A Wonky Yet Infectious Hopefulness

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.The title of today’s post comes from a book review that serves me well after reading yesterday, then re-reading just now, about the conversation between a journalist I respect and a conservationist I admire. Since I am stuck in this myopic debate, a bookend to that conversation is the best I can hope for today. I do not yet have a copy of this book, but I hope to review it in these pages soon. For now, thanks to Hua Hsu for bringing it to my attention in THE SEARCH FOR NEW WORDS TO MAKE US CARE ABOUT THE CLIMATE CRISIS:

The reason we find ourselves verging toward planetary extinction is fairly simple: for quite some time, it’s been profitable for humans to behave this way. For business and government, it’s always been easier to toggle between plunder and neglect than to mind long-term, civilizational time lines. The actual conspiracy is that we are made to feel as though humanity’s fate were purely a matter of personal choice—our desire to buy this, that, or nothing at all, our collective willingness to recycle or compost. This isn’t to say that we possess no power at all. But the scale of the problem is difficult to comprehend, and discussions leave many of us feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed, reduced to myopic debates about whether we are too scared or not scared enough.

Perhaps, as Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy argue, our inability to imagine another path forward reflects a limited vocabulary. Their modest contribution is the recently published “An Ecotopian Lexicon,” a collection of essays that seeks to expand the language we use to describe the present-day crisis and its possibilities. At this point, as they note in their introduction, we know how bad it is out there. They are interested in the “struggle to understand,” at the level of both politics and emotions, how we might meaningfully respond to life in the Anthropocene, the term that scientists use to describe the present geologic epoch, where human activity has substantially influenced the climate and environment.

For Schneider-Mayerson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, in Singapore, and Bellamy, an instructor at Trent University who specializes in science-fiction studies and energy humanities, our emerging reality requires a new language. They invited a range of writers, scholars, and artists to choose a word or phrase, mainly taken from the non-English-speaking world, that might help us understand this struggle anew. These are what linguists call loanwords, or “terms that are adopted into one language from another without translation.” Leaving the words in their original language—in this case: Thai, Gaeilge, Norwegian, and Luganda, among others—is a reminder of the histories and cultures embedded in everyday thought.

“An Ecotopian Lexicon” is part dream, part provocation. In his foreword, the writer Kim Stanley Robinson describes Schneider-Mayerson and Bellamy’s book as a “science fiction story in the form of a lexicon.” As Robinson notes, science-fiction writers often invent new words out of necessity, in order to describe new technologies or social formations. Some of the lexicon’s most provocative moments involve recent neologisms. A “blockadia,” Randall Amster writes, arises in the work of Naomi Klein, and it describes the “vast but interwoven web of campaigns” against the fossil-fuel industry. Today, activists see blockadia not as one place but more of a roving space of protest. A blockadia manifests wherever and whenever people use direct action to oppose resource extraction. Coming up with a single term broad enough to describe these movements around the world would help normalize these demonstrations. Rather than scattered fringe protests, they are part of a whole, constituting the last line of defense against new pipelines or fracking…

Read the whole review here.

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