top of page

Language Matters

Shauna Butterwick

Paying attention to the language we use is crucial; it is an active creator of meaning with consequences for how people understand and take action. We must be “careful and precise about language .. [and] encourage the beloved community and the conversations that inculcate hope and visions”. (Solnit, 2020, p. 4). Language as a conveyer and creator of meaning has been the subject of many philosophers ancient and current. More recently, sociolinguists, among others, have attended to language and how “investigations of climate change communication cannot avoid attending to the role of language” (Nerlich et al., 2010, p. 103). 

For many decades, language has been a central focus of ecological feminists. For them, the earth is sacred. The language of science, on the other hand, is a “logic of domination that treats both women and nature as ‘object,’” (Glazebrook, 2017, p. 432) Science reflects a “reductionist ecology” where nature is passive, inert, and manipulable; “its organic processes and regularities and regenerative capacities are destroyed” (Shiva, 1988, p. 24). De Oliveira (2021) continues with this critical engagement, drawing attention to how modernity has shaped our habits, behaviors, and belief systems. 

Over the last two years, in our PIMA webinars and bulletins, the need for a deep transformation and understanding of our relationship as humans with the “more than human” world has emerged. Shirley Walters, Denise Nadeau and Beth Lange, among others, have written about that transformation, including articles in this special issue. My PIMA engagement has raised for me many questions with few answers. A key question is “what language(s) best capture the complexity of the problem and a way forward?” Does the term ‘climate justice’ fully capture the nature of the problem and lead to enablism, particularly within marginalized communities? What language honours the specificities of local contexts and makes links between these local realities and broader climate change? 

On the one hand, climate justice is a powerful concept, capturing human behaviors’ impact on the climate. It has political currency; funding is available for climate justice projects. It enables links between the Global North and Global South and helps build relations of solidarity between the working classes, Indigenous peoples and women, aligning with those who have made the least impact yet suffer the most. On the other hand, does ‘climate justice’ exclude and water down the reality of poisoned water and air? Does the focus on climate, exclude or eclipse the earth? For some, ecological justice is a more relational and solution-oriented approach found in ecofeminist and Indigenous approaches bringing attention to our relations to the land. Is earth justice more inclusive and meaningful; does it exclude humans and more-than-humans? Environmental justice has been criticized for its whiteness and links to a dominant separatist paradigm, separating ‘nature’ from humans and privileging humans over the environment. 

The anthropocene is yet another powerful concept describing the current era where humanity is the driving force of earth’s destruction (and its survival). Eremocene expands awareness to what has been called the ‘age of loneliness’ and the need for an expansive empathy for the planet and humans indivisible place in the web of life. Earth, land, river, forest and mountain rights is a language being used by a growing number of countries, with Ecuador as the first nation recognizing the rights of nature in its constitution. Some legal battles for earth rights are winning against the ‘rights’ of extractive industries. Alongside the movement to grant these rights, is the push to have ecocide recognized by the international criminal court (see “Beware the Age of Loneliness,” The Economist, November 18, 2013).

Fiction, nonfiction and stories offer other forms of language, broadening our horizons and understandings of the current climate, human, and earth crisis, showing us how things can be, and in some ways are, otherwise. As Amitav Ghosh (2021, p. 201) notes “an essential step toward the silencing of nonhuman voices was to imagine that only humans are capable of telling stories.” Figueres and Rivett-Carnac (2021) who led negotiations with the UN during the historic 2015 Paris Agreement, have mapped out multiple and specific ways we can support a regenerative world. The publication of climate and ecological based narratives, particularly speculative fiction, is exploding, offering alternative visions that are relational, depicting human and more than-human-relationships.  

