Towards an ecocentric lexicon


Introduction

This webpage presents a working set of notes aimed at fostering an ecocentric lexicon. It is organized into four sections.

1 It first discusses a provisional list of definitions of some important terms in regard to ecocentrism.

2 Next, style notes are collected.

3 Because of the extent to which some non-ecocentric terms are embedded in the English language, it is sometimes necessary, at present, for ecocentric writing to deviate from a perfectly ecocentric grounding. The webpage, therefore, also provides a growing set of notes on troublesome language, with the hope of offering a path to a richer and better-understood ecocentric vocabulary within the English of today and the future.

4 Finally, it flags examples of words with negative denotations.
 

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Language notes

Key definitions

Community – Ecocentrically, it is desirable to be able to define community in a way that simultaneously satisfies the conceptual demands of both sociology and ecology. The groundwork for such a definition was laid by Curry (2000).

Ecocentrism (as distinct from biocentrism) – This is a worldview in which the frame of intrinsic value and ethical importance covers all living organisms on Earth, the abiotic components of living systems and the dynamic interactions between these interconnected elements in space in time. Biocentrism, in contrast, stops short of encompassing the abiotic components of living systems and is thus distinct from ecocentrism (this is a distinction not currently acknowledged by the Oxford English Dictionary).

Ecodemocracy – This is a contraction of 'ecocentric democracy'. It was defined by Lundberg (1992) as "the restructuring of our society for maximum conservation and equal rights for all species." More recently, it was given a broader definition that offers a route of reaching Lundberg's vision through gradual advances (Gray and Curry, 2016): "Groups and communities using decision-making systems that respect the principles of human democracy while explicitly extending valuation to include the intrinsic value of non-human nature with the ultimate goal of evaluating human wants equally to those of other species and the living systems that make up the ecosphere."

Ecoforestry – The various expansions and definitions of ecoforestry are reviewed in an article here. In the definition noted in that article that is most relevant for ecocentrism, ecoforestry describes "a way for humans to view and interact with forests that respects the intrinsic value of all components of the ecosystem, both biotic and abiotic, as well as their dynamic interconnectedness. Since humans belong to the biological community, the principles of ecoforestry are compatible with the taking of goods from naturally functioning forest ecosystems as long as this does not harm the integrity and completeness of the ecosystem."

Ecological citizenship – This is a way of living in which an individual acts within the value frame presented in the above definition of 'ecocentrism' and rejects the false dichotomy of humans and nature.

Ecological republicanism – This is a form of civic republicanism that defines 'community' in the way outlined in that term's above definition (Curry, 2000).

Ecopoetry – As noted in the call for poetry for this Journal, the mission of ecocentric poetry is "to help us empathize with non-human entities, be they a whale, a tree or a mountain."

Ecosphere (as distinct from biosphere) – The Earth's ecosphere is the total of all its ecosystems, including atmospheric and below-ground components. As noted in the Oxford English Dictionary, as compared with the allied term 'biosphere', the term stresses "the interaction between the living and non-living components."

Ecotechnic – An ecotechnic society, as defined by Greer (2009), is one that would "support a relatively complex technology while sustaining rich and sustainable relations with the rest of the biosphere."

Nature – The ecocentric definition of this term includes humans within its remit rather than presenting this species as an entity external to it.

Stakeholder – Gray and Curry (2016) have argued that stakeholder status can meaningfully be extended to entities based on their potential to be subject to unfair outcomes (such as going extinct). In this view, "stakeholder status could be assigned to species, ecological communities, or non-living components of ecosystems such as water and soil."

Style

Capitalization of species names – Some publications capitalize the vernacular names of species whereas others do not. The view taken in The Ecological Citizen is that because 'human' is presented in all lower-case, so should other species be.

Troublesome terms

Environment – Because using this term when referring to human activities instantly splits humans from the rest of the ecosphere, it contradicts a tenet of the ecocentric worldview. Nevertheless, when an author uses the term, if its meaning is clear but reworking the sentence to something more ecocentrically accurate would make it clumsy, then it is retained.

'Harvesting' – As this refers to taking something grown by human agency, it is problematic when applied to the killing of wild organisms. Within the latter context, it is thus presented in scare quotes in the Journal. 'Take', as a noun or verb, is a value-neutral alternative. 'Forage' can also be used to describe collecting from a wild population. However, where there is evidence that the activity is forcing the population onto a downward trajectory or otherwise causing significant disruption to the ecosystem, then 'exploitation' is perhaps the best term to use.

'Improved' land – The adjective improved is most commonly used to describe grassland to which fertilizers and herbicides have been introduced by humans. It is typically species-poor (as compared with unimproved grassland), and so the positive nature of the adjective is misleading (it is thus presented in scare quotes in the Journal).

Natural 'resources' – Resources is ecocentrically acceptable when describing that which is required, ecologically, by humans (or other species). However, when it used to describe the value of the rest of the ecosphere to humans, it becomes anthropocentric and is thus presented in scare quotes in the Journal.

Natural world – As is the case with 'environment', using this term splits humans from the rest of the ecosphere and thus contradicts a tenet of the ecocentric worldview. The same consideration applies as with 'environment': when an author uses the term, if its meaning is clear but reworking the sentence to something more ecocentrically accurate would make it clumsy, then it is retained.

'Ownership' of animals – Ecocentrically, no wild animal is owned by a human, and it a term probably best avoided even when describing domesticated animals.

'Pest' species – Applying the term pest to a species whose presence is detrimental to exclusively human-focused management goals is not meaningful within an ecocentric worldview. It is thus presented in scare quotes in the Journal.

Stewardship – While in some ways this is an attractive term, as it implies a respect for the ecological and evolutionary destinies of non-human life, it still places humans as de facto overseer of the rest of nature and so is best avoided.

'Wasteland' – This term can be used with a negative denotation for land not put to direct human economic gain. When used in this sense, it is thus presented in scare quotes in the Journal.

'Weed' – Since attempts to simplify and then completely control ecosystems are not consistent with an ecocentric worldview, it is not appropriate to apply such a term, with its negative denotations, in describing a wild plant growing in competition with cultivated plants. It is thus presented in scare quotes in the Journal.

Wilderness – This term can be used to imply that a landscape should only welcome humans on a recreational or touristic basis, something which is not demanded by ecological thinking. Equally, there is much to be said in favour of landscapes with thriving non-human life and only minimal incursion of industrialized society and its impacts. Thus, the term is used within the Journal, but never to deny the validity of pre-industrial humans' place in the landscape. Nor does it imply that land totally devoid of human impact exists.

Words with negative denotations

Animal – This word has a regrettable application when used to describe a human who is cruel or repulsive. Individual types of animal are also used to denote various negative qualities in humans (e.g. a 'slug' as a lazy person).

Subhuman – This term can be used to imply that non-human life is inferior to human life, and its use can also be extended to that of an insult to a human.

 


References

Curry P (2000) Redefining community: Towards an ecological republicanism. Biodiversity and Conservation 9: 1059–71.

Gray J and Curry P (2016) Ecodemocracy: Helping wildlife's right to survive. ECOS 37: 189–27.

Greer JM (2009) The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-peak World. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada.

Lundberg J (1992) America needs restructuring. Population and Environment 13: 225–8.

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