New words for a new world
An interview with Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, co-editor of 'An Ecotopian Lexicon.'
How to put into the words the gravity and scale of climate change? How to describe the ecological – and humanitarian – crisis we all face? According to Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy, co-editors of An Ecotopian Lexicon, we need a new vocabulary of “loanwords” – words that help us “imagine how to adapt and even flourish” in the face of planetary climate change – to help shape our conversations, and by extension, understanding of the issue.
The new volume, which features an introduction by sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson, contains essays by thirty contributors. Their work explores and defines words they believe will help expand American Standard English so that it better reflects the reality of climate change, as well as inspire new ways of seeing the world and its social structures. The book also contains vibrant artworks by fourteen artists from around the world that thematically complement the essays.
I spoke with Schneider-Mayerson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, about what inspired the book and what he hopes readers take away from it.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Amy Brady: Let’s start at the beginning: What inspired this project?
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: I suppose the origin was my conviction that we desperately need more visions of positive environmental futures. Anyone who’s paying attention today is familiar with the torrent of bad news and devastating projections about climate change and other issues, but they don’t always motivate us to act. They’re just as likely to lead to apathy, despair, and nihilism – I’ve felt that, and seen it in others.
Science tells us that we need to do something but it doesn’t tell us how, or help us explore the kind of world we ought to build. Neither do dystopias. This imaginative absence leaves progressives fighting for small changes in policy, or trudging towards a destination we can’t even envision.
In this context it’s been wonderful to see the impact of the Green New Deal, and some of the cultural production around it. An Ecotopian Lexicon has a similar goal, but is focused on language itself, and offers not a single vision but thirty different ones.
Amy Brady: Your emphasis is on new or unfamiliar words in Standard American English. What is it about these words that can help people to think differently about large, systemic issues like climate change?
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: It’s about the concepts they represent. Brent and I join other environmental thinkers in arguing that climate change is ultimately a crisis of culture. Radical shifts in politics, policy, and infrastructure are necessary but not sufficient – without different values they won’t “solve” climate change and other socio-environmental issues, and might actually exacerbate them.
Unfortunately the concepts that so many of us have inherited are part of the problem. Historian William Cronon argued that the very concept of “wilderness” prevents us from living with nature, since it defines the wilderness as something distant, far from the corrupting influence of humans. The idea of “wilderness” doesn’t offer a way for humans to live with nature without destroying it.
There are similarly compelling critiques of “nature,” “the environment,” and many more. We need better concepts. The thirty loanwords that our authors present – from other languages, speculative fiction, and subcultures of resistance – offer an introduction to some possibilities. It’s a kind of ecological multiverse. Readers can try them on for size, and, we hope, develop their own.
Amy Brady: As you write in the introduction, a rallying cry of activists in the West has been “another world is possible.” How do you see this book contributing to another world, or future?
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: That’s one of my favorite phrases and I’m not alone – apparently it’s been repeated 800,000 times on the Internet. But without elaboration I’m not sure it takes us anywhere, it’s a narrow bridge to a destination shrouded in mist. What lies on the other side?
I, like many others, was born into and have lived my entire life in a world of fossil-fuelled, patriarchal, racial capitalism. That’s all I’ve experienced, at least on a macro scale. I might understand, intellectually, that other worlds are possible, but are they good or bad? What do they taste, feel, and smell like? How can I imagine myself in them?
Each of the entries in this book is a vision of a different world, through the lens of a specific word or phrase. We hope that each of them – from “Apocalypso” to “Qi,” “~*~” to “Total Liberation” – gives readers a glimpse into other subjectivities, other ways of being in and relating to the world. Better words for better worlds. Even at this advanced stage of climate crisis, many futures are still possible, but we need to envision them before we can build them.
Amy Brady: You and Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote the book’s foreword, both draw links between the lexicon in the book and speculative fiction. What do these things have in common?
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: Brent and I loved the way [Stan] described the book in the foreword, as a “utopian science fiction story.” Authors of speculative environmental literature – including my holy trinity of Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Marge Piercy – have helped us and so many others imagine better, more just futures.
Inspired by their work, we assembled a speculative lexicon. Some of the contributors are poets, some are sociologists, others are literary critics, political scientists, or linguists. We asked them to suggest a word or phrase that might help us with the task of surviving and living well in the Anthropocene.
The book is a flood of alternative worlds and worldviews, and the table of contents is kind of dizzying. From our perspective that’s a good thing. To think that we already know the range of social, cultural, psychological, and political options for responding to the existential challenges we face is to foreclose the possibility of something radically different, something better. Humility is a virtue, now more than ever.
Amy Brady: You also acknowledge in the introduction that borrowing words from other cultures carries the risk of cultural appropriation. How does your approach circumvent that possibility?
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: We were initially uncertain about including words from other cultures. To state the obvious, English speakers have been the perpetrators of a colossal amount of theft and violence, both material and cultural. And even the most careful and conscientious borrowing is risky. But Anglophone North Americans and Europeans – who are likely to be the book’s primary readers, since it’s written in English – have so much to learn from other cultures. We ought to be seeking appropriate responses to our collective challenges with the full tapestry of human experience in mind.
The loanword is a fitting linguistic category, since loanwords are words that are adopted into one language from another without translation. English is full of them, demonstrating that culture is always heterogeneous. Especially at this moment – the dawn of a period of unprecedented, climate-induced displacement and migration, with the rise of xenophobic ethno-nationalisms around the world – this kind of internationalism is critical.
But the possibility of cultural appropriation was a concern. Almost all of the contributors who wrote about terms from other languages were scholars who are fluent in those languages, and those who weren’t consulted with scholars and native speakers. As editors we were careful to ensure that none of the entries romanticized or reduced the complexity of other cultures.
Amy Brady: You include some exquisite artwork in the book. Please tell us about the art and why you decided to include it.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: Art is a critical part of stimulating the utopian imagination, and humans are so visual. We hoped that this book might inspire readers, so having a visual component seemed necessary. And we loved the idea of having the book stage a transmedia conversation between an originary author, subculture or culture; a critical thinker; and an artist. It’s a somewhat unique text in that way.
It was also just a pleasure to have an excuse to work with some of my favorite artists, many of whom have been focusing their practice on environmental issues for years, and to shine a little light on their work. And the stylistic diversity of the artwork – ranging from a Buddhist sculpture to sgraffito black-and-white etching, psychoterratic painting to a Dia de Los Muertos print – was important to us, paralleling the creativity and diversity of the entries.
Amy Brady: What’s next for you?
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson: I’m working on some empirical studies about the influence of climate narratives on their audiences, and a book on reproductive choices in the age of climate change – that has a very different tone, of course.
But I’d like to do more creative work in the vein of An Ecotopian Lexicon. In this moment of climate crisis the most obvious challenge we face is political, but there’s also a monumental cultural challenge – to cultivate, develop, and propagate narratives that can inspire, guide, and support us through a period of wrenching transition. We hope that An Ecotopian Lexicon can be a tiny part of that. I loved working on it because it forced me to do more than critique, and I’m looking forward to more of that in the future.
An Ecotopian Lexicon, Edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy (University of Minnesota Press, published October 22, 2019)