Indigenous and Eastern schools of thought are particularly important. Indigenous biologist Robin Wall  Kimmerer (2013) tells many stories of her Potawatoni culture and how humans and more-than-humans co-exist. She describes how the Honorable Harvest can meet all our human and more than human needs (p. 183): “Regard those non-human persons as kinfolk [and] know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them;” “Never take more than half, leave some for others;" “Give thanks for what you have been given;” “Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.” For Buddhist Tich Nhat Hanh (2021), how we treat each other is how we treat the ‘non-human’ world, "We inherit the results of [our] actions of body, speech and mind. [Our] actions are [our] continuation” (p. 46). 


Humour is another source of language contributing to movements for earth and climate justice given its powerful pedagogic possibilities (Maestrini, 2022). For example, at the University of Colorado, a group of environmental majors created a stand-up comedy sketch, offering a significant ‘way of knowing’ which met audience members where they were at in relation to climate change (Boykoff & Osner, 2019). Their research concluded that humour is a “culturally-resonant vehicle for effective climate change communications, as everyday forms of resistance and tools of social movements, while providing some levity along the way” (Boykoff & Osner, 2019, p. 254).

Photographs, images, cartoons, poetry, and the various forms of creative expression are other formats and sites of climate justice language. In the image below, Brenna Quinlan provides a graphic map of the individual and collective/community efforts to bring about change, cautioning against waiting for governments to take action (see Figure 1 - permission granted). 


Figure 1

From What Is To What If      

















Note: Copyright Brenna Quinlan Permission granted.

An example of graffiti, a form of public art, is depicted in this image ‘Long Live the Lock Down” (figure 2) created by the graffiti artist Rebel Bear ( The image subverts modernist notions of humans dominating nature. In the image, animals are the protesters, speaking to the positive outcomes of the pandemic lockdown.  


There are many very popular photographs found on the web depicting the enormous value of a single tree with a whole village sitting in the shade. A simple yet powerful imaginal language of how trees care for us and are essential to human survival (See


In summary, the topic of language is vast and requires sustained examination. The language we use is active and has consequences. What we say and write in the movement for climate/earth justice matters; it can be inclusive and exclusive, engendering action and withdrawal. I conclude with a poem by Adrienne Rich (1978, p. 67), feminist poet and essayist, which helps me to embrace my ongoing pendulation between despair and hope:  

My heart is moved by all I cannot save. 

So much has been destroyed. 

I have to cast my lot with those who, 

age after age, perversely, 

with no extraordinary power, 

reconstitute the world.



Thank you to Gabriella Maestrini, Claudia Diaz-Diaz and Joy Polanco O’Neil who provided significant input into this article.



Boykoff, M., & Osner, B. (2019). A laughing matter? Confronting climate change through humor. Political Geography, 68, 154-163.

De Oliveira, V. (2021). Hospicing modernity - Facing humanities wrongs and the implications for social activism. North Atlantic Books.

Figueres, C., & Rivett-Carnac, T. (2021). The future we choose – The stubborn optimist’s guide to the climate crisis. Vintage Books.

Ghosh, A. (2021). The nutmeg’s curse – Parables for a planet in crisis. The University of Chicago Press.


Glazebrook, R. (2017). Feminist intersections with environmentalism and ecological thought. In A. Garry, S. Khader & S.

Stone (Eds.), The Routledge companion to Feminist Philosophy (pp. 442-445). Routledge.


Hanh, T. N. (2021). Zen and the art of saving the planet. HarperOne.

Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass – Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teaching of plants. Milkweed.


Maestrini, G. (2022). Life well lived is a life in pieces: A comic poetic exploration in life, disaster, and pedagogy. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of British Columbia. 

Rich, A. (1978). The dream of a common language. Norton.

Shiva, V. (1988). Staying alive: Women, ecology, and development. Zed Books.

Solnit, R. (2018). Call them by their true names. Granta Books.


Shauna Butterwick is an Adult Education Professor engaged with the PIMA webinars and bulletins which have focused on climate justice education. She's particularly interested in learning, communicating, and arts-based approaches and using language that's hopeful and precise about the climate crisis problem and directing attention to the solutions.

bottom of page