New words for a new world: Finding the right terms to describe mixed feelings about climate change

New words for a new world: Finding the right terms to describe mixed feelings about climate change

We’ve probably all been delighted when autumn’s chilly weather doesn’t arrive on time. Not needing a winter coat until Thanksgiving is like being on vacation without leaving home. However, pleasure in unseasonable warmth falters when we realize that this is no longer just unseasonable: It’s the new routine as the earth heats up. The warmth feels welcome, but wrong.

Warmer-than-normal winter temperatures are easily noticed and appreciated. Gardeners find that warmer nights mean sweeter melons and tomatoes, but their joy is counterbalanced by the freakishness that their garden changed USDA hardiness zones without moving. In August 2018, I stopped raving about spectacular summer sunsets when distress outweighed my enjoyment. Awareness that the remarkable colors were created by toxic pollution from catastrophic wildfires dimmed my appreciation. Even people who aren’t plugged in to nature can be jolted now and then by an anomaly: “Sure, I haven’t shoveled snow off the driveway in years, but now I have to mow the grass in winter.”

We are enjoying early climate change impacts of warmer weather even when we know it’s wrong … and now we have new words to describe that sensation.

Life in the Anthropocene, defined at Lexico as “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment,” requires new words to describe novel experiences that combine the grim realities of climate catastrophe with pleasant results. Bringing this reality into daily life requires talking about its manifestations. We need to share our everyday experiences in a changing climate because people listen to friends and family more than they do a television voice, even (or especially) an expert scientist’s voice.

Having a wonderful time in Scotland walking and climbing, drinking huge amounts of Irn Bru and enjoying the sun. But it shouldn�t be this warm. Climate change is happening now and the consequences are real. We have to act now pic.twitter.com/zVBdGkHnjk

� Alasdair Roxburgh (@AlRoxburgh) April 20, 2019

Naming an experience and associated feelings is also how we manage our emotions. Perhaps you speak more harshly than intended, and surprise yourself: “Huh, I’m more angry than I realized.” Psychologists call this “labeling.” The New York Times writes, “Denying or avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away, nor does it lessen their impact on us, even if it’s unconscious. Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them.”

Dan Zak, in a Washington Post story titled “How should we talk about what’s happening to our planet?” discusses our need for precise words. How do we talk about new experiences arising out of an earth-altering reality with varying manifestations in different locales? Zak writes, “The climate problem is not just scientific. It’s linguistic. If we can agree how to talk and write about an issue that affects us all, maybe we can understand and fix it together.”

me tryna enjoy this warm weather but know it shouldn�t be this warm in december cause we done abused the earth so much that global warming is about to end us all pic.twitter.com/jjGb1TcZJW

� trinity (@trinity_jones_) December 2, 2017

Now we have the word “blissonance,” which, Zak says, originated with Jennifer Atkinson’s students at the University of Washington at Bothell. Atkinson teaches a course on the emotional burdens of environmental science to help her students face the Anthropocene reality that “this is such an intractable problem that they’re going to be dealing with it for the rest of their lives.” Blissonance is a portmanteau word, combining “bliss” and “dissonance.” Someone in Maine not wearing a winter coat in November and someone in California unable to appreciate the glorious sunset created by massive wildfires pumping toxins into the air have an experience in common, although it manifests differently. The word “blissonance” communicates both experiences.

The Bureau of Linguistic Reality, described on its website as a “public participatory artwork” that creates new language to understand Anthropocene experiences, contains two definitions of blissonance.

1. When an otherwise Blissful experience in nature is wedded to or disrupted by the recognition that:

— One is having an adverse impact on that place they are enjoying by being there.

— The understanding of how the place will be negatively affected in the near future by: urbanization, climate change or other disrupting factors.

2. The blissful short term experience of sunny, dry, pleasant weather that can accompany severe drought or other longterm climate changes— for which, the experiencer,  has long term concerns and which portends doom for all living creatures that depend on water in that area.

Yep. #EcologicalGrief it�s a thing and I feel it daily. I try to find the beauty in each day but it�s hard not to feel conflicted when, for eg swimming in far south coast in June with no wetsuit and also knowing what it means. The dictionary made a new word for that #Blissonance https://t.co/k9Gv80Qm6y

� deborah oconnell (@OconnellDeb) June 21, 2019

We need words to communicate these weird weather experiences: “I’ve got blissonance about not needing my winter coat yet! Feels great but I know it’s a bad sign.” People who don’t notice nature but notice the unusually warm winter now have a label to help them understand—and convey—that a climate crisis is happening.

Talking about an experience that resonates with listeners legitimizes experiences and catalyzes awareness of the overarching issue. Yes, autumn is warmer (“hotumn”), but our pleasure in not needing to wear a coat in early November is tempered by our knowledge of the fact that climate change is melting polar ice and causing sea level rises. To understand the warm autumn as part of the overarching climate change issue, we must know what is usual and understand the larger ramifications of our temporary, local experience.

