What is the nature of nothing

No, nature doesn't strike back

The earth is taking revenge, the angry environment punishes us with storms, and Trump is known to be the greatest climate sinner: moral phrases dominate the talk about nature. This language is not just absurd. It also harms the climate movement.

Strange sentences reached us recently from America. One has long since got used to bizarre messages from over there, but at the end of September a tweet sent by Donald Trump in his incomparable wisdom didn't make one sit up and take notice. But a speech that António Guterres gave in a grave manner at the UN climate summit. "Ladies and gentlemen, nature is angry," announced the Secretary General of the United Nations in New York.

At home in front of the radio you thought you heard badly or understood wrongly, but before you could clean your ears or consult a dictionary, the next few sentences came with the sad certainty: Nature is indeed angry, and man, who nature cheats, commits a great foolishness; because it, nature, then strikes back. She always does that ("Nature always strikes back") and in our day even with particular rage: "Around the world, nature is striking back with fury."

But the madwoman can also show completely different faces. With Guterres' assistance, she turned into a pleading woman after just five sentences - according to the top UN official, the warming earth was now uttering a scream that made you shiver: "Stop." Then the earth spoke a true word, one could only agree with it: Stop! Stop this soulful chatter! They wanted to call out to Mr Guterres, but of course the man had a lot more to say.

Shortly afterwards, Greta Thunberg spoke to the United Nations, and in this speech, too, someone was so sad and angry that the result was disturbing. But here it was not humanized nature that was angry, but a young person, and instead of raving about the raging or starving earth, Thunberg hurled all the figures at the audience that justify the urgency of the problem. CO2-Budgets, probability calculations, tipping points and feedback effects appear reliably when Thunberg makes a speech somewhere - the Swede wants to use a "clear language" by her own admission.

Dramatic metaphors can also emerge. "Our house is on fire," she said at the WEF in Davos - but there was nothing to be heard of the avenging lust with which the flames licked towards the residents, of pleading whispering roof beams or the fraudulent intentions of any arsonists. No, the message of the picture was much simpler: The burning house that we have built becomes an extremely uncomfortable place to live, for us humans and many other species.

You choose your language

The comparison with the burning house may be found emotionally overloaded and alarmist, but all in all it can still be called sensible - it does what language often does and translates a thought into a picture. In less heated everyday contexts, this happens all the time: be it that we use clearly recognizable metaphors and, for example, deliver a concept with hand and foot or throw the gun in the grain, be it that we fall back on more hidden references and feel offended or injured, for example.

The fact that we transfer human traits to nonhuman things in our language is in principle something completely normal: mountains have backs and flanks, clouds move across the country, rain lashes over the fields, the sky is crying - or wait, is it more like the angels, who shed tears above sinful people? Here, linguistically, we are suddenly in a sphere that one would think that we have left in our minds for a long time.

At a time when natural events were still seen as a hint from God, it was logical to see rainfalls as heavenly tears or a flood as a punishment for secret pub visits - the power recognized the deception and fought back. Gradually, nature then took on the role of punishing God, in the 19th century, according to contemporaries, it avenged itself with floods for the “barbaric destruction” that had been done to it.

No matter how strongly our language tends towards the pictorial and anthropomorphic: Today nobody is forced to speak like that anymore. Whoever does it makes a choice, and it is remarkable that people in highly decorated offices like António Guterres choose it - when they also refer to a scientifically founded view of the world. It is more than astonishing to encounter an angry acting nature elevated to the judging subject within this reasonable structure. It is absolutely nonsensical to take a critical look at the “Anthropocene” with science on the one hand and to humanize nature in front of the united world on the other.

If it is rightly emphasized that humans have made themselves the center of the world at the expense of many other lives, shouldn't one first stop letting the whole world revolve around humans? Anyone who stylizes nature as a quantity that communicates with people, irrespective of whether they are angry or pleading, and teaches them with revenge, cannot or does not want to understand something fundamental: nature is not there for people. She has no messages ready for him, she has nothing to say to him, does not want to punish, improve or make him happy - and still deserve his respect.

Who is it that speaks of sin?

You wouldn't have to make such a big fuss about Guterres ’strange speech if it weren't also extremely annoying: The quasimagic speaking gives the whole environmental and climate debate a fatal twist or unnecessarily gives further impetus to a self-reinforcing spiral of discourse.

When the UN Secretary General speaks of punitive actions of angry nature, he is assuming that there had previously been shameful behavior on the part of the people - and thus gives the impression that we are mainly faced with moral questions. That it is about misconduct instead of problems, about purification instead of progress, about feelings of guilt instead of approaches to a solution, about restoring cosmic harmony instead of securing livelihoods in the medium term, in short: about religious belief instead of reasonable thinking.

Of course, you can hardly avoid this impression if you occasionally look at the media. This NBC campaign is probably the craziest of many: the American media company recently launched a “Climate Confessions” platform, a kind of online confessional in which users can anonymously confess their offenses (such as a grilled steak!) . We are all «climate sinners», that is to say, and in fact this word has penetrated deeply into the linguistic usage, without any quotation marks: Here a news site titled Trump as the biggest climate sinner, there a portal called China a huge CO2- Sinners, and certain politicians, too, do not blame themselves for calling the pollution of the environment a “kind of sin” - according to the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

That may sound somehow gripping and is probably done with the intention of touching people. But moralization strikes back, as Guterres would say. Because the most recognizable effect of the exercise is this: Countless critical commentators take up the style and now write more about the worrying "climate religion" than about the serious climate issue. And since the religious vocabulary is ready, it is of course used consistently and freely applied to the entire climate movement. Impossible to say how often Greta Thunberg was portrayed as a self-proclaimed "saint" in the course of this year, as the leader of a green "religion of salvation" that the climate youth, as it were, as apostles of the apocalyptic "ascetic movement", blindly follow.

If one made the effort to support such attributions with evidence, one would have to look for suitable passages in the papers of the Friday Movement for quite a long time. Sins? Acts of revenge? Moral claims to superiority? Harmonious relationships with mother earth? Unfortunately no, nothing of the kind can be read in the documents of the Climate Youth, just as little as heard in Thunberg's speeches. There are, above all, quite a few numbers to digest and scientific models to study. Of course, you can also use this to twist a rope for the youth and denounce their excessive belief in science - perhaps a way can always be found to denounce religiosity.

In the meantime, one can expect a meaningful way of expression from those people who promise to tackle the climate problem concretely - a language that takes the rational claim of the protest movement seriously, instead of subverting it with magical metaphors. "Nature does not take revenge, but it presents its accounts." - You could perhaps say that with the French author Jean Giono, if you really want to replace the hard language of numbers with something more poetic. The well-meaning mighty might, however, please refrain from coming up with further supposedly moving pictures and instead deal with the essential questions. There are enough of them, one would think.