The Stories We Live By

I've been taking a new online course on ecolinguistics and it's been fascinating to delve into how we structure and receive our various discourses - texts, dialogues, advertising and news reports - in ways that shape our attitudes and beliefs on environmental, social and economic issues. And maybe some of the learning here is helping me get past a barrier in my thinking about climate change...

The Stories We Live By is a free online course in ecolinguistics, created by Arran Stibbe at the University of Gloucestershire and a team of volunteers from the International Ecolinguistics Association. A programme that you can study at your own pace, with an optional online forum, it looks at how language structures our environmental relationships: stories as “structures in the minds of individuals … or across the minds of multiple individuals in society.”

“Ecolinguistics analyses language to reveal the stories we live by, judges those stories from an ecological perspective, resists damaging stories, and contributes to the search for new stories to live by.” – Arran Stibbe, course notes

There are many ways of viewing the environmental challenges we face – from the bright ‘can do’ optimism of ecomodernism to the darker ecology realms of ‘uncivilisation’ and beyond. But what they have in common is a recognition that the stories we’ve told ourselves to get to this situation – stories we’ve told ourselves into – have created an urgent for us need to find new ones, better aligned with environmental imperatives.

Those old stories include those our Book Club is discussing, in Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: myths of the unquestioned need for endless economic “growth”, narrow indicators of “healthy” GDP figures, “free markets” steering us clear of the “tragedy of the commons”. But the ideological limitations of stories can also be seen in environmental world views that shape competing planet-saving blueprints – an area also discussed in Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

I’m about half way through, and enjoying the very clear notes, exercises and further reading on offer with each module: moving easily but with much thought through discussions on ideologies, framings and metaphors, with fascinating examples and questions. The course will also take me through how we use stories to evaluate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the world, the identities we hold as individuals and groups, our convictions about the way the world is, and how language makes some issues invisible.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #1, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017  Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

Ecolinguistics and our stories

This could all be quite heavy, freighted with all sorts of academic terminology (‘ecolinguistics’ itself, for example). Fortunately, the notes and exercises have a light touch, using clear everyday language in between the necessary (and interesting) smattering of technical stuff (a helpful glossary covers all those new words and phrases). The course is not about finding the “correct” way of talking about the natural world and our relationships with it; there is no single, “right’ story. Yes, ecolinguistics invites us to judge the stories we receive from media, government, businesses and campaign groups, use in our professional and personal lives, or tell ourselves. But “judging a story from an ecological perspective involves comparing it with [our] own ecological philosophy, or ecosophy” – and recognising in the process that ours is one of many; our judgements are always relative to that personal perspective. 

So what does ecolinguistics involve?

  • It focuses on discourses that help shape how we act towards human and other beings and ecosystems.
  • It looks for how linguistic features form our cultural codes: the values and norms that reflect our ‘common sense’ view of the world.
  • It reveals our own ‘ecosophy’ and how different discourses align with or contradict this.
  • It raises awareness of the role of language in ecological protection or destruction, through policy, education, news and entertainment.

Early on, ‘the Ecosophy Quiz” asks us to assess our own ecological philosophy, accepting or rejecting a number of statements on a spectrum from cornucopianism, sustainable development, social ecology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, transition movement, dark mountain project, deep green resistance, voluntary human extinction movement and beyond. Interestingly, there were no overtly religious or spiritual statements to dis/agree with, which seems a lack given the central position of faith in cultures, countries and personal lives around the world.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #2, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The problem with problems

I’ll focus more on specific aspects of the course in another post, but one early point for me has been to get me to revisit my own position, that climate change is not a problem – in the sense that it’s not something with a ‘solution’. That perspective unsettled rather than shocked me when I first heard Mike Hulme suggest several years ago. It did shock many others in the room – a gathering of people with clear ideas of what the solutions are, and a drive to get them adopted. I came to agree with Hulme’s point pretty quickly, as it spoke to my growing unease with our failure to really get to grips with … the problem. His book gave strong pointers as to why framing climate change as ‘a problem’ is a problem – at least if you want to solve it. But what I’ve struggled with since is finding an approach that really improves on ‘problem’. ‘Wicked Problems’ is a good way to conceive the messy entanglements of cause–effect–side-effect–cause, but wicked problems still seem to trigger a ‘solutions’ mindset. I looked into that with my first post, where I picked up on ‘clumsy solutions’ as a way to address ‘wicked problems’, but I could see that something was missing; proposing the idea of ‘wicked cultures’ offered part of an answer.

