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Why we need to expand our environmental vocabulary


Fall 2018 | By Sam Watermeier. Photo by Jarrod Hurt.


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Before we make giant leaps toward a sustainable world, Zoe Nyssa suggests we start with a small step.

In her lecture “We Need to Talk (About How We Talk) About the Environment,” the assistant professor of anthropology explores how simply expanding our environmental vocabulary can potentially lead to more innovative responses to climate change.

“When we don’t have a rich vocabulary for describing the complex relationships between people and their environment, we lose the ability to imagine creative solutions,” Nyssa said.

“Paradoxically, while it would seem to be a good thing to achieve a rapid agreement, or convergence, on how environmental change is talked about, to have scientists, policymakers, the public, and the media all using the same terms to describe climate change, or the biodiversity crisis, the risk is that in the long term, the space for new ideas, for innovation, might narrow. Creative language fosters creative solutions.”

Nyssa specializes in studying biodiversity conservation and climate change through an anthropological lens.

Her lecture analyzes how language revolving around the environment has evolved over time. One of the most alarming examples is the case of the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s more recent editions, which dropped definitions of nature words like buttercup and chestnut in favor of broadband and chatroom.

Nyssa cites British nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s book, Landmarks, which touches upon society’s increasing disengagement from the environment in the digital age. He describes our industrial relationship with nature and how we lack a more human connection to it.

“We find it hard to imagine nature outside a use-value framework,” Macfarlane wrote. “We have become experts in analyzing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us.”

Macfarlane and Nyssa both suggest that nature should be a source of inspiration, especially as our environment faces changes and challenges we can mitigate.

Another key point in Nyssa’s lecture addresses how people tend to be described as drivers of environmental degradation rather than sources of positive influence.

In other words, humans are more often conceptualized as consumers of nature instead of inhabitants who can help the environment thrive. There is generally more emphasis on people’s carbon footprints than the steps they can take to create a sustainable world.

However, Nyssa views the Purdue community as a shining example of individuals striving to speak the ever-growing, yet underused, language of climate change and sustainability.

“This university bridges many divides and inspires people from all walks of life to talk passionately about these issues and think of cutting-edge ways to solve them,” Nyssa said. “It’s impressive how strongly Purdue invests in these environmental issues and persuades such an eclectic mix of people to commit to them.”

The Purdue Climate Change Research Center (PCCRC) is one of the groups dedicated to exploring the causes and impacts of climate change, as well as devising novel approaches to adaptation and building sustainable communities.

Established in 2004 as part of Discovery Park’s Center for the Environment, the PCCRC consists of a community of scholars spanning 23 departments and eight academic units.

To get an idea of the variety of members and specialties they bring to the table, consider a few of its faculty affiliates: Erin Hennes, an assistant professor of social psychology, examines public understanding of climate change information; David Johnson, an assistant professor of industrial engineering and political science, performs statistical modeling on extreme climate change scenarios; Robert Marzec, a professor of English, researches the historical transformations of humanity’s involvement with the environment; and Charles Gick, a professor of fine arts, explores the use of video, performance, painting, photography, and assemblage in confronting people’s relationship with nature.

This group embodies what Purdue aims to celebrate over the next year with its 150th anniversary Ideas Festival – a wide spectrum of scholars joining forces to study the world’s largest problems and opportunities.

“Climate change presents grand challenges, and building a sustainable world is a daunting task,” Nyssa said. “These obstacles are especially overwhelming when we lack a full understanding of them. It’s encouraging to see Purdue creating innovative programs that get to the bottom of these issues and connect us more closely to our local and global environment. It’s a blast working with this university in tackling an issue that so many people are passionate about around here. It gives me hope for a bright future.”