top of page

Why “ENVIRONMENT” is a Dangerous Word.


The Australian Oxford Dictionary defines environment as “surrounding, surrounding objects, region or conditions, circumstances of life or person or society.”

“The environment; something that surrounds”; a conglomerate of things that “surrounds us”. The word is inadequate to what is known about our interdependence with all in our immediate circles of life as well as those beyond the immediate.

We use it even as we are realizing how fully we are creatures in relationship to “our surrounds” the natural world, person made world and each other. We use it even as we realize we are individuals in interdependence. “The environment”, something that surrounds us like The Truman Show, not something we are connected with, that we grow into and through, family, friends, community or, if we garden, experience the natural world, watch the weather and the tides, know and speak to our neighbours, if we have grown over many years to feel a part of and connected to a place with history, presence and needs.

Each time in saying “environment” we are to different degrees holding the natural and even the person-made world, at a distance.

Who or what does this word serve? What does it say that it was first recorded in 1827 in England when the industrial revolution was launching itself and the English landscape was begin overridden on a mass scale by industry?

Those who actually care for “the environment” can make do with the word only by elaborating and qualifying it. It particularly serves those who want to skirt over its needs and our utter inter-dependence with the living world. This hit me again when I went to write about the development application currently on our fence. To respond to it, express my objections, speak about the needs of “the environment” felt wrong even though that was, of course the language of the application. I felt like I was selling out this specific place with its history, memory, people and creatures who live here, beyond us human renters.

The inadequacy of this word is not just felt. It’s affirmed by recent developments in cross disciplinary research; systems theory is all about interconnectedness. In medicine the social, environmental and psycho-neuro-immunological aspects of disease are spoken about, the interconnectedness of our wellbeing with all these aspects of our lives. And in physics, the level of connectedness of things on an atomic and quantum level has been acknowledged for some time. To drive the point home, as “money speaks” in our culture, the monetary value of natural systems is being valued now. “Nature is not just a pretty place. Nature is a large and important part of the real economy which adds to human well-being,” said Professor Robert Costanza, from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. In the Global Environmental Change study Costanza was involved with Australia’s ecosystem services were estimated to be worth around US$5 trillion ($5.4 trillion) a year, compared to GDP of around US$1.5 trillion.

That we have to make a plea for how important the natural world is by placing a monetary value on it and actually have to state how vital it is to our well-being must make those who have always known this, the peoples of our First Nations, laugh and cry.

How can persisting with a word that holds all those interconnections at bay, be wise?

But what is adequate? We could use “place”, which means we are talking about somewhere specific. We could use land, home, abode. But many times these are inadequate. We need a new word or words that acknowledges our interdependence with “the environment” each time we use it. But where can we find it?

The people of the First Nations, Aboriginal people, know intimately of the connectedness between people and creatures, people and country, people and their cultural conceptions and the land, how they reinforce the relationship through culture, how they can strengthen young people falling into addiction by taking them “on country”. I am imagining there is an aboriginal word or words that we could borrow.

Searching on line I found these

Mammam.... alive

minyga.... all over the place

yimbama, menwu..... all the time

If Australians had an Aboriginal word in use it would not only connect us more to here but help to remind us of the wealth of nature that was here, of a country that was so lightly and respectfully lived upon that we whites in our ignorance, declared it terra nullius.

Elimatta.... my home.

In this time of ecocide, when species are disappearing at a horrific rate, when coal mines are proposed next to one of the great natural wonders of the world, our Great Barrier Reef, we need a word that connects us, rather than distances us. “Environment” betrays us each and every time we use it. Can our Aborignal elders suggest a word or phrase?

Elimatta, my home

Elimatta, mammam, minyga yimbama, menwu,

my home, alive , all over the place, all the time.....

Julie C, July 2014

bottom of page