– by Bruce Mason –
William Blake (1757-1827) urged us “to see a world in a grain of sand”, but the visionary poet didn’t foresee the ubiquity of micro-plastics on beaches, in the oceans, more noticeable in every handful, never mind inside Earth’s inhabitants. Nor did the great wordsmith imagine a Word of the Year (WOTY) would provide perspective and profound insight into the evolution of human awareness.
For 2019, the Oxford Dictionary selected “climate emergency” to best capture our zeitgeist. The UN Secretary-General described the ethos, mood, preoccupations of the last 12 months as “the defining issue of our time”, with lasting cultural significance.
Oxford defines “climate emergency” as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage”.
Analysis of language data shows the rapid rise of “climate emergency” from relative obscurity to the most prominent – and prominently debated – term of 2019. Usage increased dramatically over the year; by September it was more than 100 times as common as in the previous year.
Dictionary.com differs slightly. Their frequently used word, or term, with high search traffic, is “existential”. They noted this captures “grappling with the survival – literally and figuratively – of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life”.
“Sustained interest in ‘existential’ in our lookup data, as well as in the news and culture, collectively reflects this,” John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com explained. “But for all the feeling of doom and gloom, the word’s philosophical underpinnings invite us to pause, shake off any pessimism or passivity, and ask: ‘What choices do we make in the face of our challenges?’”
For Collins Dictionary – which has been in the word game for two centuries (since Blake’s time) – the WOTY is “climate strike”. Usage increased by a whopping 100-fold between 2018 and 2019. The crux of “climate strike” – Collins defines it as “a protest demanding action” – is a cry from millions of people to curb human-caused warming, to limit the worst consequences of climate degradation. “Listen to climate, geology, and atmospheric scientists” is a growing, global plea.
Among the myriad, alarming facts to share: since 2000, Earth has experienced 18 of 19 of its warmest years. This includes the hottest month (July, 2019) in 140 years of reliable record-keeping – nearly 2 degrees above the 20th century average. Although the three main sources may mince their respective 2019 WOTYs, they agree that research reveals a demonstrable escalation in the language used to articulate information and ideas concerning climate.
This data is hugely significant, indicating a marked shift in people’s language choice, a conscious intensification, a challenging of accepted language, a re-framing of discussion with greater gravity and immediacy.
Take your pick. Climate emergency. Existential. Climate strike. Each is a sea change and far cry from the relatively benign “climate change” which is now, finally, favoured by brain-dead and too-slowly awakening elites and media. WOTY experts also agree that a spike in usage occurred in September when teen-age Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg took centre stage globally, and millions took to the streets. That month (echoing Martin Luther King), she told the US Congress, “I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is.”
At the UN climate action summit in New York she admonished, “You’ve stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” In an emotionally charged speech which will ring through the ages (printed in Common Ground last November), she accused world leaders of ignoring science. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!”
At Madrid’s climate summit last month, she added, “It seems to have turned into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes and to avoid raising their ambition.” She accused politicians of “clever accounting” and “creative PR”.
The words ring true in laggard petro-states like Canada, where the latest throne speech laid out a series of climate commitments which total $816 million in 2020-21. Over the same period, economist Robyn Allan estimates the Trans-Mountain pipeline project will cost at least $12 billion in public funds. Fifteen times as much, and counting.
Under our banner “It’s all connected”, Common Ground has drawn attention to WOTYs as much more than mere upsurges in conversation. In 2016, “post-truth” followed by “complicit” and last year’s, “toxic”.
The 2019 choice clearly indicates heightened public awareness, an intersection of ecojustice and action on climate science. “Climate strikes” is coming face-to-face with horrific “existential”, “climate emergency” and unprecedented, obscene inequity.
Back to Blake and his “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
He wouldn’t be surprised that youth now lead in this, our hour. Blake juxtaposed innocence with evil and injustice, valued boundless curiosity and wonder beyond science. Something that the innocence of children can access. It is lack of imagination, vision, seeing and connecting the big picture from detail, that’s holding us back in delayed suicide.
The crisis is now evident in the womb and in a generation which has never experienced normal atmospheric temperatures. With an ability to imagine profound change and for which the status quo has no status, they are thankfully translating words into action as we countdown to decade zero.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.
Photo by Stephen Samue