Language and Framing

Our research shows again and again how important framing an issue is, and even more importantly, it has the power to disempower or empower people. Those communities who are farther along in implementing climate innovations initially framed the issues to politicians as energy efficiency and once those benefits were demonstrated, then moved on to the larger sustainability lens. Similarly, the language we use to describe the environment and our impacts on that environment are equally powerful. Monbiot in this article, explains "wild animals and plants are described as “resources” or “stocks”, as if they belong to us and their role is to serve us: a notion disastrously extended by the term ecosystem services. While the latter has been useful to bring different folks to the table, it is important to be wary of using words that commodify living beings. 

Words have a remarkable power to shape our perceptions, determine our agency, and our relationships.  While studying for my doctorate, I became aware of how language can distance, when researchers referred to "organisms" rather than "living beings". Similarly, I do not have pets, I have animal companions, I do not put them to sleep, they are lovingly euthanized. Our language also reinforces whether we see ourselves as a part of the living world, or apart from it. Another example, one of my students questioned the language of not-for-profit organizations and suggested instead, social profit enterprises.

To end with George Monbiot's words. "So why do those who seek to protect the living planet – and who were doubtless inspired to devote their lives to it through the same sense of wonder and reverence – so woefully fail to capture these values in the way they name the world?"


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