Lost and cost

Humans manipulating the environment around them to get the resources they need is nothing new since agriculture became a large part of civilization. Humans have become too good at that manipulation, to the point where it negatively effects the overall health of the planet. It is difficult to point a finger at the cause of the current climate crisis, as discussed last week. Whatever caused is, solving the crisis involves sustainability.

“Sustainability” recognizes the nuance of the word and its shortcomings in other “markets” that do not speak English. The business of pitching sustainability to cultures and is difficult because of its lack of direct translations. Breaking tradition or habit for sustainability when the term is not even understood is a difficult process for those who must do the changing. That is exemplified by Marta, who needed to put all her crop into large silos instead of protecting them with chemicals and pesticides.

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Another side of sustainability that is lost in translation is that of the global scale. Marta does not really understand the bigger picture because of her more isolated language cultural barrier. The cultural barrier on the global scale is more difficult to deal with. For example, cultures that are working only to survive will be more difficult to convince to change their habits in the name of sustainability.

The idea that more powerful and developed parts of the world should take leadership in the sustainability may be a more difficult than some anticipate. As the people in Marta’s community demonstrate, they are trying to protect their industry and themselves from “encroaching markets” that are typically dominated by those bigger powers. Measures taken that are meant to deter larger powers from sweeping up their economy may not involve sustainability. Regardless, the statement “the world is not innocent” (Maldonado) applies to the situation, where when change needs to be made, it comes with a cost. In the case of sustainability, the cost may be a culture, a view, or a person’s way of life.

there is no universal practice for sustainability

In 1929, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf created a foundational element for how humans understand language: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It stated that language determines reality (linguistic determinism), and language reflects reality (linguistic relativity). In developing their hypothesis, Sapir and Whorf studied the Hopi tribe. Living in northeastern Arizona, the Hopi Native American tribe has a language structure drastically different from English. Their language doesn’t have a grammatical word for the concept of time. In addition, no verb tense containing the past or future exists (Livingstone, 2014). Their idea of reality is fundamentally different than what many individuals are familiar with. In this case, language is dramatically influencing the understanding of a time continuum, something that’s unfamiliar and different from what’s reflected in the English language. However, the values and teachings of this hypothesis began to diminish in the 1990s as its limitations were further explored and understood through research. For example, the limitations present in language doesn’t imply the absence of that ideology in the representative culture (Livingstone, 2014). In reference to the Hopi tribe, their lack of a word for time, past tense, and future tense, doesn’t indicate the failure to recognize the time continuum. They could simply have a different way of expressing the construct. 

“Sustainability,” written by María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr, raises a point relating to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The essay starts out by saying “sustainability is an English word.” In Spanish, it can have two meanings, one focused on being maintained over time, and another emphasizing it being reasonable. However, looking back at a criticism of the hypothesis, a rocky translation of a word doesn’t indicate a lack of its concept. Sustainability looks different in each culture, especially those far from Western influence. The disastrous impacts of the ecological crisis are undeniable, but the process of preserving what’s remaining needs to be examined from multiple cultures and lifestyles. Blanketing a Western solution to a global issue may be ineffective. Instead, the climate crisis calls for a collaborative effort, created from multiple perspectives. Sustainable practices aren’t the same for all world nations. Drawing from the teachings of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if anything, this makes the call to action even more urgent.

Sustainability is seldom straightforward

What is thought of as conservation, environmental sustainability, and environmental activism differs from person to person; people live in vastly different climates, occupy entirely distinct roles, and interact within diverse social spheres. “Sustainability,” an essay by Maria Garcia Maldonado, Rosario Garcia Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr from the series “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen,” confronts a reality of this exact issue: the duality of the word ‘sustainability’ as a universally understood message, and its literal inaccessibility within highland Guatemala. There, Dona Marta, a farmer of sorts, experiences a sort of operational invasion of her life. Projects send Marta alternative products to replace the ones she used previously and prevent further harm to the environment. Accepting these offerings, Marta is complicit in sustainability, yet, without a word for the concept, she lives without its true weight. The authors struggled to help her grasp the essence of the term. This inability enclosed most of the Guatemalan highlands in a struggle to improve sustainability without a true will to do so themselves. This exact situation captures the struggle of anthropologist’s lexicon. Searching for terms and phrases which pass on the same meaning and action, across the boundaries of culture and language, is attempted by a select few very… incredibly… slowly.

