summarised as one word: sustainable? Or just one colour: green?

How about the silvery colour of marram grass in the wind under a clear October sky; the sound of a single grain of wheat pushing up through the earth?

Do we need to understand the beauty in order to protect it? How do we express this in our language?

I'm not sure we have the answer yet here in England.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

In a land of ice

In the fantastic After the Ice: Life, Death and Politics in the New Arctic, author Alun Anderson talks about the extreme northerly communities of Inuit peoples in Canada. Living on the edge of the ice, their language points to a people who have a profound understanding of their relationship with their natural surroundings. Perhaps 'understanding' is too trifling a word: the connection runs deeper than consciousness. The communities here in places like Grise Fiord depend almost entirely on their surroundings for their survival in a way that is hard to understand for a soft, suburban dweller like myself.

And so in Inuit you find the following words:

qanuqtuurniq- resourcefulness
piliriqatigiiniq - capacity to work together for a common cause
tuunganarniq - fostering good spirit by being open, welcoming and inclusive
avatittinnik / kamatsiarniq - respect for the land, animals and environment

When we speak about 'sustainability' in English, I think we mean all of these things and more. Maybe it's time to expand our vocabulary a little bit.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Asking the right questions

I took part in some students' survey last week in Leamington town centre. Their questions ranged from happiness to town surroundings and included the slightly obscure "Is there space for animals and humans to interact together in the centre of Leamington."

Standing in a busy shopping street, with visions of petting pigeons and feeding foxes, I was struck by the importance of asking the right questions. It was the word interact that got me. Did the students mean that we should have opportunities for meaningful exchange with the urban wildlife?

In my research into language and environmental responsibility, I wonder if there is a danger of manipulating the answer based on the words in the question I use. If I ask "how do you talk about your environmental responsibility", is it more likely that I will get a legal/political response? Would a better question be, "how does your community talk about the natural environment you live in?"

Oh, and I had to say "no" to the students.

Monday, 7 October 2013

"The limits of my language"

After some very preliminary research into language and 'sustainability' I found something that I wasn't expecting to discover: a correlation between indigenous language and positive responsibility towards the environment. Wittgenstein once wrote, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world". To me this suggests that the global spread of English, whilst enabling for communication like never before, is making us as a planet lose some understanding of our world. What does it mean if we see everything through an English lens? Through the lens of a language that developed thousands of miles away? For somebody living in Thailand, does speaking more English change their perception of their environment?

A report in the Australian Geographer in 2012 found a positive relationship between 'the sustainability of indigenous land, language and culture and an indigenous person's subjective emotional well-being'. Likewise, a conference at Bangor University, Wales, discovered that 'forces that work against the environment are very similar to those that lead towards apathy to the Welsh language'.

That is to say, there's something that inherently connects our language with our understanding of the world and consequently our understanding of our relationship with and impact on the environment.

The questions for me are manifold. How in an English speaking context in England can we better use the language we already have to prevent further climate change? What can we learn from non-English languages?

Sense and sustainability

Is our understanding of, and action for 'sustainability' limited by the language that we use? In this blog I'll be looking at the link between language, culture and environmental responsibility; how we express our relationship with the environment and how we're affected by our geography and history. As usual, we have a lot to learn from other cultures and languages so I'll be looking at some other languages too. Any thoughts or ideas on this, post a comment or get in touch.

My aim is this: better understanding about how we can use the right kind of language to build a resilient society. 'Sustainable' by itself is both too complex and not descriptive enough.