Learning about Sustainability through Ecolinguistics


The way we talk about the environment has a direct impact on how we approach the climate crisis – Ecolinguistics can shed light on the issues as well as the solutions!

Maddie Mancey, a PhD Ecology and Linguistics student at the University of Gloucestershire, is focusing her research on Ecolinguistics. In this article she delves into what ecolinguistics is, how it links to existing issues such as climate change but also the potential solutions, as well as how you can form your own view on the subject.

In a world still being affected by a coronavirus, it is more crucial than ever that people closely examine society and question the stories that we have lived by, or concepts that are spread through mass media. In the UK and globally, leaders such as prime ministers and presidents have been scrutinised for their response to COVID-19, and in turn, community leaders and other political party leaders have challenged them.

What is Ecolinguistics?

In Universities, academia has increasingly focussed on the impact of research in benefiting society, particularly in a branch of language analysis known as Ecolinguistics.

Ecolinguistics explores the role of language between humans, other species, and the physical environment. There are 2 main aims:

  1. To develop linguistic theories which see humans not only as part of society, but also as part of the larger ecosystems that life depends on.
  2. To show how linguistics can be used to address key ecological issues, from climate change and biodiversity loss to environmental justice.

When studying real-world issues, Ecolinguistics provides a fantastic opportunity to consider the two most prevalent challenges of humanity – the ecological crisis and the health crisis – and reflects the urgency and importance of identifying the problems as well as the solutions.

What is ‘Ecosophy’?

Psychologist Jonathan Heidt identified that there was a great shift in values occurring in the academic community, with a focus on ‘Social Justice‘ (making the world a more equitable place for all) over ‘Truth’ (the advancement of knowledge)’.

The ecological or sustainability focus of research stems from the researcher’s philosophy of ecological harmony, known as Ecosophy, where language which aligns with the Ecolinguist’s Ecosophy is promoted as beneficial, whereas language which has ecologically damaging values is critiqued.

Using this research method can educate and inspire people to look at the world with a greener lens overall, by pointing out the misleading ‘doublespeak’ often used by politicians when discussing environmental issues, and also by suggesting language and readings which promote sustainable and environmentally beneficial messages,

Exploring your personal viewpoint on sustainability

So, using a justified Ecosophy can determine whether language is harmful or beneficial to the environment – how does this apply to the real-world climate crisis? The environmental philosopher and activist Arne Naess (who coined the term ‘Ecosophy’) looked at the ways in which people have responded to the Ecological crisis. She highlighted that deep ecology has often been hidden by shallow ecology in that, rather than treating the cause of the issue, only the symptoms of the issue such as resource degradation and pollution have been treated. This is where the stories or narratives ruling society such as ‘limitless economic growth’ and ‘technological optimism’ have not helped solve the crisis itself, but rather encouraged people to be decidedly passive in solving the root of the ecological emergency. This is not to say that shallow ecology is bad or destructive in its nature, nor that it is entirely unhelpful to society in any way, but that without a deep ecological approach to climate change, the political, philosophical and social aspects could never be truly addressed.

As an example of shallow ecology, the marketing tactic greenwashing is frequently used by environmentally damaging companies aiming to appear sustainable or ecological-minded (for instance, Shell’s current exhibition at The Science Museum, London on carbon capture) when they are in fact worsening climate change by providing this misleading information, aiming to fool consumers who are lead to believe that buying their product is beneficial rather than secretly destructive. This eco-friendly façade expresses the critical danger of focussing solely on shallow ecology, especially when it is being used by political and influential leaders who are in charge of policies that affect the carbon targets of a business, country or nation. Take Canada’s premier Trudeau who in his speeches will express the ‘existential threat’ of climate change while exploiting tar sands, destroying native land, and contributing to the most destructive oil operation in the world.

Scientists disrupted the opening of the ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition at The Science Museum in May 2021, due to one of its largest sponsors being Shell. Photo credit: extinctionrebellion.uk

A world of opportunity at your footsteps

As the threat of the climate emergency increases, and the pressure mounts on worldwide leaders to implement policies that will protect ecological systems for now and for the future, it could be beneficial (and fun!) to get involved with communities and/or groups that forward ecological-promoting stories. Dismantling power structures within society and forwarding inclusive, ecological thinking may take something as large as a mass media ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, or could be as small as sitting alone outside your local parliament with the slogan ‘School strike for climate’ written across cardboard. Or for us students, it could be looking into how sustainability intersects with your subject, considering your research perspective and personal views around the more-than-human world, constructing your own Ecosophy, and even sharing your experience with others. There are so many possibilities when looking to study sustainability, creative, scientific, practice-based, and more – so why not get involved?

If you’d like to learn more about Ecolinguistics and what it means, you can take the course created by Professor Arran Stibbe here or read our summary blog of the course here.

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