Climate, Eco and Green Technology
How Environmental Problems Are Reflected in Language
Linguists are a peculiar species. We cannot simply leave words and their meanings alone. Like suspicious members of the audience at a magic show we keep a very close eye on language and its sleights of hand – and with good reason, because language has its fingers in every imaginable pie! And understanding language correctly can be vital, at times even a question of survival, starting with the ability to interpret correctly the operating instructions of the many electronic aids we use in everyday life. Someone who uses the hairdryer in the bath is likely to find the experience unpleasantly electrifying. The importance of language and of understanding things correctly is also increasing outside the realm of precise technical terminology. Everyday language and the languages of the media and politics all exert a powerful influence on all areas of life.
They create a climate that is particularly favourable to certain letters, words, and compound words, and as a result terms, slogans, letters suddenly sprout everywhere and merrily run wild throughout our daily lives, producing many and varied fruits in our collective consciousness.
One current example is the extremely fertile term ‘climate’ itself. It lends itself very well to being hybridised with all sorts of other words, from the business climate index to climate summits all the way up to the World Climate Conference. German even deems air conditioners ‘climate-regulation equipment’ (‘Klimaanlage’). Many people worry about the climate: some are worried about rain at an open-air concert, while others are thinking about a dramatic increase in global warming. Yet etymologically the word actually has nothing to do with the weather. When people in Ancient Greece referred to ‘klima’, they did not mean a combination of temperature, air pressure, wind speed, humidity and hours of sunshine: they meant the tilt of the Earth’s axis. ‘Klima’ evolved from the Greek word ‘klinein’, meaning ‘to set down, to slope’. If one wished to express that the Earth tilted from the Equator towards the poles, one referred to this phenomenon as ‘the tilt’, thus: ‘klima’.
It was only in the Early Modern Era that the borrowed Greek word acquired another meaning. Clearly an understanding developed of how the Equator thing affected geography. In the sixteenth century people started to write about how ‘klima’ had something to do with warmth and weather conditions.
From this point on one can only wonder how people ever managed without this word. At last travellers were able to blame their bad mood on the damp/hot/unbearably changeable climate. Gardeners had an excuse as to why a lemon tree simply refuses to thrive in a harsh climate. And employees were finally able to summarise the problems they experienced at work by putting them down to a bad ‘Betriebsklima’ (working environment).
In Goethe’s time there was already a conviction that people were influenced by climate. The poet E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote: ‘Climate, fatherland, traditions… how much they effect the inner and outer formation of the world citizen!’ Even the spiritual condition of an urban population could be described in this way, as it was by Ludwig Börne in 1832 in his Letters from Paris: ‘The moral climate of Paris has always done me good… I quickly divested myself of all my concerns and plunged jubilantly into the fresh turmoil of the billowing crowd.’
However, the best neologism using the word climate was undoubtedly coined by Friedrich Schiller in his drama The Robbers. When asked how one becomes a real rogue, the rogue Spiegelberg replies: ‘…to make a rascal you must have brains - besides which it requires a national genius, a certain rascal-climate, so to speak.’
Does Germany really have a ‘national genius’ for creating a ‘rascal-climate’? I’d rather not answer that. However, thirty years ago a pop band of the Neue Deutsche Welle (a musical genre in 1980s Germany) believed that there was a very good climate, and called itself ‘Prima Klima’ (‘great climate’). The catchy rhyme was not a new one, but it was only after this that it started popping up thousands of times in the language of daily and business life. A ‘prima Klima’ is what everyone wishes for these days. But the laid-back, irresponsible playfulness of the 1980s has been superseded by a seriousness, an urgency, a tone that could be described as apocalyptic.
Something similar occurred in the weeks following the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in spring 2011, albeit in a much swifter and also more concentrated form. It was almost shocking to see how – as happened in Japanese politics after the multiple nuclear meltdowns and explosions – many public representatives and media outlets, particularly in Germany, hastily abandoned environmental positions they had been insisting for years were well-founded. Altered circumstances naturally call for altered courses of action. As the Lakota Indian saying goes, ‘If you realise you’re riding a dead horse, get off!’ At the same time, one can only marvel at what some newspapers, with grim humour, referred to as ‘standpoint meltdown’ (‘Positionsschmelze’): a pun that combines the melting of apparently rock-solid standpoints and the recently-acknowledged nuclear meltdown in three of the Japanese reactors.
