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. 

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