What Does “The Environment” Mean To You?

Several years ago, linguist George Lakoff was asked to do a study of language used to communicate about environmental issues, including what was then called global warming.

In his analysis, he discovered that there was a part of speech that was largely absent…. pronouns.

We say the environment not my environment, the water supply instead of ourwater supply, earth instead of our planet.

The implications were huge. Pronouns play a critical role in language by connecting the content to what it means to us personally. The environment sounds like a far away place in the Galapagos. My environment refers to air I breath and water I drink.

Years of bad language have contributed to our disconnectedness to our environment and the peril it faces.  

On a related note, there probably could not have been a worse name for a global climate agreement than The Paris Accord.  On a previous research project, we found that people’s ability to believe a proven fact about our country’s ranking in the world on certain health measures was largely dependent on which country we said we were behind. The country that most greatly affected believability was France. Why? Because many Americans don’t want to believe we’re behind France in anything.

You may think this is all linguistic wordplay non-sense.  But it has incredibly serious consequences.

What and how you name something greatly impacts someone’s ability to connect to what you’re saying.

Perhaps, the truest thing the conservative pollster Frank Luntz every said was the subtitle of his book, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

So if recent events are causing you even greater concern about the state of our planet and you’re looking to find a way to make a difference, start by watching your language.

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