We need to use apocalyptic language for apocalyptic times

As Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World, “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly. They’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” Despite living in the age of Netflix, YouTube, six-second ads and 1.8 billion images uploaded to the Internet every single day, the written word hasn’t yet lost its power to captivate, compel or cause foundations to come crumbling down. More self-published books are being released than ever before, the blog publishing platform Medium is in the top 200 most-visited websites worldwide, and text still accounts for one-third of all content online. For the time being, at least, our thirst for the written word remains unquenchable.

Although we live in an era characterised by misinformation, spurious data and ‘facts’ made up to fit the story, we tend to believe what we read, too. As Leetaru points out in Forbes, “Citizens are taught from an early age to accept information provided by elites, from the government to the mainstream media to academia, on face value without question.” Having dived head first into, and then proceeding to swim through, the rivers of data that accompany the Information Age, this idea of the ‘elite’ has now expanded to include anybody who sounds remotely like an authority, people who shout louder than others, and contrarians who adopt controversial positions to entertain and enrage. Even more worryingly, the (fairly) recent erosion of trust in government bodies and the media in particular has caused us to turn to populist rhetoric as a means of shaping our understanding of the world. Instead of relying on—for the most part—rigorously checked facts, figures and accounts, we cherry-pick from a smorgasbord of headlines and soundbites that have been assembled purely to attract attention and push up the click rate.

This is obviously dangerous in many respects.  One person might read an article spearheaded by a quote stating that migration flows to Europe are “hopelessly out of control” (even though, as Patrick Kingsley notes in The New Odyssey, migration accounts for just 0.2% of the continent’s population). That person then demands that the borders be closed, loses faith in the current government and gradually turns to more extreme alternatives to stem the tide. The result: political parties such as Alternative für Deutschland in Germany or Rassemblement national in France get a foot in the door of parliament. Another person’s attention might be drawn to a piece warning about how vegan diets “end up in disaster”. With phrases as doom-laden as this littered throughout the article, the person dismisses veganism outright, even though the claim on which the piece is based—that veganism is a diet rather than a movement and a philosophy—is utterly false.

But…what if we could harness this sensationalist approach to information for good? What if the loudest headlines were the ones on top of articles that weren’t attempting to misinform, spread hatred or denigrate heartfelt beliefs, but which sought to educate us, bring us together, perhaps even scare us into action? What if we dismantled the mental barriers that are currently holding us back using the very tools that built them in the first place?

This brings me to the language we use to talk about climate change. Until recently, the words we relied on to describe the anthropogenic impact on the environment were, by all standards, pretty benign. ‘Change’, for example, suggests a gradual, not unpleasant slide into a new situation that we might be able to harness for our benefit – like, say, if we were to switch jobs. What it doesn’t suggest is that we are currently ankle-deep in a sixth mass extinction event. There is no urgency when we say ‘climate change’, nothing that suggests we need to do anything on a personal level to arrest it. ‘Global warming’ is another term that lacks bite. Popularised by a NASA scientist who presented findings to the US Congress in the 1980s linking greenhouse gases to the heating of the planet, it is a phrase that suggests long summers, brief winters and a slight temperature rise for everybody. It is this kind of language that has confused people to the extent that on days where the mercury plunges, naysayers are quick to trot out the line “Where’s your precious global warming now?”, as if the entire matter boils down to it being sunny or not.

Thankfully, we are starting to see a switch to stronger terms. The Guardian, for example, has changed its house style guide to recommend the use of terms such as ‘climate crisis’ and ‘global heating’. This is a step in the right direction. Heating is not the same as warming. Heat, after a point, becomes uncomfortable. If the entire world is heating up, we aren’t imagining that we’ll simply wear less and stock up on sun tan; it is aligned much more with images of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, vast dust bowls and bleached skeletons in the middle of the desert. A crisis, meanwhile, captures the public imagination. The Financial Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Crisis in Venezuela. The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of crisis is “A time of intense difficulty or danger.” This is the time we are in, though we may not have realised it quite yet given that we’re still surrounded by the bubble we’ve blown for ourselves. Even so, the more we read that this is a Crisis Era and the more we hear it being shouted from the rafters, the more we may begin to believe it.

The United Kingdom has gone one step further on the terminology front. On 1 May—during a break from the slapstick routine it has been performing on the international stage since mid-2016—the British government declared that humanity is in the midst of a climate emergency. It grabbed the headlines. It made people stop and think, at least for a moment. An emergency is immediate, an unwanted, potentially dangerous situation requiring action right now. The British government’s announcement was followed by a climate and biodiversity emergency declaration from the Republic of Ireland on 10 May, Canada on 17 June, New York City on 26 June and Sydney on 1 July. With town and city councils all over Europe, North America and Australia indicating their support for this type of declaration, more national governments are surely set to follow.

Other outlets are employing language designed to challenge and provoke in the environmental arena, too. Looking through a recent Extinction Rebellion newsletter reveals the use of highly charged words and phrases such as ‘ecological collapse’, ‘genocidal impact’, and ‘act now with love and rage’. Similarly, the website thinkprogress.org doesn’t shy away from speaking about ‘catastrophic collapse’ and ‘terrible human suffering’, and describes the Hothouse Earth scenario as being akin to triggering a rockslide or avalanche where total destruction is unavoidable. These are the kind of X-ray words that Huxley was talking about, the ones that pierce us to the very core, galvanise our imaginations, cause cold beads of sweat to roll down our backs.

We need this kind of incendiary language to be applied across all relevant articles and content. If discord, vitriol and pithy summations work so well to whip up fear and anger among certain sections of society, why shouldn’t they have the same effect on society’s discourse about the climate crisis? The time for sober discussion, impartial reports and articles quoting scientists as being “concerned” about the evolution of the anthropocene is over. Now is when we have to use every weapon we have in our arsenal to pierce the minds of as many people around the world as possible—even if those weapons include ramping up our language choices to blockbuster levels. Genocide, annihilation, extinction, devastation, conflagration, perdition, death, suffering, starvation. Use them all. We have to catch the eye, appeal to selfish outlooks, elicit fear, shame people, dismantle mental blocks. We need to push back against terms intended to downplay the crisis, like the dystopian ‘molecules of freedom’ recently dreamt up by the Trump administration’s Ministry of Truth. We have to make others believe that human-made genocide truly is just around the corner, and get people to act and vote and change because of it. We have to do everything and anything to stop the sleepwalker—humanity—from stepping off the cliff. Because if we fall, there’s nothing at the bottom to catch us. Terry Pratchett once said that “Before you can kill the monster you have to say its name.” Let’s start calling the monster of climate cataclysm for what it is. Then we might just have a chance at going about killing it.