Saturday, January 13, 2007

"A Little Weasel In It:" How our Language Tells Us What We Think

"Now I hears talkin' about de Constitution and
de rights of man. I comes up and I takes hold
of dis Constitution. It loos might big, and I feels
for my rights, but der aint any dare. Den I says,
'God, what ails dis Constitution?' He says to me,
'Sojurner, dere is a little weasel in it."
-Sojurner Truth

On another list, someone scolded me for daring to use the word "productivity" to apply to land, instead of people. He argued that in common parlance, only people produce things. I argued back (and in less than wholly courteous terms, since this an issue I care a lot about - after all, I've spent my entire adult life as either a person who teaches other people's writing or a writer), that, in fact, such a claim was raving horse manure. Now it is absolutely true that "productivity" as economists mean only applies to people (mostly, actually some economists do actually refer to it in regard to land, if the quick paper search I did is any evidence). But the word "productive" derives from Latin and French words that meant "generative, able to give birth to." And no one has ever written a sentence that implied that people give birth to potatoes - the land gives birth to those potatoes, and we are the midwives who enable them. The earth is fruitful, and agriculture, when practiced wisely, enables that generative power to both feed us and renew itself. The earth feeds us, and we enable and serve it (at least we used to).

The linguistic shift that makes people the ones who generate food is the one that enables a fully exploitative sense of what land is. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out that children do not learn about chairs by having them described to them, or by imagining chairs in their Platonic form, but by sitting on chairs, and climbing upon them - that language begins at the point of our experience with the world. And the people who used the word "productivity" chose it because they had experience growing potatoes and wheat on soil - they were farmers and house gardeners, and they saw what the relationship of humans to the earth was, and described it. The people who then went on to describe land in other terms were, generally speaking, not the ones who had to live with or on it, not the ones who went hungry if its productivity declined, not the ones who planted potatoes, or even who lived nearby and at the gardener or farmer's potatoes. They were people who sat in office buildings trading potatoes in large quantities, and whose priority was..., well, we all know what the priority is.

The term I was ordered to use, if I wanted the great mass of those who read my papers to understand me, was "efficiency." Now efficiency is a word that applies to what can be taken from land - as far as we can tell, my old friend Chaucer invented the word in english, and it means what can be brought about. That is, the productivity of land is what the land can generate from its natural state. Efficiency is what people can make the land do. There's an important distinction here, because we've proven over and over that we can make the land do an awful lot - for a little while. Then we get consequences, like salinization, erosion, falling crop yields, aquifer depletion, demineralization.

Now what's *really* interesting about this is that efficiency often isn't. We like to think that industrial agriculture is more efficient - with all those big tractors bustling about, it must be, right? And that's true, if you are talking about extracting the maximum amount of food from a place with a minimum of human labor - that is, if you want to use 1 person to feed 1000 people. But if you talk about what the land is capable of producing, the land can produce much, much more food when farmed in smaller, even much smaller units. This is a really important thing. If land efficiency is calculated as "the most food/fiber/fertility I can generate with the fewest human inputs" then tractors make a lot sense. But if land efficiency is calculated as "the most food/fiber/fertility I can generate *per piece of land*" then tractor farming is much, much, much less efficient. The per acre output of a 10000 acre farm is 2000 times lower than the per acre output of a 1 acre farm.

That gardens and small farms are more productive than giant farmed fields should be no great surprise to us - it has been known since the 18th century at least in France, and long before that in China. But economics points to rises in "yield" as farms increase in size. Which means that you can get more corn off a particular thousand acres than 100 acres if you increase to 1000 acre size. But economics never asks what you don't get - where the wildlife and the eroded soil go. Where the food that used to come out of the pasture fields, gardens and from the livestock of the 100 acre polyculture farm went. It doesn't count any of that. It just says, "look, more corn."

Words matter. What the words we have available to use mean shapes the way we're able to think. And, as Sojurner Truth said both of the consitution and of the language it was written in, in many cases, there's a little weasel in what we say. What she meant, of course, is that we're using our words to change the meanings of things. The constitution spoke of universal rights, but it turns out that they weaseled it into meaning something else, something we eventually had to have the most deadly war in our history to fix.

