In The Conversation ten days ago, Canadian political science professor Matthew Hoffmann wrote about “Using language to make the world of fossil fuels strange and ugly.” After all this time, all this evidence, he writes, “the fossil fuel system remains dominant, normal and even invisible,” in part because there’s an “invisible and unspoken” language at work. We don’t call cars “petrol-fuelled cars.” Hoffmann caveats his advice by saying fresh language does not “preclude the hard work of political change,” but he is all for adding adjectives like high-carbon or polluting where they fit.
I’d just finished reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The End, the last book of his six-book masterpiece series My Struggle, and if anyone uses words, if anyone believes in the power of language, it’s him. I’d read nearly a million of his words by then. Being a circumspect person myself, the topic of how to talk about the Anthropocene Era with strangers or friends has always baffled me. I pondered and came across Vox journalist David Robert’s tweeted response to Hoffmann’s article:
The faith among academics & lefties that language determines our climate situation & that there’s some magic set of words that will solve the problem … is adamantine. Fixed & immutable. Floating utterly free of evidence. It BAFFLES me.
Words or actions? Actions or words? The sun was sinking fast in Melbourne and I was no expert on the human world and its ways, but I reflected on how little cutting of emissions has occurred in my lifetime, yet how many words I’ve read about the Anthropocene. David Roberts is correct, came the answer to me. Everyone knows the real vocabulary underlying all the surface words. Action is the only action that counts.