I’m at the stage of my environmental theory book where I discuss how I will analyze Big Words—which I summarily define as keywords, following a rich tradition of inquiry into language and culture starting with Raymond Williams‘ famous mid-1970s work and running through the recent past (Williams  2014; Bennett, Grossberg, and Morris 2013; Gleason, Adamson, and Pellow 2016). The primary way I’ll be doing this is revealed in the book’s fourfold structure, which addresses interrelations between reality, knowledge, ethics, and politics, for which big green keywords play major roles in each.
But there’s an important binary characteristic to the big green words I examine that demands analytical attention. In general, when you take a look at Williams’ keywords, such as democracy or modern or violence, you could impute a binary logic to each of them—as in their contrast to anti-democratic, premodern, or nonviolent—but this negation is only a weak form of binary opposition. A stronger form defines the concept as the negation of its opposite. What do I mean? Let’s start with the most relevant Big Word in North American environmentalism over the last fifty years: nature. What is nature? Arguably, nature is commonly understood as the absence of culture, i.e., that which is untouched by the human hand. (Whether, according to this definition, nature does or should exist is a matter of recognized debate—certainly given the recent scholarly and popular discussion over the Anthropocene; see e.g. Proctor 2013).
This strong binary characteristic of nature—which Williams famously summarized in Keywords as “perhaps the most complex word in the language”—may be what produces the related binaries I will examine as well. In summary form, they are (at least as of this writing!) as follows:
- Reality: Nature/culture
- Knowledge: Sciences/humanities
- Ethics: Facts/values
- Politics: Global/local
There has been a great deal written about nature and culture in the context of environment, but far less written about the other binaries above. What I’ll try to demonstrate is that they can be understood as the two-headed children of nature/culture—and thus, we end up with a bifurcated reality, knowledge, ethics, and politics, all of which must be better framed if we wish to make better sense of environmental issues.
One may ask: why binaries? I won’t answer that question, which could endlessly engage with Descartes, the Upanishads, Claude Lévi-Strauss, recent insights in cognitive science, and so forth. One of the more comprehensive lists of binaries I know of was produced by ecophilosopher Val Plumwood (1993, 43), who identified seventeen dualisms similar to those I have above, and argued that power and gender (and not, say, biology) lie at their heart—though this argument in itself may reproduce the nature/culture binary.
My ultimate interest will be: what are some Better Big Words we may consider in their place? My solution to this problem is not the typical one, which involves mushing these binaries together into some sort of fuzzy feel-good nondualism. A fuller explication awaits a future post. But one consideration for now: even if binaries are rejected (again, for a variety of ontological, epistemological, ethical, and political reasons), they may have a heuristic (vs. literal) truth as paradoxes suggesting important tensions we must embrace. Nature/culture, for instance, is a tired dualism, but it’s also a good way for many people to approach a central paradox in reality: everything ultimately is natural, right?, and a whole lot (arguably, everything we could talk about) is also cultural.
That’s the notion of paradox, in that both sides of a binary proposition may be true but it seems not to make sense when you put them together. I may dig into one of my ancient papers (Proctor 1998) for some illumination on how paradoxical logic may help us find our way to Better Big Words.
- Bennett, Tony, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris, eds. 2013. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. John Wiley & Sons.
- Gleason, William A., Joni Adamson, and David N. Pellow, eds. 2016. Keywords for Environmental Studies. NYU Press.
- Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge.
- Proctor, James D. 1998. “Geography, Paradox and Environmental Ethics.” Progress in Human Geography 22 (2): 234–255.
- Proctor, James D. 2013. “Saving Nature in the Anthropocene.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 3 (1): 83–92. doi:10.1007/s13412-013-0108-1.
- Williams, Raymond. (1976) 2014. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford University Press.