An Ecotopian Lexicon is a book that introduces readers to 30 environmental loanwords “that should exist in English, but don’t.” These terms, intended to “help us imagine how to adapt and even flourish in the face of the socio-ecological adversity that characterizes the present moment and the future that awaits,” come from speculative fiction, activist subcultures, and other languages. The book contains artwork created in response to these loanwords, by fourteen artists from eleven countries. I spoke to co-editor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and painter Nikki Lindt about the book, and the role of language and art in this time of climate crisis.
We live in an age of anxiety. Matthew, in the introduction you and Brent Ryan Bellamy write, “As the scale and fallout of climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction and other processes become increasingly undeniable and unavoidable, we will need to change our cognitive maps of the world.” How can language – including and especially the words introduced in this lexicon – help ease some of our anxiety?
Matthew: Novel terms and concepts can help us acknowledge, understand, and respond to the changes that are happening around us. But I don’t know if they can – or should – ease people’s eco-anxieties. Most of these anxieties are generated by deep-seated structural problems – extractivism, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, etc. We need to channel those anxieties into action. We hope that this book might help people find or develop the vocabulary to describe what’s happening and to move towards collective action to address these structural problems.
There’s another passage from the introduction that struck me: “‘Another world is possible’” is a worthy maxim, but without elaboration, it’s shrouded in mist.” We need to move from “knowing” another world is possible to “imagining” that world and how to create it; a shift from passive to active mode. How can art help us make the leap?
Matthew: Art can help us see the world anew, which is what we need to be doing right now. It can also develop or crystallize feelings or desires. And art can remain with us for a long period of time – a lifetime, even. I remember seeing Nikki’s painting “Solastalgia” for the first time, and was deeply moved by the figure bowing down in a green field, her arms seemingly rooted to the ground. “World-opening” is the phrase that comes to mind. Art has that potential.
Nikki: I agree, art does have that potential and it can be very useful as the existential threat of the climate crisis is so overwhelming and scary. It is tempting to look away rather than face this reality. Many artists are good at getting at and digesting these kinds of uncomfortable nooks between human emotion and larger issues. It is really going to be the collective force of these kinds of projects that will help propel our thinking forward.
Some people see a connection between the loss of biological diversity and the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity. In nature, more species = greater resilience. In culture, the same seems to apply: We need every tool in our conceptual toolkit to cope with change and adversity. Fortunately, we have An Ecotopian Lexicon! Ideally, how might some of the loanwords in the book start to propagate in Western culture?
Matthew: Some of the terms already have, such as “solastalgia,” which was coined by ecopsychologist Glenn Albrecht in the early 2000s and is now being used widely. We hope that these terms stimulate critical thought, creativity, and action, and of course it would be fun if some of them went on to become widely used. Language can be a playful way for people to think and talk about climate change and culture change. Ultimately the terms and ideas that resonate with people are the ones that will take root.
Nikki’s painting was inspired by the word “sehnsucht,” meaning (loosely) the experience of pining for something lost mixed with a hopeful anticipation of something better; somewhere between dystopia and utopia. (The text by Andrew Hageman beautifully describes it, “like vision human beings get at dusk when the photoreceptors of their retinas toggle uncertainly. We may feel as if we can’t see what we expect to see clearly, yet new colors and contours come into view.”) You portray a figure at that “pivot point” between the void and the great green yonder. She seems to be blending with the void but her head is in the clear, and she appears to be looking up and outward. Is this you? Can you tell us what she’s feeling?
Nikki: Yes, it is me! After I made the piece I realized the same as you; in the painting my head is in the clear while the rest of me is being pulled to the darkness. There is simultaneously a sense of balance between the two opposing forces but also definitely a struggle.
Working on An Ecotopian Lexicon and collaborating with Matthew led to a change in my thinking, which in turn led to this piece. When I first joined this project I assumed my imagery would accompany “solastalgia,” a term (also in this book) that had been the subject of my work for years. Solastalgia describes the feeling of loss caused directly by environmental change.
As I was reviewing the words that would be included in this book, I realized that many terms were completely up-ending my thinking and presenting me with a much wider and more nuanced view of the climate crisis, and I felt more hopeful.
I ultimately chose the term “sehnsucht,” because it mixed anticipation and hope with a deep sense of loss. The word itself transported me forward; for the first time it hit me that I could dare to tie hope to my view of the future of climate change. At that moment, I realized how valuable a tool the Ecotopian Lexicon really is.
Can you tell us of an occasion in your fieldwork or research when you’ve felt sehnsucht?
