Saturday, April 30, 2011

Talking the walk

There are inherent values expressed in our language. I will never forget Phuntso from Bhutan, who at the final evaluation of a one month training said that he had found the training very useful, but that he took exception of that we referred to some animals as meat, we called them "beef cattle", which is what you do call cattle destined for the slaughter-house in Sweden. Our ideas and the language we use for technology, ecology and economy, even for people (who are "workers" or "capitalists" or "consumers") are part of our cultural narrative, similar to the religious categories (sin, guilt, hell, heaven) of previous cultures. We often smile over other cultures' myths and fetishes, but we fail to see that the holy car is as laughable as the sacred cow, the statues of the Easter Islands or the temples of Maya. In my writing I have used expressions like "social capital", "ecosystem services", "externalities". They all take the norm from the capitalist world view. So called economic externalities can also be called "destruction" or even "theft", because that is what it amounts to. By speaking about "biomass" we point at the use of life as a raw material for further processing. Not only that, the use of the word "biomass" makes algae, a rose, a cow and a forest interchangeable and see them primarily as raw materials in our mills. 
Money is like an alphabet with only one sign says Alf Hornborg (2010). That is the reason for why you can't communicate any meaning with money, anything more nuanced than a call to consume, i.e. to use up resources. In the market society the only way to assign a value to anything is to sell it (or as we seen in some examples about ecosystem services, to trade the guarantee that it will not be traded, i.e. exploited), which means that things that are outside the market circulation almost by definition has no value.

Our use of money as the sole ruler of value and the submission of our society to "economics" make us believe that market transactions are voluntary, that we are enabled by the market instead of dependent, and that those transaction are equal and fair. How we discuss "efficiency" or "productivity" and "technology" has strong biases, clearly visible in agriculture, where the systems that waste most, pollutes most and use much external energy are those that are "modern", "efficient" and "productive". The function of technology[1] to put other peoples' resources in the service of the already wealthy, and to constantly increase the gap is obscured by our myths about "progress". Governments speak about their citizens as clients or customers and NGOs use market logic to achieve their goals (even "sell their message", their magazines are closed down because they are not “profitable”) and churches compete for souls in the market place with simplistic TV spots much in the same way as political parties do. In changing the world we also need to change the language use. We need to build new narratives, new tales, new heroes and new myths.

[1]       This is obviously not the only function, but one that is largely overlooked.

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