12 April 2017
The Environmental Humanities in Bath Spa University, a vibrant and passionate department led by Professor Kate Rigby, organised a fascinating opportunity to listen to Dr Arran Stibbe, founder of the International Ecolinguistics Association giving a lecture on his new free online course in Ecolinguistics: The Stories We Live By, also the title of his book .
Driving up to the campus, the scenery sets a natural, serene background to a talk that encourages respect and consideration for nature. Full of passionate enthusiasm, Dr Stibbe begins by posing the question: what are the stories we live by? You can begin simply by looking at a typical newspaper: terrorism, presented in leading articles of newspapers as ‘the greatest threat we face’. However, there are millions of people dying from air pollution, 40,000 people dying from obesity related illnesses , 24,000 dying from preventable diabetes. Dr Stibbe argues that a great amount of energy is dedicated to creating this story that terrorism is the greatest threat that we face.
Moving along the pages of the newspaper, the metaphor of economic growth, or the story that economic growth is good, is prevalent. Money and getting richer, is told as the main goal of society, when it is clear that it is driving humanity towards an unsustainable future. History has shown, according to Stibbe, that societies which did not adapt to change, collapsed. Writing this post on World Earth day, this claim resonates more true than ever.
Mary Midgley, in her book Myths we live by, argues that myths are neither lies nor mere stories but a network of powerful symbols for interpreting the world. And these myths are taking humanity in the wrong direction. The most dangerous story of all, however, are those of human centrality, ever expanding control over nature. Stibbe quotes Ben Okri:
Stibbe concedes that the stories we live by are similar to the concepts of ideologies and discourse, however, in the course, the terminology of stories rather than ideologies makes for an easier engagement with the materials and appeals to a wider audience.
Ecolinguistics uses discourse analysis to reveal the stories we live by, as often we don’t even realise they are stories and that alternative stories are available. For example, Stibbe discusses the language used in newspaper reports of Morrison’s, Tesco’s and M&S loss in profit at Christmas a few years ago. It was treated as a tragedy with use of vocabulary such as disastrous, gloomy, disappointment. Behind this language there is a story that ‘low retail sales are bad’. This story is embedded in the mind of society as well as in the minds of individuals. Ecolinguistics questions these stories from an ecological perspective by comparing them with the particular ecological philosophy (ecosophy) of the analyst. If the analyst aspires for a world where people consume less, where all living beings are respected, where these is a better distribution of funds, and wants to contribute to a low consumption, high well-being society, this would inform the analyst’s ecosophy. The ecosophy would be used to judge the stories we live by – in the case of ‘low retail sales are bad’ this is a destructive story because it encourages unnecessary consumption.
Stibbe reports that for his students at the University of Gloucestershire, studying ecolinguistics can have a major impact on their lives: they become critical of the texts which surround them, sometimes reducing consumption of meat and dairy, becoming vegetarian, or changing their shopping habits (see comments from students by clicking here http://storiesweliveby.org.uk/comments and scrolling down).
The free online course The Stories We Live By urges its audience to critically engage with texts by considering the representation of animals, plants and the environment as well as people. It starts with developing an ecosophy (or ecological philosophy) that considers humans and the more-than-human world. The course is an educational tool designed to help people develop a value system and gain skills in linguistic analysis to contribute to the search for new stories to live by.