The Search for an Environmental Esperanto

by Becca Payling

Recently I’ve started to learn Esperanto. It’s a language envisioned by 19th-century doctor L.L. Zamenhof to bridge the cultural and linguistic gaps in the Southwest of the Russian Empire in what is now Poland and promote harmony between different communities. I’m very much only starting out, barely past Level 1 on Duolingo (mi estas komencanto, don’t you know), but I can see both elements Zamenhof brought in: a posteriori of Latin-derived languages like Spanish with Polish grammar and structure, along with a priori novel words and movement that makes the language unique in its own right. The appeal to such a language is rare given its synthetic evolution; supposedly spoken in almost every country but belongs to none. Yet those who do speak it form a pocket-sized global community, meeting and chatting online, even offering Airbnbs halfway across the world to others bound by this tether of a spoken connection. All this made me think of collectivism, and how communication may be used to resolve the climate crisis. As someone who would consider themselves in the environmental circle both on and offline, it’s interesting yet frustrating to participate in scenarios where various parties are accusing one another of gatekeeping, gaslighting, and jargon-overloading, yet also all supposedly are acting in the best interest of the planet. Is it possible to create an “environmental Esperanto” or structure of cooperation in what time we have left?


If we delve into the vowels and syllables behind Individual and Collective ideologies, we find that the word individual has 3 ‘I’s –whereas collective only has one ‘I’, and 3 syllables compared to the former’s 4. I think this echoes the mentality behind these words in dominantly Latin-derived (Western) speaking societies (French, Spanish and Italian also echo this). Individuality is a sentiment by name and by nature. Be it companies suddenly becoming ‘sustainable’ despite years of not having any transparency, or indeed an actually qualified sustainability officer, Bill Gates and his book or adverts guilt-tripping us to buy an overpriced product- ‘because it’s bamboo not plastic!’. Carbon tax and the whole idea of a carbon footprint were invented by fossil fuel companies, the latter by BP, to shift the environmental onus from them rather than tackling the issue at hand. Perpetuating individualism can also be dangerous when activists suffer burnout or are expected to fight for ‘every issue’ because of the way climate, social, racial and other issues are interconnected. Collective on the other hand, only involves one ‘i’- one ‘me’ amidst a whole host of other forms. Even the very etymology shifts to a refocus on the inclusion and variety of skills needed to make changes and the sustainable sharing of this work. 

On Instagram a while ago, there was a post circulating around that upheld that ethical consumerism is bad and consumer activism is good. Unfortunately, it is not a polarising matter, action is a spectrum that is contextually different for groups and people—a bit like an N-S transect of Irish accents. Ethical consumerism, although for positive individual feelings of goodness, collectively advocates and boycotts certain products, promoting some businesses and demoting others, and politically signalling our consumer values. This is termed quiet activism and can be effective to rally people who don’t like to appear political in the public eye. For example, The Collective Craftivist group created ‘Mini Fashion Statements’ that they placed in pockets of department stores’ clothes to get consumers to question companies and their own habits. Consumer Activism, the act of contacting brands to ask for transparency and better practices, may seem effective, but I have yet to receive a meaningful response from any companies I’ve sent one to. However, overall, it is a population attitude shift that creates systematic change. That comes from individuals having a vision, a want and a plan and coming together to enforce this. Furthermore, individual change is magnified in positions of power CEOs, politicians, and religious leaders. As the real influencers to large spheres, they are the ones that can change the direction of the train away from the cliff of over-extraction and exploitation. Even as younger people today will soon become the leaders when this ‘crisis’ is more severe, it is important to instil some sense of environmental awareness, if not responsibility. Individualism and collectivism are thus two sides of the same coin and require dialogue from both.

individual change is magnified in positions of power CEOs, politicians, and religious leaders. As the real influencers to large spheres