We in Germany are witnessing an abrupt ‘energy turnaround’ (‘Energiewende’). Again. The word ‘Energiewende’ was already being used publicly in 1980 - to be precise, in a report by the green think-tank Öko-Institut, the title of which referred to ‘Growth and Prosperity without Oil and Uranium’. From this point on the watchword appeared more and more frequently in public linguistic usage. Today, putting the term ‘Energiewende’ into an Internet search engine will result in almost one and a half million hits. There is therefore an optimal linguistic and social climate for the subject of ‘energy turnaround’. How this is to be achieved is another question.
Few people will realise that this turnaround is directly linked to another word: catastrophe. Translated literally, the primary meaning of the term ‘catastrophe’, which also comes from the Ancient Greek, is ‘reversal, turnaround’, or, as a technical term in theatre, ‘a change in the action for the worse, leading to the downfall of the hero’. The climate catastrophe we read so much about could also therefore be translated as ‘climate change’ (‘Klimawende’): this too is on everyone’s lips, not to mention the ‘electricity turnaround’ (‘Stromwende’). Instead of ‘turnaround’ (‘-wende’), one could also refer to it as ‘revolution’, since the term ‘revolution’, which comes from the Latin, literally means ‘rotation, upheaval’ and is therefore also a form of turnaround.
A revolution promises global orientation towards renewable or regenerative energy, such as solar energy or wind farms. As a linguist one turns up one’s nose at this, since both linguistically and technically such an expression is nonsense. In physics, the law of conservation of energy applies to closed systems, and from a certain point of entropy we can no longer use energy. It has, in this physical sense, been used up. However, the term ‘renewable energy’ has now established itself and been adopted into the language. Who’s going to want to tilt at that windmill?
‘Renewable energy’ also sounds too nice in the language of politics, lobbyists, and everyday life, as if there were a form of energy that was permanently at our disposal, created no additional CO2 emissions, spared our resources, or could definitely not be used up in the next couple of thousand years. This certainly applies to solar and geothermal energy, wind and wave power. It is not quite so simple as far as hydroelectric energy from dams is concerned, and for energy derived from biomasses (oil, wood, coal etc.) it is sheer nonsense.
Dissatisfaction, of the kind expressed in my factual and linguistic criticism, is not necessarily a bad thing. It characterises people; perhaps it is even what distinguishes them, especially the technician or the craftsman, whose dissatisfaction with the weaknesses of existing systems is always prompting him to seek new solutions, or else to develop them himself.
The electric car – one hundred years ago
Might this be why Camille Jenatzy, a Belgian, called his torpedo-shaped electric(!) automobile ‘La Jamais Contente’ – ‘The Never-Satisfied’? On 29th April 1899, in this very vehicle, he became the first man to break the 100 kilometres per hour mark. 105.882 kph! 1899! In those days it was by no means clear that it would be the combustion engine that would win the race to become the motor of the twentieth century: e-mobiles were much faster and cleaner, steam automobiles far more reliable. What if the e-car had come out on top back then? It doesn’t bear thinking about! As it was, cheap oil and, above all, the invention of the electric starter motor ensured the triumph of the combustion engine.
Yet in 1900 electricity was experiencing an unparalleled boom all across the world. The first electric locomotive was built in 1879, and not long afterwards, in 1881, the first electric trams started running, quickly acquiring a nickname they’re still known by in some parts of the world – people simply called the tram ‘the electric’.
This boom was in fact already the second e-boom, as it was based primarily on the findings of scientists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They made such groundbreaking discoveries that we encounter the names of these researchers at every turn. An author once aptly described them as ‘measurement people’, because units of measurement were named after them: André Marie Ampère, Antoine Henri Becquerel, Charles Augustin de Coulomb, Michael Faraday, James Prescott Joule, Isaac Newton, Georg Simon Ohm, Count Alessandro Volta and, of course, James Watt, to name but a few.
