Jennifer Atkinson: "How should we talk about what’s happening to our planet?"


IAS faculty member Jennifer Atkinson's course on eco-grief and climate anxiety was featured in a Washington Post story titled "How should we talk about what’s happening to our planet?" The article explores how language and emotion shape our response to the climate crisis, and how terminology has evolved from "global warming" to “climate change” to “climate emergency” and "extinction" over time.

Several environmental communications and humanities scholars who were interviewed for the piece, including Atkinson, describe how language affects perception and behavior toward the nonhuman world. Within our colonial and industrial era, "Trees became timber. Animals became livestock. Oil and coal became fuels." This language reinforces assumptions about the natural world as a collection of inanimate resources for humans to use -- mere commodities that are "separate from, and subservient to, humanity."

The article also raises questions about how language that initially carries urgency can become diluted over time: contributors to the story asked, how long before words such as “crisis" and “extinction” lose their bite? And which terms motivate people most effectively? Does "catastrophe" move people to act, or make them hide under the bed?

As the article concludes, "Whereas Frank Luntz once tried to strip the climate problem of emotional resonance, [Jennifer] Atkinson, [Sarah] Myhre and others are acknowledging and amplifying it. Whereas science has traditionally been guided by dispassionate, male-centric authority, women are rewording climate conversations to honor the collective, connective nature of the problem."

"Extinction" graffiti on wall
Image credit: Barry Falls for The Washington Post