Ecological Interaction: non-binary gender and other compassionate, ecological language


Today, PBS Newshour shares the headline Oregon May Become the First State to Offer Non-Binary Options on ID’s. The ID option of X already exists elsewhere, but Oregon would be the first state in the U.S. to offer this alternative to the binary gender categories, if the Oregon Transportation Commission votes for it.

We know that reality shapes our language; we also know that language shapes reality. We can call this ecological interaction (*see the Alwin Fill reference below). When we only have a limited range of words and phrases to describe something, we tend to view the world through only those options. We also know that when we use these binaries and limited descriptors for people, we cause them harm. If a person does not identify as male or female, they are either excluded from the conversation or narrowed into an existing descriptor.

Horizons: Lake County Forest Preserves

The same can be said for all of the natural world:

  • We are anthropocentric in our language: inhabitable area, waste land
  • We euphemize the culture of harm: meat production, wildlife management, developing an area.
  • We unconsciously use growthismHow big is the house? (not how small); How fast is the car? (not how slow); This town has over 30,000 inhabitants.
  • The English language itself uses non-ecological fragmentation: separation of agent and affected; superiority (kill, teach, cure); possession (my land, my dog); uncountable nouns suggesting unlimited resources (water, air, energy, etc.); metaphors (the rape of Mother Nature, virgin forests)

* Learn more about Ecolinguistics from Alwin Fill’s Language and Ecology: Ecolinguistc Perspectives for 2000 and Beyond.

What we can learn from Ecolinguistics is that we have more compassionate ways of using language. The Oregon Transportation Commission is already exploring this concept as they seek out ways to make gender language less binary. Many Native American languages already contain multiple gender identifications beyond the binary; see Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders for example. We can do this ourselves, in our everyday language as well.

My kids are really just kids. They aren’t my possessions.

We aren’t eating bacon for breakfast. We are participating in factory farming that harms the environment and harms our bodies.

We suburbanites don’t landscape our lawns; we spray poison and kill wildflowers which would otherwise be helping the bee population.

We aren’t binge watching shows on Netflix. We are using up non-renewable energy instead of going for a walk or interacting with actual humans.

I don’t share these ecolinguistic insights to spread fear. Rather, I hope to share alternatives that could shape our reality for the better. One of my favorite writers, Wayne Dyer, believed that our thoughts shape our reality.  See his book titled You’ll See It When You Believe It. I believe language works in the same way; the language we use shapes our reality. So why not use more compassionate and ecological language?

They like to eat lunch late rather than He likes to eat lunch late: We can use neutral pronouns for those who prefer non-binary language.

I’m helping water return to the soil rather than I’m watering my lawn: This negates possession and acknowledges the natural cycle (as opposed to the idea that humanity controls nature).

I picked strawberries at a farm rather than I bought strawberries: We can use language that expresses the true value of food and food production, rather than reduce it to a simple commodity.


Let’s help compassion emerge.


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