Why the Language of Climate Change Matters

New and borrowed words from the worlds of art, academia and activism can help us to better “imagine how to adapt and flourish” amid the challenges of the climate crisis.

A drawing of a chestnut tree by American artist Thomas Cole. Photo Credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A drawing of a chestnut tree by American artist Thomas Cole. Photo Credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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In a 1920 edition of a local Pennsylvania newspaper, a brief article appeared with a simple title: “The Chestnut.” Although this was a story about a species of tree, it read more like an obituary for a beloved relative. “All hope is abandoned of saving the American chestnut from the blight,” the writer declared, predicting that soon, the majestic and vital American chestnut would become nothing more than a memory. The article ended with a lament for what had been lost: “Schoolboys of the future will ask, ‘What is a chestnut tree?’ and ‘What is a chestnut?’” 

The American chestnut once dominated vast stretches of Eastern forests, including Pennsylvania’s. That changed beginning in 1904, when a fungus, unwittingly imported from Asia, killed hundreds of millions of trees in a few short decades. Today, the species is classified as functionally extinct. 

Before I learned its tragic history, the American chestnut was like a mythical creature to me, encountered only in Christmas song lyrics and on the grids of city maps. But the more I read about the chestnut, the more I mourned its passing. I paged through photographs of dying and dead American chestnuts in Valley Forge National Park, where I spent so many barefoot summers as a kid. I saw huge stands of diseased trees, their bark blistered with blight-inflicted cankers.


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It didn’t matter, somehow, that I didn’t have any memories of gathering chestnuts at the first frost, climbing a chestnut’s leafy limbs or eating sweet roasted chestnuts from a street cart. The sight of those doomed trees filled me with a particular sorrow I couldn’t explain except as grief for something that came and went before I was born. If there was an English word for this feeling, I didn’t know it.

I thought about this nameless emotion when I read about the Collins Dictionary 2022 selection for the Word of the Year, “permacrisis,” chosen to reflect what it means to live through “an extended period of instability and insecurity” because of multiple, overlapping and incessant crises or “catastrophic events.” “Permacrisis” is one more entry in the ongoing effort to better name the cultural, technological, psychological and meteorological effects of climate change and its environmental and political fallout. 

“Permacrisis” joins kindred words like “polycrisis,” “ecoanxiety,” “hopium” and the related “copium” and “doomerism,” a lexicon created or borrowed to capture the shifting complexities of a planetary emergency. There’s also “Anthropocene,” coined in 2000 and under consideration for official adoption as a geologic epoch; the poetic “solastalgia” and the legal “ecocide”; and “global heating” and “climate crisis,” both meant to more forcefully telegraph urgency. 

Why does the vocabulary of climate change matter? “It’s pretty established that the words we use reflect the reality that we inhabit, not just the material reality, but the cultural and social and political worlds that we inhabit,” said Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, the co-editor of “An Ecotopian Lexicon,” a collection of 30 “ecologically productive” terms meant to aid in processing and adjusting to the uncertainties of climate change. “It’s often been hypothesized that language also affects the way that we think and perceive the world,” he said. “And as a result of that, to some extent, the way that we act on the world.” 

This is the concept of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the language we speak informs and influences our perception of reality. Naming a novel concept or object can be a powerful act, “crystallizing” and sharpening our understanding of the new as well as “establishing” that behavior or feeling as normal–as a collective experience rather than an individual one. “Things that might have seemed embarrassing can become intelligible and acceptable,” Schneider-Mayerson said, giving the examples of “selfie” and “binge-watch.” 

“An Ecotopian Lexicon” offers its neologisms and loanwords, which come from other languages as well as subcultures like science fiction and activism, as “conceptual tools to help us imagine how to adapt and flourish in the face of socioecological adversity.” The Ancient Mayan salutation of “in lak’ech,” a greeting meaning “I’m another you” that is answered with “a la k’in,” meaning “you’re another me” opens a window into what a wholesale reimagining of the English language in light of the climate crisis might look like. “I like it because greetings are things we use without thinking twice,” Schneider-Mayerson said. “And this is one that establishes radical interdependence and empathy as a basis for human interaction.”

In part because of projects like “An Ecotopian Lexicon,” the language of climate, like English as a whole, is constantly evolving. “Anthropocene” may be on the verge of more formal acceptance, but it’s fallen out of favor with some activists and scholars. “It’s seen as universalizing both responsibility and vulnerability” of climate change, Schneider-Mayerson said. Some prefer “Capitalocene,” specifying capitalism as the catalyst and cause. You can also call our era the “Plantationocene,” the “Urbanocene” or the “Eremocene,” the Age of Loneliness.

“It’s quite possible that we need to keep changing the terms, just so the problem stays fresh in our mind,” Schneider-Mayerson said. “It’s quite possible that in five years we will be inured to ‘climate emergency.’ And we might need another term that can speak anew to the gravity of the situation.”

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Another project seeking to meet that need is the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, founded in 2014 by Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott as a “public participatory artwork…focused on creating new language as an innovative way to better understand our rapidly changing world due to manmade climate change.” The Bureau invites people to submit their own neologisms to express nebulous ideas like “shadowtime,” defined as “a parallel timescale that follows one around throughout day-to-day experience of regular time,” a simultaneous awareness of the already unstable present and the potential for a “drastically different” future.

The Bureau of Linguistical Reality inspired me to take a stab at coining a term for my chestnut tree-shaped heartache. I tried out a few combinations of Ancient Greek roots connoting “sadness” and “past,” landing on “propenthos,” a compound made of “pro,” meaning “before,” and “penthos,” meaning “sorrow” or “mourning,” which also carries a sense of repentance for sin. Penthos is not “despair” or “self-pity”; it’s a grief of contrition, a “pricking of conscience” that can lead to spiritual restoration.   

This seemed apt, especially in the context of environmental loss caused by human beings, and I felt like I had arrived at a clearer understanding of my own hazy emotions.  Whether or not anyone else ever uses my word is beside the point. In defining and delineating the feeling, it became easier to hold. 

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere.