Language, Words, and Natural Resources

by Carl Donohue | March 1, 2008

© Carl DonohueHave you ever told anyone that you’re a natural resources photographer? I haven’t. I’ve also never mentioned to a passer-by that I was taking pictures of commodities or assets or units. My point concerns the importance of language, and how it shapes our perceptions and our activities. Too often we hear people speak about natural resources, about developing management strategies for natural commodities. We hear and make references to units and articles, board feet, economic benefit, dollar values, assets and supplies, surplus numbers or populations. This form of acculturation normalizes the insanity of our rampant destruction and consumption of almost everything we can turn to gold.

Language is critical to the way we perceive the world around us, even each other; consider the harm manifest when we use certain words to derogatorily represent other humans. When we use particular words to label other people, animals, or plants, it changes the way we view them, value them, and treat them. We do it all the time: vermin , beasts and weeds are classic examples of how our language yields, and even motivates, destructive behavior. Similarly, zoos don’t refer to cages ; they refer to habitats. The Atlanta Aquarium doesn’t tell visitors that a particular animal may have been bred in captivity ; they say, “The animal was bred in aquarium conditions.” Language is the sauce in which our worldview marinates.

A commodity is an article of economy. It has no greater self. Commodity reduces any being or form to an exchangeable unit of wealth. Form becomes function. When we began to view salmon as commodities, we began to extirpate their populations. Gold gives us a classic example of how we treat resources ; oil is another. We tear at the earth; we fight and wage war with one another in order to reward ourselves with continued economic benefit. I remember hearing about a politician in British Columbia, Canada, delegated to be in charge of such things, referring to a forest as “Vertical Storage.”

Forest © Carl Donohue

While we continue to use such language to refer to the world around us, we’ll continue to deplete the planet of its many wonders. Conversely, various Native American Indian references to the Grizzly Bear translate as “The Great Bear,” or “Bear Who Walks Like a Man,” or “Brother Bear” or “Bear People.” It’s no surprise then that these people lived in a kind of harmony with the animal, and didn’t extirpate the species from its many natural habitats.

What’s even more tragic is that we feel no remorse for doing so, because once we’ve wiped out an entire species, they’re of no further value to us anyway, right? We’ve extracted all value from the species, so it’s no perceived loss to us if they disappear. We set aside national holidays to celebrate the birth or death of many individual people, yet we don’t take a single moment to honor any of the entire species we’ve wiped off the planet.

Resources can be defined as reserves of commodities that have appreciable money value to people, either directly or indirectly. (David Ehrenfield, “The Arrogance of Humanism.”) Resources removes all relationship from the dynamic, creating a space whereby we no longer have any moral responsibility to the other. This reframing of the subject is an unconscious movement, and it allows us activity we would ordinarily abhor; there are no moral constraints in the management of raw materials, the development of our resources (note the possessive “our”), and the administration of assets or harvesting of commodities. However, slaughtering a herd of elephants or clear-cutting a forest or poisoning a river makes us feel very differently. And it should.

Fallen tree branches © Carl Donohue

We effectively pull this veil over our eyes and ears in order that we can continue to commit atrocities and pretend we’re doing nothing wrong. We go further and cloak such behavior in what R.D. Laing calls a “claim to virtue,” an attempt to not only claim neutrality, but to go so far as to submit we’re actually engaging some kind of positive action, the classic development.

Commodities, resources, assets, etc. are simply labels, but they’re also abstractions. They replace the physical with the abstract. They replace the you with an it. Further, and more importantly, they replace subjectivity and being with economic cost or value. One of the problems this generates is that when we can find no redeeming economic benefit from a feature, we devalue it; I would venture that we no longer know how to value it. Certainly, on occasion we substitute other anthropocentric measurements of value, be they recreational or esthetic, but we do not know how to value characters, be they animal or plant, or even human, simply for their own sake. We don’t know how to value communities and species simply because they exist, largely because we don’t use a language that tells us how. We’ve focused so exclusively on our current measurements of Standard of Living that we no longer recall any others. We don’t understand that being is itself an expression of existence equal to our own. Our culture has come to understand that the existence of everything beyond our immediate self is only of value if it lends some utility to our endeavors.

To call a forest a commodity is a form of denial. To reduce animals, plants, waterways, even mountains, to commodities is to deny them any worth of their own; it leaves no room for an appreciation of the beings for their own sake. To refer to Dall Sheep or whales as resources is a form of violence—the reduction violates the very being with which the animals exist.

Perceiving animals, forests, rivers and mountains, even the earth itself, as units of monetary value, i.e., commodities, has obscured our view of the destruction we commit. The Eskimo Curlew, the Great Auks, even the seemingly infinite Passenger Pigeon were all extinguished because we were unable to perceive them as having any value beyond that which is utilitarian. The Great Blue Whale, the largest animal ever to grace this planet, was nearly obliterated by this misperception. Wild game in what are now known as the empty forests of Africa and Asia are being eradicated today not because people need to eat, but because poachers have learned to see dollar signs when they see elephants or elands or rhinoceros.

Objectifying the world diminishes our ability to value other beings and features as beings and features, i.e., to value them for what they are. Instead they become, in our eyes, things; mechanisms by which we may profit. That’s what commodities are; that is their function. If we were to relearn how to see plants and animals as life forms, as Plants and Animals, we’d desist from extinguishing them. If we were to relearn how to see forests, rivers and the earth as Forests, as Rivers, as Mother Earth, we’d desist from exploiting and destroying them.

Sheep and magpie © Carl Donohue

If we could relearn how to see each other as People, instead of competitors, as human resources, as labor, we’d begin to desist from mistreating one another.

We need to better understand relationship. Relationship is the state of being connected or related, it is the mutual dealings, connections or feelings that exist between two countries, people or creatures. The key word here is mutual. Relationship must bring mutual benefit; I receive benefits a-b-c from my partner and she/he receives benefits x-y-z from me. What we’ve developed is a relationship based on extractive development, largely because we’ve come to view the land base around us as a resource or commodity. Extractive resource development, indeed our entire culture, does not attempt to serve the needs or wants of the communities from which we benefit; there is no mutuality there, no real relationship. In most cases, we don’t make any effort to even learn what those needs or wants may be. Why not? Largely because we have come to see those beings or features not for what they are, but as utilities, as units to serve our existence. A resource has no needs or wants of its own, only those that serve our own.

Ask yourself if the salmon were to write an article about us, what terms might they choose to define people? What terms might the forests use to define us? How might the eastern elk have referred to the people who extirpated them from existence? How might the Harp Seals of the north define those who club their young for economic gain? How might they define those of us who allow the practice to be perpetuated?

How might they define themselves, given the choice? From a seal’s perspective, a seal has no economic value—so I can’t imagine seals defining themselves as commodities. I can’t conceptualize a tree imagining itself as an article of commerce. I know I don’t see myself as a resource, a mechanism by which someone else may profit. It’s a label. It’s a term that fits in with the way our culture sees the world. But individual organisms, be they elk, bison, bear, herring, redwood, or oak, are not commodities—they are living breathing beings, with the same importance and subjectivity as you or I. If we don’t learn to accord them that, if we fail to change the way we view them, we will continue to extirpate them.

While we continue to see the world merely as units by which we can create wealth and attain monies, we’ll continue to abuse and destroy it. We need a new way now, or to relearn old ways, of relating to the land and to the other creatures that exist here. I say change the language we use. Refuse the reduction of beings to abstractions and we just might begin to once again see the world with the kind of subjectivity requisite for our survival.

About the Author

"I'm a wilderness advocate, and consider my photography a critical part of that journey. I'm also a fan of the creative process, of creating, of the experience of making art, which reflects the wildness within our selves; is creating art in the external wilderness perhaps a perfect union? When possible, I write, photograph, hike, camp and dally in the places I love; when I can't, I imagine I'm writing, photographing, hiking, camping and dallying in the places I love," says Carl Donohue. "The lessons I learn in the wilderness are some of the most valuable experiences in my life, and for each of them, I'm grateful. I'm currently working on a book on Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park, Alaska, which grants me time in some absolutely amazing places. What a world!" For treks and phototours, visit www.expeditionsalaska.com. For stock photography, visit www.skolaiimages.com. And, says Carl, "For better living, visit the wild."

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