Language, ecology and the stories we live by
By Sarah Wood
A University of Gloucestershire professor is at the forefront of a fascinating field of language research − ecolinguistics (also known as ecological linguistics).
Ecolinguistics considers both the social context in which language is embedded and the ecological context, including other species and the physical environment.
Professor Arran Stibbe has an academic background in linguistics and human ecology and combines the two in his research and teaching. He developed a new approach to ecolinguistics to analyse the 'stories we live by', which are structures in the minds of individuals across a culture and influence how they think, talk and act.
By analysing texts, it is possible to reveal the stories that underpin an unequal and unsustainable industrial civilisation and search for new ways of using language that will inspire people to protect the ecosystems that life depends on.
Professor Stibbe's research provides evidence of how stories embedded in economic discussions ignore the dependence of the economy on wider ecosystems. Discussions of sustainability often fail to break free from the prevailing model that expects unlimited economic growth and the construction of gender in the media encourages environmentally damaging consumerism. Agricultural businesses represent nature in ways that promote ecologically damaging agricultural systems.
However, debates, speech and writing from traditional Japanese culture and Native American cultures provide us with linguistic features that are useful in communicating ecological issues.
Professor Stibbe has published his work in the book Ecolinguistics - Language, Ecology and the Stories We Live By (Routledge). The second edition was published in December 2020.
The book reveals the stories that underpin unequal and unsustainable societies and searches for inspirational forms of language that can help rebuild a kinder, more ecological world.
In order to bring his research to a wider audience, Professor Stibbe also created a free online course in ecolinguistics, entitled The Stories We Live By. The course is run by 22 international volunteer tutors, who provide free tuition to participants in 11 languages. There have been more than 200,000 visitors to the website and 2,200 registered participants. The course has reached participants from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America and includes exercises, readings, presentations and videos.
As part of an Erasmus+ project, Professor Stibbe created Living in the Weatherworld, a website for researchers, teachers, students and schoolchildren who want to build a sense of connectedness with the natural world. It covers both the slowly changing world of plants, animals and the physical environment and also the faster-changing world of the weather, as they come together into one weather-world.
Living in the Weatherworld compares cultural representations of weather in weather forecasts, animation, everyday conversation, haiku poetry, and nature writing. The aim is to discover ways of representing the weather that inspire us to enjoy and appreciate a greater variety of weathers, and through this help us find our place in nature.
The materials have been published online and in book form, translated into four languages, and distributed to teachers in workshops in Italy, Slovenia, Turkey and the UK.
Arran Stibbe, professor in ecological linguistics, said: "My research and teaching examine how language encodes the stories we live by, and shapes how we see ourselves and our relationship with other animals and the earth.
"This involves linguistic analysis of a wide range of discourses, from advertising which encourages people to buy unnecessary and ecologically damaging products, to the inspirational language of nature writing.
"Emerging from the coronavirus pandemic provides a unique opportunity to rethink the stories we live by and find inspirational language that can help build a new sustainability society."
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