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.