What would happen if we referred to a tree as ki? Can you imagine calling squirrels (Vanderbilt’s largest population) kin?
It might sound weird, but changing the way we speak—and think—about nature is what Robin Wall Kimmerer challenges us to do in her article “Speaking of Nature”. In it, she explores how our language both reflects and shapes our beliefs about the natural world.
In English, humans are more special than any other living being. We have names. We use he/she/they pronouns. “Jenny buys ice cream,” we might say. “She’s hungry.” But even if your neighbor has passed away and become an inanimate corpse, we don’t really say “it is buried here.”
Yet we do use that impersonal “it” in reference to not only inanimate objects but also every other living being. Not “who is she?”, but “what is it?” “It’s a chickadee!” “It flies!” We distance ourselves from every other species. Birds might as well be bulldozers. Trees are toys. Squirrels are equivalent to the concrete they scurry on.
Now, like all works of literature, this article addresses many themes and could be interpreted in many ways. But what resonated most with me was the issue of climate change. Because even though Kimmerer never explicitly says so—the words “climate change” never appear in the article—I think she rightfully underlines the importance of mindset, perspective, and values in environmental issues at large.
Consider why we lump living beings and non-living objects into the same category. Doesn’t that say something about how we interact with nature? Don’t we take nature for granted? Doesn’t such objectifying language make it easier to neglect, ignore, exploit nature?
I think it does. I think the article aptly illustrates the dominant western worldview (DWW), a set of common beliefs in Western culture which suggest that people are fundamentally different from and better than all other animals—and I think these beliefs are the most long-term, root cause of climate change. If we assume that humans are most important, then we can justify doing whatever we want to achieve our goals. If we need to kill entire forests, then we can (and have). The human exemptionalism paradigm (HEP), a perspective in environmental sociology, built on this assumption by determining that the physical environment—rivers, forests, oceans, mountains—is irrelevant to society and human affairs, and so should not be studied sociologically. In fact, humans are exempt from all laws of nature. We aren’t part of nature; nature is nothing.
No wonder we keep drilling into the earth and polluting the atmosphere, right? If we aren’t part of nature, if we won’t ever face consequences for our actions, why not continue burning fossil fuels or cutting down trees?
And so the article makes us aware of our own assumptions—beliefs that underlie environmental destruction.
How do we fix this? Kimmerer advocates grammar as a tool of revolution, suggesting that we replace “it”with ki and kin: “Ki to signify a being of the living earth”, and kin as the plural form. Like kinship with all living beings on our planet. However, I don’t think such a linguistic change is particularly realistic, at least not in the short term. Kimmerer’s essay was published in 2017; three years later, I have never heard these terms used, and the effects of climate change persist. Changing language alone isn’t enough. It’s the assumptions behind the language that need to change.
We need to change our collective mindset, our values, our beliefs about nature. If we believe that nature exists merely to serve humans, that its resources are free for unlimited taking…well, we’ll never stop destroying it. If we keep prioritizing economic growth over socio-environmental sustainability, we won’t have the natural resources needed to maintain our economy. If we as a society do not value or respect nature, then we will do nothing about climate change. How can policymakers create environmentally-friendly policies if we don’t believe environmental degradation is even a problem? What can we do if we don’t believe that we are part of nature, not superior to it, not exempt from natural laws or consequences?
The article’s potential to inspire such awareness and change is limited. Kimmerer never actually mentions climate change or its specific effects. The causes of climate change are not merely abstract assumptions about nature—they very much include concrete choices, but Kimmerer doesn’t highlight that. And referring to trees as “it” does not mean we all actively disrespect nature, or that we can do much about the problem. Much of climate change was caused and maintained by policies and the entire socioeconomic system, which individuals can’t easily alter. Most of us don’t control the fossil fuel industry, military, or distribution of electricity.
That’s where policy comes in. But Kimmerer doesn’t give practical, concrete policy solutions. The article focuses on abstract beliefs, and even the proposed suggestion of a grammar revolution tends towards the abstract.
Still, I think the article’s fundamental suggestion has important implications for policy—all policies are guided by cultural values, so if we want improved policies, we need to change our values and priorities. And to this end, I think the article raises awareness of environmental problems and can inspire people to take action. It’s only through seeing the beauty in the natural world, and recognizing that we are part of that world, that we can preserve it. So I think it helps that Kimmerer writes with beautiful language, language that reflects such beauty:
“Ki runs through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon, ki’s branches sway in the pine-scented breeze”
It’s debatable, the extent to which language can change the state of the world, but I felt captivated by the poetic beauty. Grants and policies are also proposed in written or verbal form, so changing the language that we use to speak of nature could potentially lay the groundwork for real policy changes—assuming that policymakers and other bureaucrats are among those who are exposed to and agree with the ideas in this article.
It’s a little long, and the paragraphs are a little dense. But if you do read the article, you may become lost in the beauty of language and life. Maybe you’ll be touched by Kimmerer’s story. Maybe you’ll share it. And maybe you’ll feel inspired to protect the natural world that feeds and shelters us.
Maybe we can cross out climate change.