The Language of Separation

All semester, Stephen has emphasized the crucial role that language plays in shaping our perceptions and experiences. Brilliant writers show this time and again – Robert Bringhurst, Orhan Pamuk, and Roberto Bolano come to mind – but it is still difficult to grasp. Words have a life all their own. Words make reality.

This fact has profound implications for sustainable communities: the basic linguistic binary of natural/unnatural sets us (meaning English speakers) up for failure. Naming, and therefore experiencing ourselves as separate from the world, our thinking is flawed from the very beginning.

We are all made of the Earth, after all, and the Earth is made of the Universe. On a long enough time horizon, matter as we know it has the same starting point and ending point. None of it is unnatural, and none of it is natural either. All of it seems… maybe supernatural?

At any rate, this is why new artists like the writers at saltfront literary journal assert: “For now, we set aside conventional uses of the terms ‘nature,’ ‘wilderness,’ and ‘environment.’ These ideas embody a binary that no longer serves us.

Stephen wanted our class to have a more visceral connection with the language of separation. He asked us to divide up into those who identify as male and those who identify as female. We quickly separated along cis-normative lines.

What followed was a wide ranging discussion about gender, equity, and identity. Where before we had one fairly integrated class, we now had two constructed “teams.” The vibe certainly wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t comfortable either. Our sense of community seemed unstable.

One student made perhaps the most important point of the exercise: “There’s real gender inequity going on all the time. We didn’t create it – just made it slightly more visible.”

The visible challenge is an easy one to solve. Re-integrate the class; eliminate the separation; structure the room so that it is not defined along the boy/girl binary.

For human communities the Earth is our classroom, the binary  is natural/unnatural, and the solution is also a reintegration. Finding the language for it – the new language – is difficult. This is why I respond to the term “green.” On one hand it is imprecise and has come to be seen as surface-level sustainability, i.e. “green washing.” On the other hand, though, the imprecision is useful, as is the visual cue. There can be many shades of ‘green’ communities. There can be a spectrum of green and grey infrastructure. And so on.

Developing a new language for sustainable communities is a key challenge lying before us. ‘Green’ isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.


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