Hulme had also looked at ‘clumsy solutions’ in his book, “as a way of escaping from the idea that, when faced with contradictory definitions of problems and solutions, only one definition must be chosen and all others rejected … Clumsiness suggests that we construct our problems in such a way as to make them fit our capabilities for solution-making …” But he accepted that even clumsy solutions won’t ‘solve’ climate change; they will be partial and contradictory in what they deliver, not just in their methods.

“We must recognise the ‘wickedness’ of climate change and we must appreciate that while clumsiness – with all its contrariness and messiness – is perhaps the limit of our human ability to respond, it will not deliver the outcomes we seek.” – Mike Hulme.

As he points out, the idea of climate change is changing how we understand and live in the world as much as the physical phenomena we call ‘climate change’. The idea works for us – doing different work for people with different world views. In identifying some common myths behind our world views, Hulme comes back to stories: myths that embody fundamental truths, “powerful shared narratives which may bind together otherwise quite different perspectives and people.” These myths might be lamenting the loss of our ‘natural’ climate and environment; or presaging the coming apocalypse as we crash through all our tipping points; or saving ourselves through our geoengineering/GM/nuclear/nanotech mastery; or a call for and celebration of justice for the dispossessed, exploited and marginalised. He ties these neatly to Judaeo-Christian Biblical myths of Fall, Armageddon, Babel and Jubilee; others are available, of course, and these are not mutually exclusive.

Landing on “climate change as idea” rather than “climate change as problem”‘ is perhaps in danger of leaving us high and dry with grand narratives similar to those that got us in here (and have so far failed to get us out again). I’ve been looking for something more … down to earth, more pedestrian. Less likely to appeal to our messianic tendencies.

‘Words from a Glossary’ #3, Image: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017 Glossary: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

The predicaments we live with

The Stories We Live By is not an examination of the language of climate change; its scope is the full range of ecological issues. But it does explore different framings of climate change – for example, as ‘security threat’, as ‘violence’, as ‘business’, as ‘problem’, or as ‘predicament’:

Climate change framed as a security threat: “Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.” (Caroline Lucas, Green Party)

Climate change framed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” (Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist)

Climate change framed as business: “Let’s reframe sustainability as the biggest and boldest supply chain challenge yet, to give the 9 billion people we expect to see on the planet quality and sustainable lives. Business is good at giving customers what they want, so let’s get on with it.” (Alan Knight, Virgin)

Climate change framed as problem: “The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere.” (Michael Specter, science journalist)

Climate change framed as predicament: “It has been revealed that humankind’s activities giving rise to our present global warming and climate change predicament occurred during that extremely short 57 year period.” (Bob Robertson, author)

To my mind, the first three of these are usually examples of, rather than alternatives to, ‘problem thinking’,  reducing the overall complex mix of issues to a single dimension and expectations that a solution is at hand. But each could also be cast as ‘predicament thinking’. The course explains the distinction:

“Many things we’ve conceptualized as problems are actually predicaments. The difference is that a problem calls for a solution; the only question is whether one can be found and made to work, and once this is done, the problem is solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses.” – John Michael Greer

Solutions make problems disappear; responses keep predicaments in view. Solutions promise completion; responses offer coping. Guess which sounds sexier; admit which is more honest. So, if one response is to adapt to a climate that continues changing even when all the remaining oil is left in the ground (because the atmosphere and oceans respond slowly to past greenhouse gas emissions) then these stronger, adaptive communities will still have to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. And surely we know that ‘security,’ ‘violence’ and ‘economics’, which we also treat as problems, are more like predicaments which no ‘solutions’ are likely to make disappear? Better responses might help minimise the impacts and live more safely, justly and prosperously.