During events The Bureau of Linguistic Reality calls “field studies,” participants are invited to create their own neologisms (new words, such as Colbert’s “truthiness” or the internet’s “noob”) for social and environmental change. One of the words developed also applies to my gorgeous but disturbing sunset. Chuco 헐 sol (pronounced “choo-koh-hul-sohl”) combines Salvadoran slang for filthy (chuco), a Korean expression of surprise, similar to “Huh?” ( 헐 ), and the Spanish word for sun (sol), and is defined on the site as “The experience of seeing a brilliant red sunset blown up by manmade pollution and knowing you’re not suppose to enjoy it but you do anyway because the colors are a brilliant bright orange red fire —intoxicating to the eyes.”

Not everyone is aware of or disturbed by such changes because so many environmental conditions of the Anthropocene (another neologism first popularized in 2000) are only understood in personal historical context. Changes such as diminishing species diversity and abundance have occurred little by little. To realize one’s car windshield stays cleaner now because insect populations have declined over the past decades requires not being lulled into forgetfulness by the slow attrition of insect abundance over the past 40 years. We must remember how quickly windshields used to become smeared with dead bugs in earlier years to appreciate the duration of the clean windshields seen in 2020.

So warm in Edinburgh we�re still out on the beach at 11pm with dulcet guitar, wee songs and stiff drams. Very lovely but it shouldn�t be this warm #ClimateChange pic.twitter.com/F9Q4uzo65F

� Kirsty Lewin (@KirstyLewin) August 25, 2019

Science also needs neologisms to properly frame losses (species, polar ice) and increases (temperature, sea levels). “Shifting baselines” was coined in 1995 by Daniel Pauly, who realized that biologists were using population levels that had existed at the beginning of their careers as baselines for fisheries studies. By measuring change from different reference points, scientists were underestimating species abundance loss.

Baselines are benchmarks used to evaluate change: Ecosystem health is measured by species diversity, say, or the date you normally need to dig out a winter coat. This handy term describes how we understand the world and make decisions. We need to know the baseline to understand the change. A 2018 study found that stakeholders are more willing to pay for coral reef conservation if they remember how the reefs looked decades ago and can visually perceive changes in reef health.

Nonscientists can see these changes, especially if they remember a different scenario from earlier in their lives. Monarch butterflies were abundant in our backyards 40 years ago. Now, many children never see a wild monarch unless they go to enclosed butterfly gardens.

I will never stop looking at these photos of my son seeing butterflies for the first time pic.twitter.com/WDqPMpvli1

— Mark Sutton (@mrmsutton) November 26, 2019

But remembering what was can lead to sorrow and distress over what is lost. In 2007, philosopher Glenn Albrecht combined the words “solace” and “nostalgia” to create “solastalgia.” Defined as “environmentally induced distress,” Albrecht sees it as occurring “when your endemic sense of place is being violated.” The BBC reports, “Meanwhile, Justin Lawson from Melbourne’s Deakin University explains solastalgia in less academic terms, saying The Eagles’ song No More Walks in the Wood can help people understand it, which laments the disappearance of a forest associated with powerful memories. ‘It really is about redefining our emotional responses to a landscape that has changed within a lifetime.’”

Generating collective meaning from our experiences and conversations is a collaborative process. Understanding why these experiences occur comes from combining the personal with the scientific. When we know what was, we are more likely to care about what is changing and what is lost. Validating our concerns by sharing with others is a precursor to united efforts to address the climate catastrophe.

Four in 10 Americans say that they have personally experienced the effects of global warming and believe that people in the U.S. are being harmed by them right now. A higher number believe they or their families will be harmed. But six in 10 people say they rarely or never talk about it with family and friends.

Loving the sun BUT it really shouldnâÂ�Â�t be this warm in February. ItâÂ�Â�s about time we started having a frank conversation about global warming – we will soon reach a point of no return. We need to act! #ClimateJusticeNow ðÂ�Â�Â� pic.twitter.com/r9OvKBuHuR

� Cllr Anton Georgiou � (@anton_georgiou) February 23, 2019

Not talking about our personal climate change experiences—as superstorms flood the U.S. Midwest and Australia’s bushfires blaze for months—sends a message of unconcern to our friends and to policymakers. Perhaps people who aren’t talking about the unfolding climate catastrophe are living in the “ennuipocalypse” (doomsday happening at such an excruciatingly slow pace that we ignore it). The shifting baselines of our lives detach people from significant changes to natural systems. People born after 1985 will never experience a colder-than-average month. Their normal is for each month to be warmer than average, so they see no reason to talk about it.

Despite the media and technological distractions we embrace and the socioeconomic struggles to survive day by day, everyone on earth is living in the Anthropocene. Words describing our experiences exist; we just need to use them. It’s time to talk about the blissonance and chuco 헐 sol of our lives before everything changes irrevocably and all we talk about is our solastalgia.

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