Working on Climate Change? I Have a Question

Like many people, I’m terrified of climate change and see it as an important reason for my work.  But when I listen to climate activists, or the politicians they have trained, I’m puzzled by a word that they use.  It’s planet.  We have to “save the planet,” they say.

On the surface, there are two obvious problems with this word choice, so there must be some more subtle reason for using it, one that I need to be enlightened on.

First, the everyday meaning of planet, the one we learned in high school, is something like “a sufficiently large ball of matter orbiting a star.” If that’s what a planet is, then climate change doesn’t threaten the planet. Earth as a ball of rock will be fine.

So when we say “save the planet” we’re using planet in a newer and different way to mean something like biosphere — the sum of all life.  Actually, the meaning seems purposely fuzzy: do we think climate change will destroy all life on earth, or just destroy lots of species, or destroy our civilization, or destroy us?

In my work as an explainer, I try not to coin new words, or create new meanings of words, if there’s any way I can avoid it.  There’s an unavoidable rush of power when you create a word or meaning.  However worthy the reason for your coinage is, it sounds like you’re telling people that they’ve been talking wrong all their lives and only you are talking right. Because the way we talk is semi-conscious and hard to change, people can feel that attack subconsciously, not even articulating why it bothers them.  But like many subconscious responses it can make them defensive, which keeps them from getting to where we need them to be.

Second, many people who don’t care much about the “planet” care very much about civilization, including mainstream conservatives.  Apart from some survivalists and those awaiting an imminent Rapture, conservatives want to conserve their society — to keep it from changing too rapidly.  If we wanted them to hear us, it seems to me, we’d speak of climate change as a threat to civilization.

Speaking that way, we’d also be talking about something that we can be pretty sure about. Nobody can predict the biological consequences of climate change, but we know what happens when the support systems of civilization collapse, because it’s happened many times in history: Starvation, mass migration, wars (and personal violence) over declining resources.  Far more people would be horrified by this prospect than are horrified by threats to polar bears — however much the latter, and biodiversity in general, may matter to you and me.

Climate change has a moral dimension, regarding whether we have the right to destroy other life, but the most acute climate anxiety is about fears for ourselves and our children, not fears for the “planet.”  It’s about looking at your children and wondering if they’ll starve, or kill and die in wars, or live in patriarchal bands where rape is routine — all things humans have done repeatedly under similar pressures.  We have a robust genre of apocalyptic literature increasingly focused on imagining a world in which civilization has collapsed. If you wanted to alarm conservatives into action, it seems to me that you’d talk about this.

So why do I so rarely hear advocates or politicians say that climate change threatens civilization? Why do we keep using the word planet?  Please enlighten me.

17 Responses to Working on Climate Change? I Have a Question

  1. Michelle March 7, 2020 at 12:50 pm #

    ‘Planet’ might carry the biosphere meaning for more people, particularly those without scientific background, and it implies it is a concern and responsibility that is shared by all and inescapable.
    ‘Civilization’ narrows to only humanity, and sadly many human civilizations hold the view that some or all other human civilizations are not civilized. Also, adaptations to diminish or cope with climate change are themselves arguably threats to civilization in the sense that they are indisputably threats to aspects of culture – particularly consumer culture but also things like what and how we eat.
    Your point makes sense to me, and my reaction is that ‘civilization’ is worse than ‘planet’, that the meaning might be described as ‘the viable habit upon which all civilization is built’ which is too many words, and that if I had to sum up those too-many words in one word I might eventually settle on ‘planet’ in part because ‘save the world’ has established connotations at odds with the desired message.

    I’d be inclined to ruminate on ‘save’ more then on ‘planet’ because I think the idea of preservation can get in the way of urgently need adaptation.

  2. TimR March 7, 2020 at 1:01 pm #

    I can’t enlighten you, rather I entirely share your viewpoint. The sooner the climate narrative becomes about the threat to society and individuals, the sooner people take it seriously.

    I think a large shift of this type has been taking place in younger people due to changes in schools; people get it when its explained clearly and early in life.

