Inspired by a line, ‘…no birds sing’, in John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Rachel Carson in 1962 named her book on the dangers of DDT, a pesticide, Silent Spring. The world was alarmed. Nations started taking stock of the fallout of the mad race to affluence on land, rivers and seas. By the end of the 1960s, the outlook was grim and a sense of urgency palpable. In June 1972, 114 nations gathered at Stockholm for the 1st world conference on environment.
Fifty years on, at the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, earlier this month, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, aired the same urgency, if not a more serious one. He said: “The global climate fight will be won or lost in this crucial decade – on our watch.”
Environmental degradation today is a clear and present danger across countries and communities. Public concern about this has spawned a whole new climate lexicon, aided by the media and the academia. Greenhouse effect and global warming have been part of the climate discourse for quite some time. So has been the association of green and greens with the environmentalist lobby, tracing their origin to campaigns in Germany in the 1970s against nuclear power stations.
Then there are cli-fi (like sci-fi) and net zero.
More recently, in 2019, climate emergency was declared as the Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary. Its usage had jumped 100 times in the past 12 months. The other words on the shortlist were climate crisis, climate action, climate denial, extinction, flight shame, global heating and plant-based. The Guardian subsequently updated its style-sheet, giving preference to climate emergency or global heating in place of climate change or global warming.
A few interesting coinages are in vogue but yet to be allowed in the popular lexicon. For example, the word solastalgia, a portmanteau for solace and nostalgia, is often used in clinical psychology and implies a feeling of unease and melancholy caused by destruction of the natural environment close to one’s living place.
A podcast series by OED and British Council marks words associated with climate education. A few which have generated interest are degrowth, morbique and greenwashing. The last, in fact, made it to the headlines often during COP27. It refers to practices marking activities as climate-friendly, something which will reduce emissions, by governments and companies but the claims being unverifiable or misleading.
In 2018, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her UN speech gave a new word to climate activists to talk about. The word is kaitiakitanga, which is derived from the Maori language in which a kaitiaki is a guardian. The Maori people believe that there is a deep kinship between humans and the natural world. This connection is expressed through kaitiakitanga, a way of managing the environment.
With politics getting the better of real climate concerns meet after meet, kaitiakitanga could be the only cure for all environmental ills.
Wordly Wise is weekly column by Amitabh Ranjan published every Saturday in the Explained section. Please tweet your feedback to @ieexplained