It is exceedingly difficult to efficiently get a specific idea across any space, even the dinner table. Remarkably, tiny errors in semantics and rhetoric can lead to vast instances of confusion, restatement, and reinterpretation, leaving little time for the essence of many broad statements and inquisitions to be uncovered. When people don’t fully comprehend, and yet, out of dogmatic faith, believe in something unconditionally, they tend to search for easy answers to questions surrounding their beliefs; why ponder the comprehensive, when blind trust in a set of actions will get a perceivably similar end result?

What happens when this mindset passes through a population? The few, highly practicable, minimally invasive ways to engage in a core idea prevail, becoming the calling card of the concept to the public, no matter how ridiculous they may be. An example to this end is recycling, a beautiful concept terribly executed by the well-intentioned masses. To be brief: the US decided to package what trash could, theoretically, be returned to utility as something new, and decided to ship it overseas, hoping that the theory would be put into physical practice. China eventually just gave up on taking our trash, we’ve already declared it trash, almost nothing has visibly changed, yet the face of environmental activism appears to be “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Ironically the figurehead idea in activism towards environmental sustainability is a red herring, a logical fallacy almost as effective as drinking less water to keep the rivers engorged through summer. We must take sustainability figurehead ideas with a grain of skepticism if any effective action to better our climate is taken.


Like everything in life people want to give a name to what they see around them and many times we can’t agree on what to call it. The world we live in today is no different: Anthropocene, Chthulucene, Misanthropocene just to name a few. In a world defined by the actions of humans it seems appropriate to give the credit to us humans, but is that too anthropocentric? Some argue that it is the “ultimate act of apex species self-aggrandizement.” However, I would disagree because humans name everything after themselves: countries, towns, their own children, so why should we stop now? If we accept that humans have changed the world maybe we can realize that it is too our responsibility to fix all the problems we have created before it is too late. 

File:Climate Change Performance Index.svg - Wikimedia Commons

I never realized that language could be such a barrier to effecting the kind of change we need, but if you stop and think about it, it makes sense. We can’t save our planet if everyone isn’t on the same page. It was encouraging to see that people all over the world are being educated on how they can help, but not everyone has an equal part in the solution. We can recycle bottles after using them, but if we stopped using plastic bottles and converted over to reusable ones that would be a much larger difference. We don’t need everyone, even if it would help, to contribute to saving the planet. We should instead focus on the largest causes and work down from there. The most powerful people need to be educated and persuaded to work actively to the cause. Some won’t and that is what it is, but we shouldn’t waste time because for every person that opposes change there is another who can be convinced. If we need to provide an incentive and that should be okay too. In this case the ends will be justified. The most powerful business and countries need to be the primary leaders and show that they can indeed contribute to the “greater good”. Especially because time isn’t on our side. 

-Russell Fitch

What can we do?

Some writing starts with an argument, and follows with the author convincing the reader how right they are. “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen” doesn’t do this. It reads more like a newspaper article building up to a conclusive point, or a conversation aimed at increasing understanding.

Because I only read the introduction, “Sustainability,” and “Business,” and I’m not an anthropologist, I feel grossly unqualified to tease some overarching meaning from the Lexicon.

But I’ll try and do it anyway.

The Lexicon comes in a context of great change and ecological trouble already starting to affect us. As individuals it is easy to feel powerless. The introduction mirrors this, in a passage you should not be embarrassed to look up the words in: “We are faced with circumstances undeniably beyond our control, as hyposubjects rather than wielders of a putative mastery.” When we hear that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, it is natural to ask “what is my recycling going to change?”

The Lexicon has a lot in common with historian Lynn White Jr.’s view that our ecological crisis comes from something intrinsically wrong in society, specifically Western society. As evidence, I offer a single word from the Lexicon page on hyposubjects: “androleukoheteropetromodernity.”