If ‘security’, ‘violence’ and ‘business’ framings (and many other ways of simplifying the idea of climate change) can be deployed in either ‘problem-solution’ or ‘predicament-response’ ways, then perhaps there is another level to our stories. But whether that is so, or ‘problem’ and ‘predicament’ are simply two framings among others, The Stories We Live By has already given me something I’ve been looking for: the extra step beyond my earlier journey from ‘problem’ to ‘wicked problem’ to ‘clumsy solutions’, but without leaving me in the slightly nebulous territory of ‘idea.’ Predicaments are what humans do, after all.

It’s refreshing to take a course that invites me to acknowledge my subjectivity, my own set of values and attitudes, and informs them with some new thinking on ecosophies, framings and, in particular, predicaments. The Stories We Live By asks me to acknowledge that this subjectivity is where I build my judgements of others’ views and actions as protecting or damaging to the environment. That stories, and not unquestionable facts, live in our heads and shape how we think, speak and act is not a new thought for me or for many people, but it’s one we need to come back to if we’re to avoid our own judgements taking on the same ‘natural’ force that the dominant narratives have assumed. Knowing our stories as stories can help us keep open the space we need for creative conversations.

Find out more

You can view and download all the notes and exercises for the course at The Stories We Live By. And if you register, you can also access the forum, additional reading and volunteer tutors. Everything is free and available to enjoy at your own pace.

The course draws from Arran Stibbe‘s book, Ecolinguistics: Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By

The original essay from which the John Michael Greer quote above is taken can be found here, in the Archdruid Report archive. I am currently reading his book, Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, which includes essays from that site.

Mike Hulme‘s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, from which his quotes are taken, has been a key influence in setting up ClimateCultures, and there is more at his site.

Questioning Problems & Predicaments? Space for creative thinking...  

"For you, is climate change a problem or a predicament? How would your creative response change if you swapped these frames? How would you talk differently about it with others?"

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.

The Polar Tombola

As the UK tour of The Polar Tombola draws to a close, ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell reports on this Arts Council funded project, which aims to encourage awareness of endangered Arctic languages – and the environment recorded in their specialist vocabularies.

When we hear about change in the Arctic, it’s more often related to climate than culture. But globalized culture and business is causing rapid changes in the region. Since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year.

Kanungneq, letterpress-printed card and definition from The Greenlandic-English Dictionary, Copenhagen, 1927
Nancy Campbell © 2017
http://www.nancycampbell.co.uk/

UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger charts languages at different levels of concern: vulnerable, endangered, and then extinct. West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), the official national language of Greenland, is one of those vulnerable languages, with 50,000 speakers. North Greenlandic (Avanersuaq, 1,000 speakers) and East Greenlandic (Tunumiit oraasiat, 3,000 speakers) are definitely endangered. Other Greenlandic dialects, such as Qavak, have already slipped out of use.

The importance of these languages is recognized by people across the Arctic region and the wider world.

Once, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relied on information from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and has largely excluded traditional knowledge (TK) as a source of information for its reports. But now there’s a growing recognition from scientists that traditional knowledge can provide insights – and indeed that it’s particularly useful in “remote” locations where there are no other means of observation. This knowledge, passed on down the generations, is enshrined in the language. As an environmentalist reading about these issues, I began to wonder how future scientists will study the Arctic ecosystem without access to specialist Arctic vocabularies. As a poet, I wondered what happens to an individual’s experience of words when their language begins to disappear.

My own experience in the Arctic was enriched by learning Kalaallisut, and many of my projects (books such as How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet) pay tribute to what the language has taught me.

