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In modern English, the word ‘climate’ has both a literal and figurative meaning. It refers to the typical weather conditions of a place – ‘the UK has a mostly temperate climate’ – as well as the prevailing mood or attitudes of people within a situation – ‘there was a climate of fear in the office.’ In this article, we look at why, to try to control the former of these – the weather – we need to have an influence on the latter – the metaphor. Or to put it another way, today’s climate crisis isn’t just a scientific problem. It’s not related solely to what we know – and can do – about the effects of a changing environment on the weather. Nor is it simply a political problem. It’s also a cultural challenge. To turn back the tide of environmental collapse we fundamentally need to change the way we do things as a species, and this means changing the way we think about our relationship with the environment. To change the way we think about all this, we first need to change the way we represent it.
We’ll come back to this in a moment. But before that, let’s take an example of a different sort of environmental challenge. The Covid crisis that has blighted the first few years of the 2020s highlighted one of the great tensions in liberal democracy – the desire for individual freedom and the need for collective security. The dilemma goes something along these lines. We realise that, as individuals, we can’t protect ourselves from public health emergencies. They need a coordinated, centralised response, far beyond the capabilities of any of us acting alone. So, we grant a range of powers to the government on the understanding that they’ll organise ways to protect us from this sort of threat. There’s a calculated trade-off here. We give up certain rights and short-term freedoms in exchange for the promise of different, longer-term freedoms. At the same time, we’re wary of the government abusing these powers and itself becoming a threat to our individual liberties. All the arguments about the length of lockdowns, directives on mask-wearing, and guidance on social distancing, are to do with this basic conflict, and how people feel society should be structured in relation to it.
The pandemic can be seen as a small-scale version of what’s involved in the climate crisis. For humankind to combat environmental breakdown it needs to take decisive remedial action and, to some extent, change its way of life. But this raises the question of how we go about altering our way of life. Should governments be forcing this change on their citizens, as they did during the Covid crisis? Or are there other ways of bringing about social change which don’t rely entirely on the top-down imposition of regulations around people’s behaviour? And which can thus assuage the fear of a drift towards totalitarianism?
There’s a pattern to the way the sort of social change needed here usually takes place. At its heart is the relationship between people and their government. The process usually runs something like this. Scientists identify a problem and alert the media and the public. The institutions and businesses who are contributing to the problem deny responsibility or push back against plans for addressing it. But if public opinion creates enough pressure, the government is forced to act, creating regulations and standards which force change on the corporations, who then adapt their practices and technology.
So public opinion is vital, both in demanding action over change and in accepting the consequences of that change. Shifts in public opinion can result from activism, public awareness campaigns and propaganda. But one of the most potent agents for change is culture. Which is why the climate crisis is an issue that’s closely bound up with language, with literature, and with a whole range of other creative endeavours.
Take the term ‘climate change’ itself, for example. This is a very clear example of the way that the language we use to refer to something can influence how we perceive that thing. And not only how we perceive it, but how we react to it.
This is known as linguistic framing. All words have not only a core meaning, but also a set of associations related to the way they’re normally used. By picking words which trigger certain associations, you can frame the way a concept is understood in society. It’s a technique commonly employed in propaganda. So ‘torture’, for example, which has distinctly unpleasant connotations, will, when a government wants to gloss over its ethical shortcomings, be replaced by ‘enhanced interrogation’ which sounds much more bureaucratic and generally neutral.
The same applies to the term ‘climate change’. This is descriptive without being judgemental, while also having vaguely scientific connotations. But change the word ‘change’ to ‘crisis’, and the phrase suddenly expresses a very different perspective on the phenomenon.
This basic principle then scales up to the entire way we, as a society, talk – and think – about contemporary environmental issues. None of the terms that have been used over the last few decades are neutral in the way they frame the phenomenon. From ‘acid rain’, through ‘global warming’, to ‘climate emergency’, each of them encodes a particular stance towards the issues to which they refer. Yet, if one is able to normalise their use – that’s to say, make them seem as if they’re the everyday way to talk about the phenomenon – this, in effect, gives them an appearance of neutrality.
The combined results of this process as they apply across our entire experience of society create what we understand as culture. Or at least, this is one way of defining the meaning of culture. It’s the vast, dynamic network of symbols we use to give significance to our life as a community. It’s worth pointing out that this matrix of symbols and ideas isn’t static. It’s not fixed and immovable. In fact, we’re always in process of remoulding it. We’re always disputing the meaning of words, promoting or demonizing certain terms, and finding new ways to represent the world.
Which is where literature and all the other creative arts come in. It’s the creative remoulding of our culture which influences how we collectively see the world, respond to the challenges facing us as a society, and act now to try to shape the future threatened by these challenges.