Language and mistreatment of nature

Gungeet Kaur
4 min readMar 10, 2022

Language decides what we talk about. Some words only exist in other languages, putting emphasis on things those cultures find important to express. There are numerous examples around the world, for example, I grew up with the word Jugaad. Jugaad is problem-solving by using limited resources in innovative ways. As someone who grew up in a middle-class Punjabi family, this word embodied my upbringing. When money is limited and you can’t simply go and buy something, you have to come up with a Jugaad. This word has deeply influenced what I find acceptable to buy, how I think about problems and how big a problem is. Jugaad is a very popular word in at least Punjabi or Hindi-speaking India, which deeply influences the culture and behaviour of the people that use it.

Language also decides how we talk about things. In Punjabi, you would use the pronoun “tusi” when talking to elders or anybody you want to show more respect — influencing my behaviour, especially towards elders. French and Spanish similarly have “vous”. Behaviours and cultures are deeply intertwined with language. Braiding Sweetgrass made me think about this even more but in the context of our environment. English has taken over the majority of my communication ever since I moved from India 17 years ago. But even when I think about Punjabi, I don’t find much linguistic care put into how we talk about nature. Although Punjab has for long been an agrarian culture, there is a lot of emphasis on the love of land and soil and crops and the tools that enable people to cultivate the land.

English conveys ownership of nature rather than respecting the symbiotic relationship between nature and humans. We use the pronoun “it” when referring to trees, plants, and other genomes around us. “It” is generally used when talking about inanimate objects that we have control over or can exploit — making it sound like plants aren’t alive. This cold pronoun has built connections in our brains that very much shows the influence it has had on how we think about and treat nature. Killing a who demands something different than killing an it. American psychologist, James Hillman writes, if we begin to view and talk about the world as if it’s alive, we can help engage our imagination, create magic out of the perceived mundane and better relate to the world around us.

Robin Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass is from the Potawatomi Nation and writes from the Indigenous perspective, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship with the Earth. Earth provides us with so many gifts and The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address Greetings to the Natural World highlights all that has been given to be grateful for — I felt loved while reading it. Kimmerer talks about nature in a way that makes me feel like I’m reading about a person that has cared for me for so long. Although the point is not that somebody needs to be a human to show respect but to treat nature as kin and part of our families.

For a very long time, I’ve wondered if humans were a mistake in Earth’s evolution. I’ve thought that maybe the Earth is just patiently waiting for us to die so she can get out of this toxic relationship with us or until we all get into a relationship with Mars. But I’m really glad that I am wrong, we weren’t a mistake — it’s been a sad thought to live with, it doesn’t sound hopeful and doesn’t inspire me to take action either.

Our cultures have evolved to have a bad relationship with the Earth where giving and taking is completely unbalanced. Fishing amongst many other gifts is one of the examples. Sustainable fishing is no longer possible despite whatever the tuna labels say or whatever blue, red, yellow seals are stamped on the packaging. Fishing is not inherently wrong, but it’s how we have done it that’s criminal.

Sweetgrass is highly symbolic in Indigenous cultures for many reasons and clearly represents a symbiotic relationship. Picking Sweetgrass actually stimulates growth whereas untouched plots of sweetgrass fail over time. Harvesting thins the population and the remaining shoots respond to the extra space and light and reproduce quickly — known as compensatory growth. Agriculture is another form of symbiosis, but it’s another thing our demands from the other party are exceedingly damaging the relationship.

Kimmerer mentions, “The cultural landscape may have changed, but the conundrum has not — the news to resolve the inescapable tension between honouring life around us and taking it in order to live is part of being human.” There is a strong need to distinguish between what is given by the Earth and when taking becomes theft. I’m hoping the way we talk about nature can influence our behaviours.



Gungeet Kaur

A Product Designer writing about design, environment, and other thoughts.