    The challenging audiences are of course those who are convinced of and already wired into a society of consumption which denies the existential threat it creates towards itself. I totally agree that these audiences will never be persuaded by terms like ‘save the planet’…

  3. TonyM March 7, 2020 at 11:20 pm #

    It’s a poetic device surely, Jarrett. Synecdoche, if we’re to be technical. More concretely though, the use of ‘planet’ to represent ‘humanity’ probably goes back at least to those iconic Apollo 11 photos revealing that the entire Earth was, from a no longer so great distance, just a fragile pale blue dot that could be held between someone’s thumb and forefinger. Perhaps the ‘planet’ metaphor resonates more with older generations for that reason.

  4. James March 8, 2020 at 4:25 pm #

    Correct. It’s a rhetorical trick — but I believe it often fires. Critics scoff (correctly) that the planet will be here long after we are gone, and that trying to save it amounts to hubris. We should be talking about preserving ourselves — we are indeed quite vulnerable!

    • James March 8, 2020 at 4:25 pm #


  5. Richard Gadsden March 9, 2020 at 4:37 am #

    I suspect that the choice is made because many of the people campaigning about climate change are immersed in very-left spaces, the sort of spaces where “civilisation” is a controversial word. The sort of space where the Gandhi quote that “Western Civilisation would be a very good idea” gets bandied about. Also, they’re the sorts of spaces where “that’s speciesist” is taken seriously as a criticism. Only talking about preserving human lives and human societies is speciesist.

    The problem is that most people, as you say, do care a lot more about themselves and their children and grandchildren than about the preservation of other species for their own sake. The choice between language that will be effective with a mass public, but is modestly controversial among activists, or language that is more attractive to activists, but less effective with the mass public – that’s a decision that is very commonly made to favour the activists.

    I’d add that this ties into a profound criticism of and division within the green movement. Do you want to preserve the pre-human environment as a terminal value, or do you want to adopt environmental policies because they protect human life and human society?

  6. Albaby March 9, 2020 at 8:07 am #

    Jarrett – this is off-topic for the post, but after reading that NYC is rejecting (for now) calls to suspend mass transit service, I was curious what your take is on what might happen if our denser metros *do* end up having to cancel subway and/or bus operations.

    These cities are at densities that can’t really function without mass transit – or can they? We haven’t really had a very serious pandemic since the widespread adoption of the automobile made closing transit systems at least a thinkable alternative. Some cities, especially in the U.S., can function without running mass transit (Houston or Dallas will probably be able to get by). But what happens in NY, SF, or Boston if it becomes necessary to restrict the subways and buses to limit virus spread?

    • Mike March 12, 2020 at 10:38 am #

      “These cities are at densities that can’t really function without mass transit”: Yes and no. New York is too large and dense for a car-based alternative to be feasible, but if people aren’t commuting to work and large institutions anyway then that argument is suspended somewhat. New York is also one of the most walkable cities in the country. You can walk from the Battery to Central Park in an hour or two and pass many, many destinations. You can do the same in parts of Brooklyn. And people did walk home across the bridges em nasse when transit was shut down for 9/11 or a power outage. So New York can cope without transit in a way that sprawling cities can’t. Especially during times when commuting to work or large events is banned or discouraged

  7. mike March 9, 2020 at 5:37 pm #

    In this case “planet” means “home.” In a way that civilization and biosphere do not convey. Home is more than a physical space, it is also an emotional space. The place we can claim and feel secure in. “the planet” is humanity’s only home.

  8. Anonymous March 10, 2020 at 7:51 am #

    Albaby: In that circumstance you’ll be banning most road traffic as well.

    Basically anyone who doesn’t absolutely have to move around to keep infrastructure running, treat people or delivery necessary supplies must stay home and that’ll be more people than the public transport system moves.

    Richard Gadsden: A lot of environmentalist activists just don’t seem capable of understanding that most people are not as environmentalist as they are and whilst there is majority support for environmental protection there is very little support for serious sacrifice.