The career of the ‘eco-’ prefix
Only a radical eco-dictatorship would be in a position to execute the climate turnaround (in order to prevent climate catastrophe) fast enough. We are not, however, actually threatened with the imposition of any such dictatorship. It is only linguistically, in Western countries and in Germany above all, that the ‘eco’ prefix has rapidly gained significance. Fifteen years ago it was a favourite term of abuse and mockery; today, it has established itself in the boardroom, the media, and supermarkets. In conservative circles people used to complain about ‘eco-terror’. That scarcely happens any more. Even the conservative Welt newspaper writes about the coming ‘ecocracy’ (‘Ökokratie’) without using quotation marks. ‘Ecocracy’ sounds nicer than ‘eco-dictatorship’ (‘Ökodiktatur’), and more like democracy. Translated literally, ‘ecocracy’ would mean something like ‘the rule of the ecos’ or ‘the rule of ecology’. That hardly scares anyone nowadays, because the Greens and people with ‘alternative’ lifestyles, also known as ‘eco-freaks’ (‘Ökofreaks’) and ‘eco-rebels’ (‘Ökorebellen’) or ‘eco-warriors’ and formerly the objects of ridicule, have become successful in business and now occupy central positions in society. What is especially important about this is that they have been able to prove that a certain ‘eco-touch’ (‘Ökotouch’) can itself be sexy. No one’s afraid of the ‘eco-man’ (‘Ökomann’) or ‘eco-woman’(‘Ökofrau’) any more. Eco is in; eco is cool; it’s even a selling point. That’s why, along with the occasional, much-reviled evil ‘ecovil’ (Ökowicht), you’ll also find the ‘eco-republic’, ‘eco-products’, ‘eco-test’, and ‘eco-farmers’ – with, of course, ‘eco-seeds’ and ‘eco-produce’ – not to mention ‘eco-nappies’. From ‘eco-footballers’ to the ‘eco-zoo’ – which should perhaps offer refuge to the now-endangered ‘eco-pigs’ – not even economists are laughing these days, having themselves brought forth an ‘eco-economist’. His name is Ottmar Edenhofer, he’s the world’s first Professor of the ‘Economy of Climate Change’ at the TU Berlin, and he really was dubbed an ‘eco-economist’ by the Potsdamer Neuesten Nachrichten. When he ponders the ‘eco-house’, the linguistic cat really does start to chase its own tail: ‘eco’ (‘Öko’) comes from the Ancient Greek ‘oikos’, which means ‘house’. So an ‘eco-house’ is actually a ‘house-house’; and the economy was originally ‘house-management’ (‘Haus-Wirtschaft’), leading to the German technical terms for agriculture (‘Landwirtschaft’ – ‘land-management’) and, eventually, the study of economics (‘management sciences’ - ‘Wirtschaftswissenschaften’). All this snappy eco-fashion, on the other hand, is based on the word ‘ecology’ (‘Ökologie’), invented by the biologist Ernst Haeckel 135 years ago. ‘Oikos’ can mean not only house but also habitat: so ecology became first the study of habitats, then the study of the environment, addressing scientifically the interrelationships of the creatures living there and their living conditions.
Another turnaround is equally apparent in both language and reality, one that has not yet really registered in the general consciousness. Anyone joining the ecologically-aware Green Party in the 1970s had a demonstratively reactionary lifestyle. They wore home-knitted jerseys, ‘pacified’ army parkas, so-called Jesus boots, or plimsolls; they lived in the countryside, in communes, experimenting with alternative ways of living. It was practically a sin to own a car unless it was named after an animal: an old VW Beetle, a old Citroen 2CV (affectionately called an ‘Ente’, or duck, in German), or an old VW bus (a ‘Bully’, like the bulldog). As understandable and reasonable as this attitude was as a form of opposition to a senseless technocracy, today’s orientation towards green technology is equally sensible and welcome. It’s not only Green politicians and Green voters who are enthusiastic about so-called green technology: so are most citizens, who can imagine living in ‘green cities’ in the near future. Much of today’s ‘green’ vocabulary would be incomprehensible to the early Green pioneers – which in turn goes to show how the climate of a society and actual climate change are capable of altering the language in the space of just a few decades.What the natural philosopher Heraclitus said 2,500 years ago still holds true, perhaps even more so today: ‘Everything flows.’ Electricity flows, and information flows particularly fast and efficiently, but language is also in a happy state of flux – if, that is, one is not left in the dark, and is instead both plugged in and switched on. Not every shock results in a blackout. A sudden surge of electricity can enable one to see things in a clearer light, perhaps even inducing a sudden state of enlightenment. Then neurons wildly fire off their minuscule but highly conducive electrical impulses, creating a very productive spark between the areas of what is still the most complex object in the universe: the human brain.
is a freelance author and journalist living in Bamberg. He is best known for his books on the history of German idioms.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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