But to get to the heart of it, the Lexicon says that our ecological problem is really a cultural, social problem. A global problem. That technology isn’t the solution. Challenges differ around the globe, just as the vocabulary to describe concepts differs. In “Sustainability,” the authors recount working with their host on a farm in Guatemala on a shared vocabulary of sustainability, translating from English to Spanish to Mam. The translation and conversation wasn’t easy.

Luckily, human history is full of examples of social problems being overcome. What can we do? We can recycle, protest, vote for politicians that will take action, compost and raise the social capital necessary for change. Sorry for the cliche, I’m just trying to be hopeful – but not complacent. 

Who’s In the right?

This past week we discussed the culpability of Christianity in the environment. This idea was taken through two perspectives.

Lynn White claims that Christianity made gave man the incentive to exploit nature at their own expense. Essentially, God planned nature’s existence for the benefit of man, where the world is the hands of man. On the other hand, Saint Francis claims that man – like all creatures in the world – were created equally, and man was just the resulting culprit of a superior being.

As different as they may seem, these claims share some similarities. For example, they both agree on the fact that in some way shape or form, a change to our environment has occurred due to an association between man and god. Whether or not these similarities cause a consequence to the environment, is a whole different discussion. Both of these arguments are formed on many different layers. In terms of Lynn White, this author agrees on more than one culprit of our environment. White also discussed western traditions, and medieval influence to provide content to the culpability of Christianity. With the support of the previous context, White goes on to explain the scientific reasoning as to why Saint Francis is wrong. In this case, they state “Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone”. With so many layers to each claim the solution to our ecologic crisis seems scarce.

However, the differences between the arguments of Lynn White and Saint Francis propose a defined cause. In terms of White, they claim that since the roots of our ecologic crisis involves christianity, then it must involve christiany to solve these problems. In terms of Saint Francis, he doesn’t state that any entity is the culprit – rather – what occurs as a result of man is a result of fate. Furthermore, Saint Francis proposes no solution.

Therefore in conclusion, with no clear definition on Christianity’s motives with the environment, we cannot come to a conclusive answer as to who is at fault.

Sustainability is subjective

The subjectivity of sustainability is a truth which is not easily recognized. Many people have visions of a utopian, carbon-negative society. But between each of those people, each vision will be slightly different. And if those people are from different cultures and different career backgrounds, the differences in their visions will be greatly magnified to the point that they will likely contradict one another in certain aspects.

In Sustainability from the Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, this idea is explored, using the differences between languages to contrast industrialized Western society with the developing societies in Guatemala. They introduce their article with the phrase “Sustainability is an English word”, a point that largely goes forgotten. Not all languages have an equivalent for this word, and even if they do, the meaning is notably different when taken into the context of the language.

Sustainable translates into Spanish as either sostenible or sustentable. Though these words all refer to the same concept, they are not completely synonymous. This is a problem, since this means that when a person says that something is “sustainable” in English, the same meaning will not be carried over to Spanish when they say that it is “sostenible”, even though the translation is correct.

But this problem becomes much more obvious when looking at a language and culture that is completely unrelated to the West. The article uses the example of the Mam language. They have no word for sustainable. The closest the authors found was the term tanquib’ela, which referred more to being a part of life, surviving in it. But, as the article also states, this word has no mention of the future; only of being present in life.

Tanquib’ela and the concepts carried around it in the hills of Guatemala are incompatible with the image of sustainability that Western society prefers. The people living there have little clue as to why they are being pushed toward sustainability, since they do not truly know what it is. And this problem is typically not recognized when we talk about sustainable development for these cultures around the world. Often, the people living in developing cultures are uncertain about accepting change, so communicating the advantages of sustainability is necessary to expedite their development. But since sustainability is a concept that not all cultures have, they will too be uncertain of it, and may not understand why it is so important.

Therefore, as described in Sustainability, the goal is not just proper communication. It is to cultivate the growth of sustainable practices, not just with words, but with leadership and action. Only then will there be followers in the way of benefiting the world.

What Can We All Learn From the Earth?