There's a little weasel in our language today. I don't just mean the ways that we use words to avoid the realities - calling Iraq sectarian violence instead of civil war, or describing poor people in the southern hemisphere as "the developing world" even though in many cases they are being systematically denied economic development. I'm talking about the ways in which our word choices make it impossible for us to imagine other alternatives.

I have already heard a biofuels advocate refer to a second-growth forest as "heat-producing biomass." If that's what it is, we might as well cut it down and burn it, because that's what it is *for.* A field full of soybeans are not a crop, or a field of food, but "biodiesel feed stocks." Now I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I can't eat biodiesel feedstocks, so there would be no point in observing that field could feed a lot of hungry people instead of a bunch of hungry automobiles.

We hear about world oil reserves, and we imagine something reassuring, a place where the remaining oil the world is just waiting for us to come and get it. But in fact, much of what constitutes world oil reserves are things we don't know if we can extract, or if we can afford to extract them. And since nations report their own reserves, in many cases without oversight, we don't know if they exist, although we're relying on them. We hear "clean burning fuel" and think "oh, thank g-d, they've found a solution that will keep my car running," and we don't notice that it only burns clean in your gas tank - it actually produces more pollution back at the refinery and the factory.

The language of commerce and economics is, to a large degree, the language of little weasels. It is a language that never counts the real cost of anything, that seeks to obfuscate and mislead. It is not the language of ordinary people. It is the language, for example, that turned the word "farmer" - which through most of history in our nation and in most of the world right now means someone who grows food for themselves and a little extra, no matter how large or small their plot of land, and turned it into a word for someone who does large scale, heavy equipment agriculture. It erased thousands of people who were farming, and obliterated our connection with millions, even billions of small farmers over the world at large. It made "being a farmer" something distant, unachievable, extraordinary, when in fact the work itself is local, eminently achievable, and the basic work of human beings all over the world.

I have no objection to economics having its own jargon - every discipline does. But language does not belong to the economists - it is public and democratic, and to the extent that we allow the economic viewpoint, which externalizes all the inconveniences, pollutants and consequences, to form our thinking, we accept the inevitability of pollution, and global warming, and peak oil. Language shapes us. It shapes what we think and what we believe and who we are. And if we're to reshape our world, back to the days of guarding the productive capacity of our land and farming, we're going to have to chase down the little weasels and put them out of our misery and our mouths.



David said...


If only more people were taught to be skeptical of the way concepts are framed by language. It's a constant battle to keep your head clear of the weasels.

Alantex said...

One of my pet peeves is the linguistic formulation used by many US Forest Service employees and logging industry types which supports the notion that our forests are just "property" on which there are "resources" which should be "harvested". They refer to timber sales and other activities as being "on the National Forest".

This is the same way people refer to being "on the campus", "on the reservation", or "on the base" -- just another set of boundaries where human activities are the focus, not the natural world. Forest officials always refer to activities or locations "on the forest".

The vast majority of people, on the other hand, have a different understanding of what constitutes a "forest". It is not just a piece of land upon which one walks (or can be excluded from), it is a very particular kind of place one goes into. It has trees, wildlife, free-flowing water, perhaps even a spirit. One speaks of being "in the forest". It is a place which has resonances to humans which go very far back indeed. Walking in a forest is a very special experience which is easily distinguished from walking through a third-growth tree plantation.

To us, "on the forest" conjures up the absurd image of walking along on the treetops. We recognize that once a forest has been clear-cut, it is no longer a forest. The forest official still thinks of that place as a forest even though its future as anything more than a tree plantation is uncertain at best. We see the forest, they see the timber.

We should always be mindful that, if we let them set the terms of the debate, even adopt their language conventions, they have already won part of the battle.

Larry said...

Great post, Sharon, you've nailed an important issue. Except for the size of the weasels. They're huge, at least as big as the koala bear in your kitchen. Let's not let corporations tell us how to talk. Thanks!

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