Language and sustainability

At a basic level, the study of a language other than our own exposes us to difference.

We engage with other cultures in a sympathetic way and language studies often involve a period of immersion in a foreign country. Language study can contribute to intercultural and cross-cultural understanding, forging relationships and contributing towards the development of adaptable global citizens.

“A greater consciousness of the ways in which we use language to talk about the environment is an important part of changing our unsustainable behaviours into sustainable ones. If the language we use suggests neutral or positive outcomes for actions that are actually unsustainable, then we will continue to behave unsustainably. Language use is critical to communicating scientific knowledge about environmental problems in a way that empowers people to take necessary actions for more sustainable lifestyles – whether it be money-saving potential or corporate citizenship” (Canning, 2010, pp.299-300).

On a more subtle level, there are debates about the language that we use when talking about sustainability. Sara Parkin (see Step 1.8 ‘Threading concepts’ in Models for understanding how sustainability relates to us) speaks of ‘clashing values’; for example when sustainable behaviours such as recycling are ‘sold’ as ways to save money rather than as behaviours that are about care for our planet. The term ‘rubbish’ is problematic as it implies something of no value whereas we know that ‘rubbish’ may be of great value to someone else.

Governments, businesses and organisations carry out their activities using language which is value-laden and culturally specific. The development of sustainability literacy includes being critical of our linguistic norms. Development itself is the most contested term – can you have development without growth? Other examples given by Canning (2010) include:

Global warming: should this be global heating, as ‘warming’ implies a wholly positive impact.

Climate change: does this mask the role of humankind? A suggested alternative is ‘human-induced climate dislocation’.

Think about: can you give any other examples of misleading or inappropriate words and phrases used by us to talk about sustainability?

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This article is from the free online course:

Sustainability, Society and You

The University of Nottingham