  9. RossB March 10, 2020 at 9:29 am #

    You’re a little late with this post, it should have gone out on April 22nd. 🙂

    When people say things like “Save the Earth”, it is as shorthand for “save the living things that exist on the Earth”, as opposed to say, saving Notre-Dame de Paris. The latter may be a priceless bit of architecture, but it has no ecological value.

    You are absolutely right about the second point. Just as there are people who don’t care about old buildings, there are people who don’t care about polar bears. Neither are people I want to hang out with, but I can think of several reasons why they should care about global warming:

    1) You may not care about polar bears, but other people do. Let’s say I live in Chicago, and they want to move the Blackhawks. I’m not a hockey fan, so I wouldn’t be that upset. But I know some hockey fans, and it would be hard on them. I can relate, as losing the Bulls would be rough. This is why people protest. It sends the message that lots of people care about the subject, even if you don’t. It helps if you have people protesting that others can relate to (in my example, a black hockey player, for example, giving a speech about how much hockey means to him would have a huge amount of influence).

    2) The natural environment is about more than polar bears. It is about plants and animals that are less charismatic, but lead to advances in science. Preserving the natural environment can lead to insight into disease, and treating disease.

    3) A changing natural environment can really mess things up. That gets to the point you mentioned. More hurricanes and rising sea waters are bad. Even if you don’t live in an area that will be effected soon, it hurts the economy. This is why insurance companies are spending a lot of time studying the issue. It can also lead to more wars. A changing climate can lead to instability in the developing world, which can spread to the developed world. The conflict in Syria has lead to an increase in refugees to Turkey. Turkey has increasingly become autocratic. An autocratic Turkey has hurt the West’s ability to deal with Russia (since we are reluctant to join with Turkey). The refugees have also lead to an increase in right wing radicalism in Europe. All for what is a tiny conflict compared to the mess that would come from Bangladesh being mostly underwater. People at major financial institutions and the Pentagon are not studying global warming because they care about the polar bears (although I’m sure many do).

  10. Anonymous March 11, 2020 at 8:17 am #

    I strongly suspect that sea walls and air conditioners are going to be a lot cheaper than fighting a war and that’s going to become very obvious when it needs to be done.

    Anyone who can’t afford to adapt is unlikely to be able to afford much of a military (and you may actually be aware of this (you don’t appear to be blaming global warming) but the problems in the middle east aren’t due to global warming, more bad government).

    • drs March 11, 2020 at 9:28 pm #

      Air conditioning doesn’t prevent massive crop failure due to heat waves.

  11. Joseph Brant March 11, 2020 at 8:20 pm #

    If you’re talking about saving our civilization, one “solution” to that is to wall off or kill those who we’ve decided are not part of that “civilization.” More to the point, conservatives are not against climate change reaction because the issue has been framed incorrectly, it’s that climate denialist messages are backed by millions of dollars from fossil fuel companies.

  12. Anonymous March 12, 2020 at 10:19 am #

    drs: Then switch to crops that can handle higher temperatures, genetically modify them if necessary. Melting of ice may also open up new farmland, historically warmer global average temperatures have correlated with increased biomass and ice ages with less so agricultural land increasing is quite plausible (the transition will be nasty but we do at least have ships with large cargo capacity).

    Joseph Brant: It’s not just those denying global warming who get money from the fossil fuel industry and trying to kill them is only going to result in them trying to kill you as well and the hard greens simply do not have the ability to win that fight, even with moderates voting for them Green parties haven’t gotten enough votes to get their way.

  13. Michael Lewyn March 29, 2020 at 4:49 pm #

    Because leftists think preserving non-human life (“the planet”) is important, but instinctively think of our civilization as something that is basically evil.

  14. Anonymous March 30, 2020 at 6:17 pm #

    Micheal Lewyn: There’s a lot of diversity of opinion on the left (and a lot of infighting) but sadly far too much of the left is as you describe or at least not willing to oppose the hard greens and watermelons and the watermelons are more about hating capitalism that loving the planet, at least the hard greens stand for something.