Nature-Friendly Language and Metaphors

Transformative Tools in Sustainability Education

"Linguistic research over the last quarter century has exposed the influence of language on our thinking patterns and processes. We are seldom aware that the kind of language we use affects our behaviour in significant ways....

The result is that our conceptual and higher-level thinking is shaped in ways that we might not consciously wish it to be, and that the language we use in some cases may actually prevent us from attaining our goals."
— David C. Smith

Although schools teach language arts and focus on literacy, we teachers rarely examine the language choices we make and the metaphors we use — and transmit to our students.

Our conceptions of Nature are reflected in our language. Nature-friendly language has the power to create a sense of kinship with the natural world. The opposite is capable of separating us from Nature and keeping us from peace. Many of the metaphors we unconsciously use are violent and anti-Nature, militaristic, or mechanistic and devoid of Nature (Hill and Johnston, 2003).

Think of the common expression, “killing two birds with one stone,” or frequent allusions to the brain as computer. Or argument (or sports, politics and love) as war (Smith, 1997).

Several authors have lamented the evolution in our language away from Nature-connected terminology, such as “mystery” and “wonder” (Devall, 1988, p. 198), love for the Earth (Van Matre, 1990), and references to the Earth Mother (Chard, 1994).

“We in the West have rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature ... and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection,” according to Mack (1995, p. 284).

Our worldview shapes the language and root metaphors we use, and language holds in it our worldview and ideologies. In Euro-American cultures, our largely unquestioned root metaphors include

  • a mechanistic way of understanding life processes [how about life as a garden?]

  • a view of change as linear and progressive [how about change as a spiral dance?]

  • an anthropocentric way of understanding human relationships with the rest of Nature [how about a biocentric or Earth-centric view?]

  • a view of the individual as the basic social unit [how about families, "tribes" or communities as the basic social unit?]

  • the view of science as the most powerful and legitimate source of knowledge [perhaps a mother's love or a child's pure heart is the most powerful source of knowing].
  • (Bowers, 1997, pp. 204-205)

Picture a classroom where students and teachers together become aware of the power of their language choices, and study green language arts while creatively choosing language and devising metaphors that contribute to peace and an ecologically friendly worldview. That could be your classroom!


Bowers, C. A. (1997). The culture of denial: Why the environmental movement needs a strategy for reforming universities and public schools. SUNY Press, Albany, NY.

Chard, P. (1994). The Healing Earth: Nature’s Medicine for the Troubled Soul. Minnetonka, MN: Northword Press.

Devall, B. (1988). Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith.

Hill, L. H., & Johnston, J. D. (2003). Adult education and humanity’s relationship with nature reflected in language, metaphor, and spirituality. In D. E. Clover & L. H. Hill (Eds.), Environmental Adult Education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mack, J. E. (1995). The politics of species arrogance. In T. Roszak, M. Gomes, & A. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 279-287). San Francisco: Sierra Club.

Smith, D. C. (1997, July). De-militarizing language. Peace Magazine.

Van Matre, S. (1990). Earth education: A new beginning. Greenville, WV: Institute for Earth Education.

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