The other day I saw on the Instagram feed of University of St Andrews that they have lighted up the phrase ‘Actions Not Words’ on the grass of Sallies Quad. I honestly agree with the sentiment, though I can’t help but notice the irony that we must use words to dissuade others, particularly politicians, from improperly using words to utter their empty promises and faux determinations.
A similar irony occurs when I attended the Line in the Sand event where local politicians give speeches right before a student from St. Leonards’ directly reference the never-ending words and never-realised actions.
But why do we still give speeches? Why do we still care about the words people use? Language must still be important in some ways – and we have tried through this UnEarth mini-issue to uncover them.
The driving idea behind the theme is the perhaps slightly obvious insight that language exists in time. Speaking as an ex-English student, the ways people use language are crystallisations of their times and cultures. We look deeper into texts that our society produced for poignant insights into its workings and dispositions.
Some words capture the societal attitude immediately. Owain and Van explore how socially-conscious lyrics in music reflect a limp and jaded desire towards the possibility of social change despite its urgent necessity.
Some words are the very causes of our inaction. Izzy examines the limits of empathy towards the environment that our language placed on us. Designating the pronoun “it” to living things may be grammatically correct but perhaps not so morally?
Some words make more sense to us over time. Amy asks traces how the term ‘ecocide’ has different resonances to the society now and back in the 1970s when devastation of the environment was not as apparent as the current moment, so familiar with oil spills, the unceasing pumping of CO2 into our atmosphere, and the crumbling of habitable spaces for large swathes of species?
Yet if language exists in time, then it can also change its times; the crystals are also drivers of change. This is something all three articles shared:
In the case of musical lyrics, language as art imitates the life around it, but Owain and Van argue that we also need better art for life to imitate. Music must go beyond lamentations on individual failings and must fire questions at the systems that allowed these failings to persist.
In the case of legal language, Amy lays out the implications of the law being able to recognise the environment as something that can be killed and that its killers are deserving of punishment.
Finally, Izzy names the Ecuadorian constitution as an exemplar of successful alteration of the stories we tell about the environment, where its language includes the rights belong to nature itself and thus recognises its intrinsic dignity.
All very serious topics, written in words, in the hope of spreading ideas and enacting change. To combat the climate crisis, we must talk about it, but I contend that we can always talk better.