Posts tagged ‘language’

Unconventional Agriculture (or The Linguistics of Environmentalism)

One of Scientist Boyfriend’s sisters won’t eat lamb. Which is fine, and as dietary quirks go is pretty easy to accommodate, but it got me thinking about something I read in my first year at uni. English is quite rare among European languages in largely having separate words for animals and the meat they give you. So in German, you see a Rind (beef cow) in the field and eat Rindfleisch and in French it would be un boeuf and du boeuf; similarly you would have Schwein (pig) and Schwein (pork) or un porc (the animal) and du porc the meat. (For anyone who’s interested, the English words for animals generally come from German, through the Saxon peasantry, and the English words for meat are generally derived from French, via the Norman ruling class, who probably didn’t get their hands dirty feeding any of those animals and just ate the end product.)

Now, it would be fair to say that Scientist Boyfriend’s sister, L., has broader unreconciled issues with eating meat, much as I used to, and she definitely isn’t alone in having specific difficulty eating lamb, because if you say ‘lamb’ to anyone who isn’t a sheep farmer it immediately conjures up images of little fluffy white things skipping around the fields at Easter-time and it’s harder not to confront the fact that that’s what you’re eating, rather than the more anonymous ‘beef’ or ‘pork’ where it’s easier to ignore the fact that they come from cows and pigs.

I don’t want to dwell on this too much, as we risk straying into linguistic determinism; that is, the idea that language shapes thought. You’ve probably heard that the Inuit have 400 words for snow. Linguistic determinism would say that this modifies their world view and would give them a different mode of existence from a speaker of English. However, common sense would tell us that their mode of existence and world view are more likely to be determined by, for instance, the fact that they, unlike your average English speaker, live in a place with lots of snow and that, as a result of that, it might be sensible to have more words for it.

Reality comes first, then we describe it.

And in actual fact, the Inuit don’t have any more words for snow than any other language, definitely no more than expert skiers do. Sorry to burst that bubble. 😉

But it’s interesting (to me at least) to look at what the terms we as a culture have chosen to use for various things reveal about our own world view and mode of existence, or instances such as L. and lamb where language can enhance or exacerbate ideas or concerns that we already hold.

Like most people, I used to talk about ‘organic agriculture’ and ‘conventional agriculture’, but the more I read about it, the more I realise ‘conventional’ agriculture is only really conventional in the post-war West, and in the broad scheme of human history and geography, ‘organic agriculture’, which we mark out as being unconventional and somehow different or unusual by contrasting it with ‘conventional agriculture’, is actually overwhelmingly more usual. In the world view I’ve developed over the last year, there is nothing normal about a way of feeding ourselves that impoverishes the soil and leads to resource depletion, salinisation, erosion and tomatoes that don’t taste of anything. And at some point, I shifted and started talking about ‘industrial agriculture’, or ‘intensive agriculture’, ‘abused chickens’ instead of ‘conventionally reared chickens’, or in occasional sloe gin-fuelled rantings, ‘the oil-guzzling behemoth of agribusiness that will be the ruin of us all…’

Similarly, we used to have ‘the recycling’, ‘the compost’ and ‘the bin’. The bin was neutral, unmarked. It was the default place to put rubbish. Again, and as a result of knowing and caring much more about where my rubbish goes, and as so little (the exceptional part, God bless Bokashi) of our rubbish goes in there, it doesn’t seem like a neutral, default place to put stuff any more, and I’ve now started calling it ‘the landfill bin’.

Which I think is interesting, at least…

July 4, 2008 at 10:47 am 2 comments


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The Heritage Crafts Network

Rob Hopkins, Transition Handbook

“Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

"Food is that rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."

Carlo Petrini

"A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

Sharon Astyk

"I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…."

Raj Patel, at Slow Food Nation

"Biofuels, which is the preposterous policy that we should grow food not to eat it but to set it on fire."