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"I Spy an Ecosystem!" and Words as Barriers

Sophia Weinstein's picture

“I Spy an Ecosystem!” and Words as Barriers

Today, it seems that our current method for teaching about the environment fosters a perceived intrinsic disconnect, or distance, that humans have from our environment. The words that are used, and the ways in which we use them, make for an unstable foundation for the ongoing efforts to better understand our place in the ‘environment’. As teachers, learners, and as human thinkers, we are constantly trying to bridge connections and understanding between one another and to the world around us. Knowing is about making connections. How can we make connections to Nature and the ‘environment’ when these terms segregate all things ‘human’ from what is ‘natural’? Where do we fit into this environment? Perhaps the terminology we use to talk about ecological concerns is rooted in a way of thinking that we are trying to separate ourselves from. As Bowers says, “Many of those analogs were chosen by men who were unaware of environmental limits, and who took for granted many of the cultural assumptions of their era. Recognizing that words have a history has important implications that are seldom considered” (Bowers 48). How can we teach a love, a respect, and a sense of connection to ourselves while using the same vocabulary that was created by those who were unaware and apathetic to these same concerns? We are having a different conversation now, so maybe we need to be deliberate in our language and conscious of our meaning. 

In a Google image search of the word “ecosystem”, the results are filled with depictions of Nature. It consists entirely of diagrams of animals interacting with each other and their habitat.  When I say animals, I mean that there are no humans to be seen. In fact, there is one picture in which a young girl is holding a magnifying glass, with the title “I Spy an Ecosystem!”. This girl exemplifies the relationship that is taught between humans and ecosystems. She is physically disjointed from the diagram; the magnifying glass is a barrier between her and the Nature scenes in the drawing. It perpetuates an understanding that she can observe an ecosystem, but it is not something that she is part of. The word ecosystem is defined by Merriam-Webster as “everything that exists in a particular environment”. If this is the official definition, how is it that all conventional depictions of ecosystems are devoid of humans? Are humans not animals? Why do we focus on learning about environments that we do not exist in? If we want to further our interconnectedness with the ‘environment’ and teach how to make more positive impacts on the world around us, it only seems ‘natural’ that we would instead teach about how we as humans exist as part of the environment. As humans, we have taken the initiative to expand our imposition on any and all ecosystems we have access to. There are limited ecosystems in which we play no part –what Dorceta Taylor considers wilderness: “places where you won’t see any other people” – yet these ecosystems are what we teach.

Being part of this Eco-literacy 360 has been as much of a learning experience as it is an “unlearning” experience for me. Before this semester, I had never questioned the meaning of words like ‘environment’, ‘nature’ or ‘natural’, ‘ecosystem’. Now I cannot use them without quotations. These words can take on so many different meanings depending on who is talking, and what they are talking about. Even in the context of our 360, I find myself second-guessing the possibility that, for example, human society is part of an ecosystem. Despite a top-notch suburban elementary school education, in which we would explore ‘nature’ often, I still find these concepts in contradiction with my formal childhood schooling. ‘Nature’ is the trees and flowers outside, the ‘environment’ is at the park, and ‘ecosystems’ are the exotic and foreign life in an ocean or rainforest.

I believe that there is a gap in our vocabulary; we are talking about something that we do not have a word for, so we substitute related words. George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, explains this perfectly when saying that “(w)hat is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about… unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning” (George Orwell: Essays, 358). What words do we use that properly express the co-existence of humans with the earth, and increase access to a more relatable version of the world?

I can imagine two possible ways of approaching this issue. We can create new words, a new ‘eco-language’ if you will. Willfully start with a clean slate, and rebuild the conversation with entirely new terms and definitions. But having witnessed the disagreements and complexities that arose from a Bryn Mawr Plenary resolution that would introduce a new genderless alternative for the title Mistress and Master, I believe that such an objective may be too controversial to be resolved in the near future.  It takes time, widespread awareness, and popularity to introduce new words into a language. And in creating new words, this introduces issues of “English monolingualism” that Lapayese criticizes, and can create new barriers in accessing ecological education.

