The human aesthetic—the perception and sensory contemplation of a subject—is so strongly influenced by the terms and phrases we adopt into our lexicon that we ought to pay close attention to them. We see, hear, and smell our environment using the senses we have evolved with over hundreds of thousands of years, and then we process and contemplate this sensory influx. And as we process and contemplate, our emotive (gut feelings) and rational (analytical) selves come into inter-play, formulating how we will judge, value, and respond to these inputs. This is where our lexicon becomes important, because the terms we use to paint the picture of existence carry with them a certain worldview that influences us. The words or group of words (phrases) we, the larger cultural group, decide are appropriate to identify the existent we come in contact with, will shape how we think and feel about them.
Actually, the issue isn’t so much with a term itself. Any term is really value neutral—just a few symbols we have conjured up and strung together—until we decide upon the definition and its cultural aura. For example, let us look at two terms that identify the solid waste product excreted by the digestive tract: “feces,” and its cousin noun, “shit.” These related terms elicit quite different emotional and intellectual responses. One is illicit, the other not. For example, it was without hesitation that I inserted the term “feces” into this article, but as I inserted the term “shit” in order to make my point, I felt squeamish, because the idea of my colleagues and family reading an essay by me that highlighted a “naughty” word made me feel uncomfortable—as if traces of my uncivilized self had been revealed in the words I write.
When we use or encounter the word “feces” we tend to focus on its scientific and ecological implications. When we use or encounter the word “shit” it’s a different story—then we come in contact with powerful feelings like anger, and shame, or embarrassment. There seems to be a lot more feeling going on than intellectual reflection. And these different reactions lead us to different responses. If we are scientifically curious, we are apt to pursue the meaning of the term “feces” and the importance of the process of defecation—the purging of indigestible molecules and efficient packaging of tasty treats for other living creatures. We might even be wowed by nature’s amazing ability to re-cycle, over and over again. The term “shit,” however, might make us avoid confrontation and walk away; it might make us lash out physically at the one using it; or some might feel a rush of power or release of frustration when exclaiming it.
This brings me to another powerful pair of terms that allow us to observe a similar dynamic: the phrase “natural resources” versus the phrase “natural treasures.” Both set the stage for how we understand and relate to each other and the larger community of life. Both refer to the animate and inanimate subjects that we humans consume in some way. Whether it is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the sights we take in, or the metals we mine, we manipulate these subjects, changing them sometimes slightly, and sometimes in an extreme way. And here is the rub: it is how we represent, and thus come to know, the things we manipulate, that influences the nature of our acts. Do we take from nature with respect and with love in our hearts? Or do we do it with a self-interested utility, that is over-intellectualized by economics, resulting in the bastardization of our evolutionarily functional greed? I believe that if we come to understand these subjects as treasures, our processes are more apt to be respectful and loving, leading us on a decision-making path toward understanding the other subject on its terms, rather than only on our terms, or exclusively in human terms. If we employ the word “treasure” we are activating a social construct that conjures up sacredness and care. Our children are our treasures, and we care for and love them as such. Why not then also see the Land as a treasure, with care and love?
When we (the citizens, ecosystem managers, and policy makers) employ the phrase “natural resources”—as in, “protect your natural resources”—we are on the slippery slope of making decisions based on the very old concept that Earth was made for us, to use as we see fit.
If we understand a tree, a river, an otter, or an ecosystem as merely a resource, then we make personal, managerial, and policy decisions grounded in a worldview that comprehends humans as the pinnacle of evolution. We decide as a society that it is okay to cause utter devastation by engaging in activities such as tar sands oil mining, which poisons the water for miles around, and steals the sands to mine these areas from far, far away; or natural gas fracking, which also poisons Earth’s watersheds. If we think of the Biosphere as simply a resource, we will be more likely to allow mega-corporations, for the sake of profit, to circumvent international regulations intended to protect the health of the Earth’s air and water—the essentials of all life. This is utterly unethical when viewed from the perspective of caring for Earth.
So let us embrace terminology that encourages us to come to know our Earth again from an aesthetic experience—allowing us to embrace the smells, sounds, sights, and emotions that have evolved, permitting us to appreciate and value Earth’s amazing gifts. This at least begins to facilitate a long-term worldview that promotes human responsibilities in relation to nature—the whole community of life.
It is just a start, but phrases such as “natural treasures” allow us this space to aesthetically interact differently with the world. And interacting with Earth in a way that elicits love and care is essential for everyone’s well-being. Therefore, I propose we rid ourselves of the phrase “natural resources” when referring to Earth’s loveliness, and instead, get real—really real—and use a more appropriate phrase, such as “natural treasures.”
(If you have alternative suggestions to the term “natural treasures” I would love to hear about it. Please email your ideas to email@example.com, or, even better, leave a comment at the end of this article in our all-new online Minding Nature comment feature. Let’s keep the conversation going!)
This essay was inspired by a thought-provoking conversation with my effervescent friend and colleague, Beth Kosson.