This theme of ecological responsibility is considered in the broad approach of ecolinguistics, using language to understand environmental degradation, and that language vulnerability loss and biodiversity loss are connected. The field also explores how technocratically-enforced use of terms to describe extractive and polluting activities in a positive light, such as ‘growth’ and ‘sharing/network’. Industries, in particular, tend to shift the focus from the ones creating this damage to the damage itself, allowing the reader to perceive the event as self-enforcing (Fill, 1998). Whilst environmental laws are growing more explicit in their use of active language to hold nations, companies, and the general public accountable, the inherent ability of Western language to create terms such as ‘water’ as if they are infinite (Fill, 1998), is the root of societal issues in lack of coordination, fair management of resources, and neglection of responsibility. However, decolonising environmental vocabulary becomes difficult when these are embedded into a country or region’s linguistic evolution, especially when current Western policy does not properly interrogate the systematic obstacles that allow global warming to persist (Cameron et al., 2015). Although Inuit people have not caused climate change, their term for it is silaup asijjiqpallianinga, which refers to the dynamism of the various components of the earth system, rather than highlighting the inequity and anthropogenic causality as mechanistic Western language refers to it as. Sungiutivallianiq is a term that could have far-reaching implications in adoption to aid the autonomy, adaptation, and healing of the Inuit people towards resilience and justice rather than quiet acceptance of climate change as a natural phenomenon (Cameron et al., 2015). An example where collectivism is working well is the Indigenous Environmental Network based in North America, which actively leads campaigns, creates alliances centred around Climate Justice and grassroots movement, and knowledge-sharing events. On the other side of the world, Southeast Asian ideologies foster a more holistic, collective mindset that focuses on how the individual can fit in with structures and people. As we strive for an ecologically enhancing new normal, asserting our individual views and lived experiences before entering the entwinement of collectivism is key. Every piece of twine plays its part in the knot that fuses us to act in societal interest. It is important to consider our own thoughts, implicit biases, knowledge gaps, and lived or shared experiences before addressing the passivity and dampening down of language to explain and resolve environmental damage: using destruction rather than decreased quality, knowledge-sharing, or development rather than knowledge production. Fossil fuel companies, billionaires and government leaders need to stop shirking responsibility and using passive, self-serving language in the climate crisis and instead look more broadly at the issue at hand. We are all part of this picture and can still achieve social economic and environmental sustainability when keeping our own goals in mind but simultaneously speaking the same values.

Therefore, like any language, being able to speak Environmental Esperanto requires immersion; regular cross-disciplinary conversations and partnerships to understand ourselves and our different roles in our own and other species’ survival. Like Esperanto, it need not replace specialist dialogues, but its role is to create and strengthen connections between different groups and prevent the erosion of smaller groups and ideas by raising everyone to the same stage. What does this look like? Is it even possible given the multi-directional oscillations of all those under the umbrella of ‘environmentalists’ that at the moment, resemble a heavily under-rehearsed orchestra? The varying amplitudes of climate talk created by systematic inequalities further the language barrier. As I see it, equitable solutions and feminist grassroots efforts supported by top-down policy and innovation should be at the core of Environmental Esperanto. Diplomatic signalling (see COP26) only gets us so far, but indigenous rooted solutions and shifts in power will get climate conversations moving from disjointed to fluent. To be honest, I’m not sure what the true definition of an Environmental Esperanto will be, but I think it will have more than one author, more than one Zamenhof, to capture all of the dimensions in our world that need nudging in the direction of mutual understanding. 

Zamenhof’s Esperanto translates as ‘one that hopes’. This motto of hope can also be translated into Environmental Esperanto as a key to avoiding climate doom, denial, and inaction. Perhaps, whilst there are only two million Esperanto speakers globally, and most are based in Europe, Environmental Esperanto can become a worldwide phenomenon. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a bryologist of the Potawatomi Nation, notes that “finding the words is another step-in learning to see”. Environmental Esperanto enables not only shared dialogues, but the same vision and diligence to combine perceptions of our multi-layered Earth. Positively and collectively, policies, mindsets and eventually emissions can be overturned, if we, for a moment, turn from the familiar and address what’s important, using the same language.

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