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The Power of Language in the Anthropocene

Photo Source Doc Searls | CC BY 2.0

“So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.”

– Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

– Noam Chomsky

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

“Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.”

– Berta Cáceres, Indigenous and environmental activist, murdered by a rightwing Honduran death squad.

At a certain point reality crashes headlong into toxic naivety. It is inevitable. One can only go on so long in denial before it intrudes. This is also true of societies. As I write, several “unprecedented”deadly hurricanes, typhoons and tropical storms are literally swirling around the world’s oceans. One of them has churned through the Carolinas. But this is a place where analysis of the threat of sea level rise was forbidden by a state determined to erase any public discourse on climate change in deference to its moneyed industries. Another one, the strongest on the planet, has devastated swaths of the Philippines and Hong Kong. On the opposite end of the spectrum wildfires have scorched huge swaths of North America, Greece and Spain and floods have inundated villages from Italy to India. Year after year the broken records and damages pile up, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for even the most irrational or dimwitted to ignore the unfolding climate chaos. Yet still the language of the Anthropocene remains a convoluted mess of obscurantism and outright denial.

For those living on the margins of empire no statement can be too exaggerated when it comes to the existential threats they are facing. Along with climate change they are on the frontlines of a war waged against them by the forces of capital. Along sacred rivers in the American Dakotas, in the life drenched rain forests of Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, the poisoned wetlands of the Athabasca, the unforgiving, mineral rich deserts of Western Sahara and Afghanistan, the melting tundra of the Arctic circle, the carcinogenic corridors of the American Midwest, the sun baked Niger Delta, the sullied waters of the Flint River, and in the misery laden, blockaded and besieged shanty’s of Kolkata, Manilla and beyond, battles are raging against the poor and time is running out.

These are the forgotten of the earth. The ones whose lives or struggles don’t register in a corporate press beholden to profits and enamored by spectacle. Their tragedies, though measured in the hundreds of thousands if not more, don’t spur hashtag movements, or generate round the clock coverage on network and cable news, or even cause the Eiffel Tower to dim. Facebook doesn’t have an option for safety check ins on these kinds of catastrophes either. Their poisoned fields, flooded villages and dried out crops pass away to more scintillating news about salacious celebrities or idiotic tweets from the bloated narcissist in the Oval Office. But they are the first victims of climate change and the merciless cupidity of the global capitalist class. The 1% whose corporations ransack and pillage the world leaving countless bodies and shattered communities in their wake.

In their quest to maintain and indefinitely grow their coffers, they see all of these unfolding and looming catastrophes as economic opportunities. And if they do not employ think tanks to muddy the waters of public discourse with outright denialism, they use obscurantist language designed to rationalize the unfettered exploitation of capital. Dissolving ice caps are a strategic option for geopolitical and business advancement. Atmospheric warming gases are the chance to advance a scheme of carbon trading. Hunger and famine are economic and technological opportunities to litter the world with more profitable pesticides, chemically/genetically altered food, or factory farms. Flattened woodlands and fouled rivers become excuses for moving indigenous peoples into overcrowded, cordoned off corporate colonies for easier exploitation, social control, neglect and abandonment. They see the resulting unrest and political dissatisfaction as opportunities for technological advances in surveillance and security, selling arms and weapons to any faction or regime that is interested and can pay.

Sometimes it may be difficult to identify who theyreally are. And to some extent, we are all complicit in the destruction of the earth’s habitat, especially those of us in the global north. But we have been conditioned to perceive our world by the dominant culture of our time; and that culture is undeniably defined by the forces of capital. Historically, language has always served as a means for social control. Colonized indigenous peoples understand this all too well. One of the first actions by colonizers was to erase indigenous history. The next was to erase the language.

Today the 1% have imposed a culture of obfuscation and use language that is intentionally duplicitous. This isn’t that difficult to grasp when we are reminded that only a handful of corporations control at least 90% of the media. Their technicians are peddlers of meaningless, alienating or demoralizing jargon. And they are integrated into the highest precincts of power. The Pentagon and the Department of Defense have long dictated Hollywood propaganda, but now social media has emerged and take it to a whole other level. Its algorithms are designed to prick neuro-signals that enable social control and conformity. It has been a boon to the surveillance state. In the meantime a parlance of pale, placating euphemisms numbs us to our own oblivion.And it is done with such staggering precision and ease that it has becomeever more difficult to decipher and parse.  But in the end not even the most viral of memes or clever of hashtags will be able to eternally hide atrocity or cloak the stench of a dying world.

While there are cracks in the façade, the zeitgeist of the era still demands a kind of militant optimism and the denial of reality. One can see this in a simple test. Mention the words ‘climate change’ in the comment section of a report on a hurricane or wildfire on almost any mainstream news page and you will see a flurry of laugh emojis and comments of ridicule. Such coordinated assaults on reason have the fingerprints of denialist think tanks like The Heartland Institute all over it. But even many self-described progressives perpetuate a language that denies the lived reality of millions of people or pose solutions that do nothing to dislodge the failed and utterly corrupt capitalist paradigm. They insist on political solutions, even pseudo-socialist ones, within a bipartisan framework that has proven to be a sham. And how has this helped anyone? In the US most live in state of perpetual stress and distraction. Distracted by the demands of work, shrinking social safety nets and a political landscape that has merged with mass entertainment, the corporate surveillance state keeps the masses in line by neutralizing public opinion, policing thought and censoring dialogue. Many live in states that are destined to experience more and more catastrophic flooding or prolonged and entrenched drought thanks to climate change.

Hyperbolic? Perhaps to some. But in the global south, which often includes areas inside Western nations, dystopia is now. They inhabit capitalism’s sacrifice zones, places where ruthless exploitation, destruction and abandonment are considered acceptable. For them water is already scarce, food is already insecure, addiction is already and epidemic, cancer and other diseases are already the norm, and their homes are already sinking beneath the tide. They understand that denialism, false hope and language that cloaks reality only perpetuate the misery and maintains the status quo death march to extinction. They have taught us all how we must dissent to the madness of the Anthropocene. Thanks to centuries of massacre, exploitation and having their histories rewritten, from Chiapas to Sápmi,they have responded by nourishing solidarity and resistance. They have demonstrated to us that agency rests in a relentless drive to push back, build economies independent of the “free market,” foster independent media and journalism, create representative forms of governance despite cynicism, stand united against the violence of the state against the odds, paint murals that reflect the people’s history and speak in a language that boldly defies the ruling class narrative.

As a species we have either created, permitted or have been oppressed by an order that has been threatening our collective demise for decades in what amounts to a mere blip of geologic time. Indeed, it is this orderthat has already sentenced countless species to the halls of extinction, carpet bombed millions over the last century, justified slavery, devastated verdant regions, and enslaved millions of people around the world in for profit prisons, sweatshop fire traps, pesticide ridden fields and lung choking mines. But we should understand that the language of this era is no accident. It has been carefully crafted by the forces of capital to control the dominant narrative, condition our thinking, and dictate how we will act. It is designed to keep us distracted while they keep up their pillage. The beginning of dissent and resistance, then, lies in learning a different tongue.

More articles by:

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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