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How Does Language Shape Our Climate Restoration Mission?


When I first saw the name “Humans for Abundance”, I immediately paused to reflect. Here was the name of an environmentalist and climate restoration organization with the word “abundance” in the title. When thinking of the climate crisis, and the fight to reverse it, the rhetoric used is often in direct opposition to the idea of abundance.


Instead, the messaging used almost unilaterally suggests a scarcity mindset. Scarcity of time, resources, nature, political capital, and people who care. It’s not that these claims are untrue. I often have found myself completely engulfed in a doomsday, pessimistic mindset that paralyzes my ability to act and dream of a better future. While H4A acknowledges the realities of climate change and its social implications, they bring something new to the table - a frame of abundance. An abundance of ideas, people, creativity, and the will to make a change.



Language has always been hugely important to how we understand the world around us. Though sometimes subtle, language choices are integral to the building of a workplace community and culture. In the nonprofit sector especially, there has been a push to reimagine what more inclusive, uplifting, and empowering language can look like. As an organization that promotes environmental, social, and economic progress, rethinking what language we use is vital to the mission.



Scientific Underpinnings

A word's connotation, beyond its literal meaning, is crucial to how we understand its greater message. The idea that even synonymous words can create different meanings or implications is known as “semantic prosody” in linguistic studies.


To better understand semantic prosody, one can look to a recent study conducted by researchers Hauser and Schwarz. Hauser and Schwarz found that in medical contexts, the word “cause” was found to have a more negative implication than the word “produce”, despite being essentially identical in literal meaning (2016).


More participants identified the same medical outcome as being negative when it was “caused” compared to when it was “produced” (Hauser & Schwarz, 2016). In this example, the word “cause” is often used in conjunction with words like “pain,” “problems,” and “cancer,” just to name a few. Thus, every time we hear a word used in this sort of negative context, the association gets reinforced (Hauser & Schwarz, 2016).


However, the word "produce" was often associated with words like "effect," "electricity," and "film" and so a positive mental association was formed. They replicated this study with more words that had a positive semantic prosody (attain, lack, restore, empathize, lend) and negative semantic prosody (commit, cause, encounter, arouse).


The results were not surprising. Hauser and Schwarz found that a words semantic prosody had substantial influence on a viewer's evaluative judgements and the inferences they made about given material. As I learned more about semantic prosody I began to wonder how this phenomenon impacts our social justice work and even the way we conceptualize it.




Our Language Shapes Our Mission

In many ways, I see how deliberate word choice has guided Humans For Abundance and its mission. For example, "restorers” and “co-restorers” are both identified as “restorers” which implies a sense of equity and unity between allies. Using an inclusive term like “co-restorers” (as opposed to “donor” or “partner”) emphasizes that although often far removed geographically, co-restorers are a central and vital part of the restoration mission beyond just a financial resource.



Furthermore, money collected by Humans For Abundance is a payment or subscription rather than a donation. When co-restorers purchase an eco-action, they are paying a restorer a fair wage for a provided service. In the same way one does not donate an architect to design their house, co-restorers should not think of themselves as donors in the context of H4A. The word “donation” also implies a power imbalance. In everyday life, the donor is often framed as the more powerful party benevolently giving something away to help those in need.


This framing, even subconsciously, often strips agency and power from the receiving party. Again, H4A is seeking to disrupt the common narrative of the global north “saving” the global south. Restorers and co-restorers are equal partners engaging in a direct exchange of money and services that are mutually beneficial. It is a system of reciprocal learning and positive change, not a one-sided exchange. Allyship, not aid.




Crafting Our Story

These individual word choices may seem inconsequential, but they are building blocks for something much larger. They craft a narrative, a story, about who we are and what we do.


Storytelling is one of the oldest and most effective ways of passing on knowledge and information. At H4A, we are telling the story of synchronized human action creating a powerful rhythm. By uniting the global north and south, restorers and co-restorers, rural and urban communities, it is clear that we see ourselves as one human family.


We create the most effective, sustainable change when we work as one. We understand that the human power to enact change comes from trust, empathy, and solidarity. By focusing on synchronizing collective efforts, we know that we are stronger working together. This framing inherently rejects a scarcity mindset.


It uses a new language, one that is empowering and not wearying. The connection between humans and nature, as well as the allyship between global communities, can be the source of abundance. Beginning as small as our words and our framing, it is time to tell a new story about the climate crisis.



Sources:

Hauser, D., & Schwarz, N. (2016). Semantic Prosody and Judgment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.




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