Misplaced Metaphors in the Anthropocene (Beware of Cultural Clichés & Dangerous Metaphors) | Tim Weiskel

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GTI ForumContribution to GTI Forum
Interrogating the Anthropocene: Truth and Fallacy

Tim Weiskel   February 2021

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Misplaced Metaphors in the Anthropocene

In a short volume published decades ago entitled Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson drew our attention to the fact that most of us, most of the time manage to make our way through life and make sense of the world around us with a relatively limited set of metaphors. As anthropologists have always emphasized, however, it is essential to understand that metaphors are not “instinctual,” but rather “cultural,” phenomena. They are not given to us in our DNA, but rather are learned very early on in life—usually as an aspect of learning the language and other rule-governed norms that we master while growing up in any given culture. So thoroughly are these cultural phenomena absorbed that humans come to regard them as “second nature.”

Because metaphors are so deeply inscribed in our existence, we do not really have control over them at first, any more than we have control, for example, over the “mother tongue” that we learn, or the physical environment that is our first “home.” Later in life, perhaps, we can reflect upon key metaphors that we internalized unconsciously as our eager and absorbent minds encountered life’s complexities, but, just as many people never learn a second language beyond their “mother tongue,” so, too, do many people—perhaps most—learn to transcend the limits of the metaphors that came to govern their consciousness from their youngest years forward.

Herein lies much of our problem as a cultural species in the Anthropocene: we have evolved both as a physical species and a social species in a world whose governing physical parameters change on different time scales than our biophysical equipment as a mammal, on the one hand, or our cultural symbol systems as a social species, on the other. It is the relative “lag” time or differential “acceleration” rates in these three simultaneous registers of our existence as a species (biophysical, genetic, and cultural) that causes the problems we must now confront.

At times it seems, for example, that the physical world in Earth’s ecosystems is so “fixed” in its seas, shores, and mountain ranges that these things clearly outlast the rise and fall of all known human civilizations with their complex but tragically transitory symbol systems. In other cases, however, it seems that whether or not civilizations come or go, humans have remained impressively stable as an interbreeding, bipedal mammalian omnivore for perhaps the last million years or so, enduring and witnessing numerous global changes of climate and sifts in their habitats. On another scale, it seems that symbol systems and metaphors born of commonly shared cultural experiences of an expanding agrarian frontier upon newly discovered fertile land can give rise to “frontier cultures” around the world that share enduring cultural metaphors, independent of language or other divergent, contingent features reflecting their particular historical experience.

It is in this manner that with the “discovery” of the Western Hemisphere by European maritime powers from roughly 1492 onward the cultural metaphors of frontier societies have come to dominate much of the mindset of the modern world. The new energy resources that came under the control of “Western civilization” since 1492—first, in the form of fertile topsoil, then in terms of fossilized carbon reserves (coal, petroleum, natural gas), and eventually in the exploitation of radioactive subatomic particles—gave rise to the illusion in frontier cultures that expansion could be virtually limitless for anything that they proposed to undertake.

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