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New Words Are Being Invented to Talk About Our Dying Planet

We know climate change is bad, but we don't really know how bad.

Livia Albeck-Ripka

This story appears in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Let's say someone told you the world was going to end. "We're not exactly sure when," they said. "Worst-case-scenario? Maybe, like, 100 years." What would you do? Ditch the city like Thoreau for a cabin in the woods? Craft time capsules for your unborn grandchildren? Or would you just keep on with your day-to-day city existence, trying to block out the thought that one day in the not-too-distant-future, there might not be any coffee, because there might not be any plants, or any people, for that matter.

We know about climate change. We know it's bad, but we don't really know how bad. Scientists are telling us it's pretty bad, but they're not exactly sure either, which makes it harder for us (the people who know it's happening but are scared and not sure what to do about it) to convince the people who are saying it's not happening at all, that really, it is.

A recent report from the Yale Program on Climate Communication found that while 61 percent of Americans say climate change is personally important to them, 67 percent "rarely" or "never" talks about it with family and friends. This is because we fear becoming social pariahs, explains psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe, who has been writing about our emotional relationship with climate change for the past eight years. 

According to Weintrobe, "our dominant culture actively works to delegitimize our tears. It likes to encourage us to be in denial, blaming, and anger; the earlier stages of the grieving process," she said. "Because if we feel sad about what's happening, that's a really potent emotion. We're reconnected with the part of us that cares." The phenomenon has also been described as the "spiral of silence"—a German post-Holocaust theory that says bystanders did nothing because it was the social norm.  

Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott have another theory. We don't talk about climate change because we have no words for it. It's not quite the apocalypse; it's something else—kind of like a fierce, looming stranger, whom we haven't decided whether to try to murder or strategically befriend. We need new language for this beast before we can even think about dealing with it.

A little more than two years ago, Quante and Escott established what they call the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, an agency that registers new words to describe climate change and its haunting effects. Since 2015, the artists have been running what they call "field studies" in the US and Europe—open-to-the-public events in which they invite people to share their experience of climate change—as well as "salons" to invent new words that might begin to cling to the conceptual edges of this intangible, terrifying thing. "We're all at a loss for words," said Escott.

We don't talk about climate change because we have no words for it. It's not quite the apocalypse; it's something else—kind of like a fierce, looming stranger, whom we haven't decided whether to try to murder or strategically befriend.

Quante, a climate communicator whose work has included convincing Republican hunters and fisherman that global warming is real, describes the moment when she and Escott decided to start the bureau in 2014. "You can finally wear a summer dress in January—your body is just elated, but your mind is telling you this is horrible, this should not be happening," she said. "We thought , My God, we should create a phrase for that." They did. "Psychic corpus dissonance," meaning the bodily pleasure of unusually warm weather, coupled with concern that weather patterns are deeply amiss.

Escott said it was "quite a relief" when she and Heidi discovered they shared the same unnamed feeling. "We realized so many people felt that way but were feeling isolated," she said, adding that existing words like "Anthropocene" (the present human-induced period) and "solastalgia" (distress caused by environmental destruction) had inspired them. Aside from those words, "there was this dearth."

Coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003, "solastalgia" was first used to describe the emotional devastation of people living near open-cut coal mines in Australia—a kind of homesickness (like nostalgia) that happens when people stay "home" on earth, while it disappears. "They were all telling me the same story," said Albrecht, "that they were rural people, they loved clean beautiful skies, stars at night, the quiet, the birds, the fresh air, the crystal-clear creeks… every single aspect of the life that they valued was being taken away by this massive industry." There was no English word to describe their pain. 

Aware of how unlikely it is that most of their words will make it into the dictionary (or even into common usage), the bureau creators say the language itself is not the "endgame." They just want people to start thinking, and more important, talking about climate change—to stop worrying about the science and the action (or lack thereof) for a moment, and instead just to notice how shitty the situation makes us feel. 

"We're oftentimes the first person who will say, 'Tell us about your feelings about climate change,'" said Quante. "We've actually had people break down and cry, saying, 'No one asks me what I feel.'"