Thirty Words for Living Well in the Anthropocene: Review of An Ecotopian Lexicon edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy
An Ecotopian Lexicon. Edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
Significant changes in technology or life have always required us to invent or find new language. Think of the words the last forty years of invention have brought us: internet, texting, and the now essentially defunct dial-up, not to mention the acronyms that are now woven into everyday use: LOL, IMO, TL. The word environmentalism in its most common modern usage only came about in the latter half of the last century in response to, well, the environmental movement. In the last twenty years, there have been attempts to make new language to describe the experiences and events becoming associated with environmental change, the most famous of which is perhaps Anthropocene, the new geological epoch defined by human alteration of the climate. An Ecotopian Lexicon is a collection of essays offering us borrowed vocabulary words for the Anthropocene.
Edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy, the ambitious goal of An Ecotopian Lexicon is met with earnest, active hope. Each of the book’s thirty essays offers a word that might give us new perspective in the face of a climate-changed world. These loanwords are sourced from a variety of origins. While the majority originate in other languages like Luganda, German, and Ancient Maya, several of the essays explore loanwords taken from the world of fiction. The book is self-aware of the English-speaking world’s history of theft from other cultures, and the editors are careful to note that the project of bringing these words into English is not to “propose a linguistic monocrop” or position English as the environmental lingua franca. Instead, they hope to “expand the collective imagination of environmental possibilities” in their own language. Given that English-speaking regions produce such an enormous quantity of the world’s annual carbon emissions, it’s easy to see the benefits of this project, and, like the Lexicon’s editors, I hope that it inspires similar works in other languages.
The essays in this collection cover a wide array of environmental thought. Localism, civil engagement, and interspecies connection all emerge as vital themes. Additionally, many of the essays offer us words that model what living well and ethically in the Anthropocene could look like. Climate justice in the broadest sense is clearly a driving force for every essay in the collection, meaning that, critically, this book is not only invested in how these words can change the way we think about our environment, but also in the ways that they can inspire further action. While I doubt that all the words in this collection will become part of everyday English (nor do I think the project of the book expects or requires that), I do see many that could be especially fruitful if they did.
“An Ecotopian Lexicon is the kind of book that invites revisiting. Each essay is a kind of short meditation, an invitation to imagine further possibilities not only of language but of engagement with the more-than-human world; even having read it all before, you could easily flip to any of these and encounter something meaningful to reflect on.“
Kira Bre Clingen’s offered loanword, for example, Nakaiy, comes to us from one of the most climate-endangered nations, the Republic of Maldives. Nakaiy are the two-week-long micro-seasons that fishers in the Maldives use to anticipate the annual ecological patterns that they structure their lives and labor around. Clingen makes the argument that investing ourselves and our communities in the kind of close, intimate study of our own regional biomes that crafting a nakaiy calendar system requires would bring us closer to the landscape in a moment when that is increasingly urgent. Another promising suggestion, Robert Savino Oventile’s expansive vision of the Spanish sueño, evokes a way of dreaming ecotopian political possibility that requires justice for climate refugees. It’s easy to imagine how these and many of the other loanwords written about in this collection could bring new perspective to our ongoing struggles to leave what currently feels closer to ecological dystopia.
An Ecotopian Lexicon is the kind of book that invites revisiting. Each essay is a kind of short meditation, an invitation to imagine further possibilities not only of language but of engagement with the more-than-human world; even having read it all before, you could easily flip to any of these and encounter something meaningful to reflect on. These essays not only demonstrate a deep familiarity with their chosen loanword’s origins, but also a clarity of imagination for how that word might be used in a new context—rather than trying to cut and paste a word from one language or tradition into everyday English, the best essays in the collection speculate what gap in the English language and environmental thought the word might fill. The essays vary in their theoretical density, but the editors have curated what is, on the whole, a very approachable collection, and one that I can imagine being meaningful not just for scholars in the environmental humanities, but for environmentally conscious citizens outside the academy as well.
Gardiner Brown (he/him) grew up in Austin, TX and now lives in Salt Lake City where he’s studying Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. His research is mostly about environmental disaster, and he’s currently working on a thesis project about Hurricane Harvey and disability. Gardiner’s work has previously been published in Edge Effects and The Boiler Journal.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes on August 29, 2020 following a discussion with the author of the review on social media; the author and editor are not acquaintances. The review was edited by Laura Collier. ARB did not provide a review copy.