The Art of Making Things Matter

In the beginning of this month, Professor Tim Jensen introduced Ecological Thought and the field of rhetoric to us, which is the art of making things matter. He summarised it in five points, which Ali, Inne and Natalie used to organise the take home messages we got from his talk, the first one being language.






How we speak of the world profoundly affects how we perceive the world


What does language have to do with making things matter?


To put it simply: a language deficit is an attention deficit. Macfarlane’s Lost Words is a prime example of this. Acorn, bluebell and kingfisher have been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, to be replaced by attachment, broadband and voice-mail.


(Painting of kingfishers by Jackie Morris)


Another example Tim brought to us is the use of the term ‘ecology’ compared to the term ‘environment’. Environment is defined as ‘the conditions or influences under which any person or thing lives or is developed’ and was coined by Carlyle in 1827, based on Goethe’s ‘Umgebung’ in German (https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-4113.2012.00922.x). When we use the word environment to describe beings that are not human, we describe them as a passive backdrop (a ‘condition’) to our lives. On the other hand, the term ‘ecology’, which was first defined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, puts the relational aspect at the forefront, between a living being to other living beings as well as inanimate beings, which is a more active interaction than the backdrop conditions described by the word ‘environment’.


We also learned that different languages profile different world views. The English language is very object-based, with 70% of the words consisting of nouns. On the other hand, 70% of the Potawatomi language consists of verbs, as explained by Kimmerer in her book. Inanimate objects in the English language, such as ‘bay’, are a state of being in Potawatomi: Wiikwegamaa means ‘to be a Bay’. Kimmerer urges everyone to “reclaim the grammar of animacy”, because as she writes in her book, “If a maple is an it, we take up the chain saw. If the maple is a her, we think twice.”


(‘Nishnabe’ by Potawatomi artist Penny Coates)



How we perceive the world profoundly affects how we experience the world


George Lakoff in his article ‘Why it matters how we frame the environment’ explains that during the age of enlightenment in the West (ca. 1637-1804) there was a shift towards perceiving the world in a mechanistic way through logic. Weber called this worldview one of disenchantment. However, recent developments in experimental psychology have shown that reasoning, or ‘the way we think, decide and solve problems’, is predicated on emotion rather than rational thinking, and happens mostly unconsciously (Jung, Nadine, Christina Wranke, Kai Hamburger, and Markus Knauff. 2014. “How Emotions Affect Logical Reasoning: Evidence from Experiments with Mood-Manipulated Participants, Spider Phobics, and People with Exam Anxiety.” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (June): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00570 ).


So how do we go back to being enchanted? Tim recommended adopting a habit of wonder, and taking comfort in not understanding everything around you.


One simple way to do this is, next time you're out for a walk or hike in nature, look and listen and smell around you; then go investigate a sudden movement, stop walking to better hear a beautiful bird song, and find the source of the unknown scent. If you see the walk as an adventure where the point of it is not to reach a destination but rather to experience the world around you, then you can easily discover enchantment in even the most mundane goings-on in nature.


(A person on an adventure in the woods, courtesy of Natalie Isaksson)


How we experience the world profoundly affects what we value and how we value


(Screenshot from Tim Jensen’s lecture)


Now if we engage with the world with this sense of child-like wonder, enchantment, whatever you want to call it, we begin to value it for the experience of wonderment it elicits in us. Instead of placing a monetary value on the natural world, we place an emotional value on it. This is by its nature a much harder thing to grasp and define…and almost impossible to replicate in any other way. The loss of it is therefore profound and provokes an equally emotional response of grief. It stands to reason then that we should wish to avoid the pain of this loss while also wishing to preserve the source of all that wonderment and enchantment, for us and for future generations.



What we value and how we value profoundly affects how we act in the world


The finding that we need emotion when we reason also explains why the hard facts of climate change haven’t driven the action we need yet, as we need to communicate values as much as we need to communicate facts. More than this, we need to re-ascribe value to the living world that goes beyond what it can do for us. If we can become re-enchanted with nature, then we can more easily move toward an eco-centric worldview, which is a much more powerful motivator to action. After all, if we love and care for something or someone, then we are more likely to want to protect them.



(Screenshot from Tim Jensen’s lecture)


Our values - and therefore our actions - are shaped in profound ways through rhetoric: “the way we make things matter”


One example Tim gave is the image of the stomach contents of a seabird taken by artist Chris Jordan. This image communicates the ecological consequences of human plastic use. It confronts us with facts as well as emotions, and it can instigate either action or paralysis, depending on our framework for interpreting our feelings.


Take a moment to reflect on the image below…what does it make you feel?



(Image of an albatross fledgling taken by Chris Jordan)


If this image made you feel regret, sadness, anger, grief, hopelessness, rage, melancholy, guilt or any similar emotions in some combination, then you are like me and countless other humans.

I come away from the image processing these emotions…and what happens next depends on so many things, but one key ingredient, Tim argues, is the framework we have for interpreting these feelings. If we value the natural world for its wonder and mystery then we are more likely to wish to prevent any other seabird from suffering this same fate. We would much rather wonder and rejoice at its soaring across boundless oceans, alive and well. We say “what can I do to make it so?”, we re-examine the image, we see the plastics, we reason “I can cut down on my plastic use and advocate for us as a species, as a collective, to do so too”.


And so we are spurred to action.



(Wandering albatross, © Sarah Bladen 2019, https://globalfishingwatch.org/impacts/albatross-and-the-algorithm/)




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