The other approach would be to take back these words and reframe them in terms of what they mean to us now. I loved the way Dorceta Taylor talked about taking back and reframing terminology. Black people took ownership of being “Black”; a term that originally carried a negative, demeaning connotation, now conveys strength and perseverance. Bateson says that everything is connected “by virtue of their being components in the same story…that all communication necessitates context, that without context, there is no meaning” (Bateson 13 & 17). Reframing terminology is about changing the story that it carries. Black people changed the context of Black by changing who uses it and how, thus changing what it means entirely. Dorceta Taylor reframed the history of Harriet Tubman as a possessor of vast knowledge of the environment. We now have another story of Harriet Tubman, a new context to consider her in, and thus a new way to connect to who she was. Dorceta showed us that by asking the wrong questions, you could easily find the wrong answers. By changing your questions, you will change the story altogether. The meanings of words are determined by the context they are given. If we change the stories and the contexts in which we use our words, we can alter their meaning altogether. If we make humans part of the story of the environment, then we can strengthen our connection to it. We are part of nature, part of the environment, and part of an ecosystem, and we need our words to reflect this.



sara.gladwin's picture

"writing is happening"

The most intriguing part of your essay is where you point to the environmental movement as being a definitional project; one in which the language used must be constantly reevaluated- it is a project in motion. We are consciously evolving toward ecological literacy. I find Jody’s last question in response to your essay “What kinds of stories will enable or even generate what kinds of reclaiming of language?” really interesting especially with regard to our story slam. Is there some way that we can think about/frame/ reclaim the language of environmentalism as we tell our stories? By sharing stories, many of which I assume will have occurred in the past, can we somehow also use our language to create better terminology for our future experiences in our environments?

Some further thoughts:

Your essay reminded me a lot of another essay about the “Rheomode” by David Bohm. I found a pdf of his whole book (found here) but the chapter that I read and am referring to is chapter 2, starting on page 34. The essay is fairly dense and I found his tone overall infuriating at times but playing the believe/doubt game with his work actually provides some interesting food for thought about the actual grammatical structure of our language. Bohm writes about how the way our language works (subject-verb-object, for example “I pushed sally”), doesn’t actually represent what is occurring according to physics. If I “push Sally,” Sally is also pushing back on me. This physically action between two subjects is not represented in the English language. Bohm instead creates a new grammatical format, which he titles the Rheomode. This way of speaking centers around the verb, instead of the subject, which he believes more accurately reflects what is occurring. His format is incredibly confusing and takes out the subject almost entirely, but it is fun to play around with and consider how meaning changes when we take ourselves away from the focus of language, becoming less anthropocentric in some ways. Instead of saying, “I am writing a post on Serendip” the sentence might look something like, “writing is happening.”

I found some links to Serendip posts from another class I took called Ecological Imaginations with Anne if you are interested in reading more about the rheomode from other students:  Rheomode in Nature,Exercise in PoetryTaft Garden in Rheomode“I just can’t get the poetry of the trees”, and Revisiting.

jccohen's picture

gaps in our vocabulary



You ask some deep questions here about the relationship of language to knowledge, experience, and, ultimately, change, beginning with this essential question:  “Knowing is about making connections. How can we make connections to Nature and the ‘environment’ when these terms segregate all things ‘human’ from what is ‘natural’?”  I think it’s a leap to say that “(w)e are having a different conversation now, so maybe we need to be deliberate in our language and conscious of our meaning” – not that you can’t make that claim but rather it would be helpful to detail that a bit with some of the “conversation” or what’s getting taught as “environmental ed” now (check out Greenwood or Saylan & Blumstein for this).  Similarly, your google image example is powerful! and certainly speaks for our “conventional” representation of knowledge; I’d suggest amplifying or focusing this with some info about what’s happening with teaching “ecosystems” (or any of this material) in schools.  That is, put your own experience in that effective school system that nonetheless divided “nature” from “humans” (quotes!) into a larger context (Saylan & Blumstein, for ex.). 


“I believe that there is a gap in our vocabulary; we are talking about something that we do not have a word for, so we substitute related words.”  What a powerful articulation of the limits of language!  I find myself convinced by your argument that a “new language” is too precarious an undertaking, and that instead we need to “reframe” so that language takes on new meaning through new contexts, new stories.  And now I’m wanting you to push this further:  What kinds of stories will enable or even generate what kinds of reclaiming of language?  Something to keep in mind and work with as we enter this section of the course, focused more on practice!