Words and their impacts

Anthropocene words or action

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.

The drama of the moment

“I am at the moment at the Kaisaniemi Weather Station …” Sifting all the recent media and more direct reports of the European heat wave illustrating so starkly our human impact on a global scale, this tweet from Mike Rantanen carried so much heft. A boyish face, a plain patch of measuring equipment … he is there, at the moment, documenting Helsinki’s 33.2 degrees, highest ever since measurement began in 1844. It’s one thing to picture Parisians attempting to cool down, it’s another to picture our Earth’s northernmost realms baking. I halted. I held my head in my hands.

Welcome to 15 Cranes in the Anthropocene!

Whooping Crane

July 22, yesterday, I announced to myself, an audience of one: I, Andres Kabel, embark on a quest. Roll that word – quest, quest, quest – around your mouth. I’m guessing you taste foreignness. Doesn’t that q-word come across as archaic? Presumptuous? Quests take place in fables, I hear you tell me.

Sigh. A fable could well be the fate of my efforts. But, damn it, that first step I took yesterday was, indeed, my quest.

I am a city boy. The world of nature and I were separate for decades. I came to birding – the insider term for birdwatcher – late in life and, to tell the truth, in terms of quality of birding and knowledge of birds, I am mediocre. But all that makes no difference. I’m on a quest and my quest is to exhaustively learn everything I can about a particular set of birds, to understand them, and to champion them in a hotting-up world that inexorably encroaches on their continued survival.

Let me be more precise. Over the next years, I shall bear witness to our Earth’s fifteen species of Cranes – the Black Crowned Crane, the Black-necked Crane, the Blue Crane, the Brolga, the Demoiselle Crane, the Eurasian Crane, the Grey Crowned Crane, the Hooded Crane, the Red-crowned Crane, the Sandhill Crane, the Sarus Crane, the Siberian Crane, the Wattled Crane, the White-naped Crane, and the Whooping Crane.

The actors in this tale are not just the fifteen Crane species and me, but Earth in the Anthropocene Era, the first epoch in which the human race helps shape the planet at geologic scale. My quest must necessarily ask: what is the physical future on Earth for me and the Cranes? What is my culpability and what should I do?

Come join me. Don’t be at all daunted, you’ll see soon enough how ill equipped I come to my quest. That’s why I need allies, colleagues, and collaborators. You’ll hear more from me over the coming days, months, and years, but in the meantime do drop by for a chat via email, Facebook or Twitter.