“Lexicon for the Anthropocene yet Unseen” begins with an introduction written by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian, that questions the term “Anthropocene” itself. The term is inherently human-focused in it’s meaning. It acknowledges the role humans play in the evolution of the world and its changing climate. Howe and Pandian note that critics view the naming of the geological age the “Anthropocene” as far too human-centered, too “anthropocentric” as it were. It is problematic when we assert ourselves to such high standing in the natural systems. This is because that outlook generally blinds us to the reality that we are a part of the natural system. 

Howe and Pandian say that the purpose of the lexicon is finding solutions through looking at other patterns and processes of life, and to compare them with the Anthropocentric way of thinking. This is demonstrated later on by comparing human population behavior to the growth patterns of weeds. Both weeds and humans able to easily adapt and spread over the Earth. Perhaps the answers lie in a mixture of new ideas and old, forgotten practices.

The essay “Sustainability” written by María García Maldonado, Rosario García Meza, and Emily Yates-Doerr, goes through how solutions to the climate crisis invented by modern scientists may be methods that do not work in all areas of the globe. Often when experts in the field of climate science look for solutions to climate change, they look for “sustainable” solutions. These are methods that produce less waste, that last for longer periods of time. However, while those sustainable solutions may have perceived positive physical effects, they may also have consequences depending on where they are implemented. Living “sustainably” may not be a way of living that translates the same across the world. It is possible to inflict damage while imposing Western sustainable living practices onto non-western cultures. While it is important to strive to conserve nature and the environment, we should also consider how these solutions affect global populations at a cultural and social level. Many cultures practiced sustainable lifestyles that looked different from the modern, western definition. Some if these lifestyles actually fell out of practice because of imposing western forces. Perhaps there are old methods of sustainable living that should be re-examined as potential solutions to utilize in the future. 

The essay “Care” written by Charis Boke, covers a method of changing our relationship with plants in order to serve as a solution to reduce pollution and the mistreatment of our planet. She discusses North American herbalists and certain rituals some practice to form a special connection with the plants they are harvesting from. They do this ritual to recognize the relationship between themselves and the organism, to acknowledge how both subjects mutually serve each other. It creates an intimacy that can potentially help to understand our role as humans in the environment.  I connected with this section personally. My family, who are passionate about nature and gardening, engage in similar practices of connecting with the botanical species around us. By fostering this relationship with the plants, we enhance and deepen our connection with and appreciation for those forms of life and the environment as a whole. 

The Anthropocene, Who Is To Blame?

I first became aware of the term “Anthropocene” about four years ago. It was a lot to wrap my head around at first, because I had always associated geological time scales as being ancient, and immune to human interference. It is simply stunning that one species, over the course of a few thousand years, can have such a profound impact on the environment and the Earth’s geological processes. 

I liked the point brought up in the introduction about how naming this current geological epoch after ourselves is a little arrogant. Though, none of the alternative names mentioned at the end of the introduction really intrigued me much, so I guess the name “Anthropocene” will have to do. I also liked the point in the introduction about humans being a “weedy species”. With all the talk about zebra mussels and Himalaya blackberry, I think people often forget that humans could be considered an invasive species. If this is the case, then we would certainly be the most destructive of all biological invaders. Everywhere you can go in nature, there is always some semblance of human impact (often times trash), no matter how remote your location. 

In the article “Sustainability”, I thought the story with the language barrier was quite interesting. The idea of a word for sustainability not existing in other cultures is intriguing. It is possible sustainability only exists in English because a word was needed to express the importance of not over exploiting our resources, only because resources were being over exploited on a grand scale. In smaller indigenous cultures, it is possible a word for sustainability has never been needed, because over-exploitation has never occurred on such as grand scale. 

The other article I read was entitled “Leviathans”. It was about how larger institutions, such as the Union Nations and big businesses, are contributing to the Anthropocene. These large institutions promote a sense of shifting responsibilities, to a point where people rarely take responsibility for their own actions. Thus, these institutions should be broken up into many small institutions. The article also argues that encouraging self-responsibility will also help society focus on non-immediate threats, such as climate change, by promoting empathy and a mutual sense of understanding throughout all of humanity.