A game of words

I decided to develop a way of spreading the word about endangered languages that took the issue outside the book into performance. Many Arctic nations have an oral rather than written tradition and the transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the heart of cultural practice. Performances of creative works of verbal art are increasingly endangered. It seemed an anomaly to address such issues on the printed page.

Hence The Polar Tombola – a game of chance, like the Italian Christmas raffle from which it draws it name. At events around the UK, from London’s Southbank Centre to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, from Liverpool’s World Museum to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, I invited passers-by to pick a card from a vast snowball containing word-cards letterpress-printed with West Greenlandic terms. I had chosen words that related to the environment, such as “kagdleq” (thunder), “karnalak” (reindeer which is shedding its hairs), and “ikiarôrpoq” (the sun or moon shines through the clouds).

To learn the meaning of the word on their card, the player has to consult a Greenlandic-English dictionary from 1926. Browsing a printed dictionary is a relatively rare experience these days, and most players seem to enjoy it, so I encourage them to take their time, stopping to consider any words that intrigue them before reaching their goal. In the process, they acquire at least one word of Greenlandic, and an appreciation of the wider culture too.

Then comes the twist: each player is encouraged to leave a word behind. “If you had to lose a word from your own language,” I ask, “what would it be?” The question brings home a sense of empathy for language loss, one word at a time.

“I hereby abandon this word”
Nancy Campbell © 2017
http://www.nancycampbell.co.uk/

It’s a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along. One issue has come up again and again in conversations with players: censorship. “I’m not giving away a word,” some people say. “I don’t have enough as it is.” Others are only too glad to give up words that have negative connotations – whether these are commonly understood (in the case of “war” and “hate”) or distinctly personal (“compass”). Both reactions make it clear that the surrender of a word is a potent act. There is no going back: each renunciation is a binding contract, as the player’s signature on the card attests. One player, the artist Steve Perfect, receives the Greenlandic word “kaggsuk” (bits of ice drifting in the sea) and decides to give up “ice cube”. He later tells me he’s been introducing bartenders around London to Greenlandic.

While such an interpretation might suggest a light-hearted approach to the linguistic challenges facing the polar regions, I was glad to see such enthusiastic public engagement. Since many people don’t even know where Greenland is before they play The Polar Tombola, it was necessarily a crash course in culture and language. I found that players were captivated by their brief interaction with the Greenlandic dictionary, astonished by the detailed and perceptive vocabulary for environmental conditions, and eager to learn more.

Back to books

At the end of the final performance at the Arnolfini in Bristol I carefully gathered up all the cards on which words had been written: Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Icelandic, Korean and Spanish words, as well as many English ones. There were political epithets, meaningless verbal ticks and Latin scientific names. A selection of these words have been published as an anthology The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words, alongside new texts on language loss commissioned from contemporary writers including Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves and Richard Price.

In A Book of Banished Words some writers use the commission to explore issues of linguistic politics closer to home: writer and musician Phil Owen chooses to ditch the word “dissever”, once used in an 1847 English report used to suppress the Welsh language in schools. Others take the commission into scientific territory: Nasim Marie Jafry eradicates the word “Coxsackie”, but not before exploring how this Algonquin term meaning “the hoot of an owl” mutated over time, becoming the name of a small US town, and then of a life-changing virus.

Language is important not only to the Arctic, but to all of us.

The Polar Tombola
Photograph: Caspar Evans © 2017
www.smallpublishersfair.co.uk

The Polar Tombola is funded by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.

Find out more:

At nancycampbell.co.uk,  you can read more about The Polar Tombola project and you can order a copy of the book (print or digital), published by Bird Editions.

You can find out more about Nancy’s previous book, How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, at the website of Miel, which was established in 2011 “to promote and publish difficult, innovative, intelligent, and deeply felt writing and visual art.”

This recent article at Alaska Dispatch News is a report by Laureli Ivanoff from Unalakleet, on “Inupiaq, the language I can write and speak, but don’t understand.”

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is an online edition, where you can browse through the languages, using combinations of search criteria and/or zooming in on the map.

The World Oral Literature Project documents and makes accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record.