Nikki: I have been traveling annually to northern Alaska to document the dramatically changing landscape due to thawing permafrost. The landscape is amazing, so vast and completely untamed. At the same time, in this very remote spot, the fingerprints of climate change are so extreme they take on a surreal quality. Last spring, I was returning to a site with a very large Thermokarst Failure (a sinkhole of the north) caused by melting ice and thawing permafrost. The site had already been monstrously large the year prior but had since doubled in size. Adult trees were dangling upside down into the craterlike hole and some of the fallen trees I had seen the year prior were now buried under hills of collapsing dirt. A large cavern directly in the permafrost had also been created by the thawing. I spent a long time standing in that cavern. I could see but also smell and hear the thawing of the layers of permafrost. The way wet permafrost shone in the light looked like slowly smelting metal. All of my senses were keenly aware of the horror I was witnessing but also its transcendent beauty. Around me, I heard bird songs; there was an undeniable insistence in the lush growth surrounding me. I was transfixed by the duality of such a deep sense of loss coupled with such a strong force of life – sehnsucht.
What do you see as the upside to this feeling?
Nikki: I associate this feeling with the creative process. Contradictory feelings are especially interesting as they make you think about and continue to process a situation long after you have experienced it.
Ideally, what do you hope a viewer might take away from your work, Sehnsucht, In the Midst?
Nikki: I would like a takeaway to be that it is okay to have conflicting feelings about a changing world. And since the changes are so extreme and fast, the feelings that go along can be very intense. But the opposing creative forces of life are also very intense. We will need to get more comfortable with these feelings in order to confront our situation in a proactive (productive) way.
The term “sehnsucht” is a great upgrade from, say, a clunky phrase like “melancholic optimism.” Because words shape our values and perceptions, some environmentalists have argued for replacing terms like “reserve” or “National Park” with language that is more inspirational or in keeping with environmental values (e.g. “National Sanctuary”). Is there a common environmental term (e.g. environmentalist, eco-activist, climate change) you’d like to replace with another from the lexicon or elsewhere?
Matthew: Too many to list! I’ll say that I found Karen O’Brien and Ann Kristin Schorre’s entry on “ildsjel,” a Norwegian word that translates as “fire soul,” to be especially compelling. The terms that we use for activism and politics are so clinical – “activist,” “political actor,” even “change-maker.” If we want to tell a story of engagement, mobilization, and transition that is as inspiring and gratifying as any love story – that is its own kind of love story – we need more poetry. I like the idea of describing the people that make things happen as “ildsjel,” whose burning energy can spread and ignite a social and political conflagration. Change is nonlinear, and it’s helpful to have a word that acknowledges that fact.
Nikki: I found the entry on “apocalypso” in place of “apocalypse” to be very strong. I love the idea of replacing a word that relays a cataclysmic scenario leading to despair with “apocalypso,” a word which references the joys that working together in the face of a trying situation can bring.
I also recently discovered the German word “umwelt,” which describes the individual experience of the world from one human or animals’ point of view. Though I would want to expand the meaning to include all living things such as plants and trees. Our collective “umwelt” is really the puzzle of how we co-exist: A grand interlinked network of our shared experience with all living things on this planet.
The linguist has a role in tackling climate change and so does the artist. Nikki, what do you see as the role of the artist? What have you observed in your field?
Nikki: Art takes so many forms that it is hard to generalize, but I would say that artists can bind ideas and emotion together in order to engage people. Also, art is not tied to rules or conventions. There is a tremendous amount of freedom that is useful for reaching towards an unseen future.
The immensity of the problem paralyzes many of us or even makes us apathetic. How should we all keep ourselves awake and active?
Nikki: This problem really can feel paralyzing and this is a completely normal feeling to have. I would say it is important to find our own way of being part of a positive push forward. There are endless ways to get involved and we may even be surprised by how much better we feel once we do.
Matthew: The interconnected socio-environmental crises we face can be overwhelming, for sure. But there’s also a sense of possibility and opportunity, if we’re open to it. There’s literally an ongoing struggle for the future of the planet and humanity, and we have the opportunity to write and be part of a new script, to join with hundreds of millions of people around the world to do all we can to maintain a livable planet and create a better and more just future. It might not have been the life people expected, but there can be a deep sense of purpose, connection, and joy in choosing to be part of this movement in whatever way we can.
Jena Pincott is a science writer with a background in biology, and the author of eight books, including Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy and Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes: The Science of Love, Sex & Attraction. She writes about science and psychology topics that fly under the radar, from microbes in breast milk to the mysteries of working memory; from the biology of attraction, in humans and other species, to the psychology of the inner critic; from cutting-edge developments in medical technology to the scientist-activists who are transforming women’s health and medicine.