Opinion | When words fail

Opinion by Elena Shao
May 17, 2021, 8:54 p.m.

I name nearly everything I come into contact with. I’m not sure where I picked up the habit, but the bird that perches on the chair next to mine when I’m working at a table outside Coupa has a name, and so does the squirrel that scares the bird away as it darts up into a tree that lends me shade, and so does that tree. I have a deep need to feel close to the things that I live with on this planet, and the names are my way of saying, I noticed you in this moment; I’m remembering you in this moment.

I’m can’t put into words exactly why I think giving them the specificity of a name feels important, but maybe it’s something like empathy, like wanting to make sure every living thing I meet gets a bit of my care. It’s also not exactly that, though — it’s more like empathy if it was stretched so thin that it was practically translucent, like if I pull on it on one end it will leave the other uncovered, as though I have to do this myself yet don’t have enough hands to force it on all edges to blanket the entirety of the Earth.

I don’t have the right words, either, when my friend opens up the weather app and complains that there’s a 7% chance of precipitation in Palo Alto at 9 p.m. on Wednesday. I tell myself it’s a good time for me to practice being less pessimistic. Don’t say that we might need a little rain right now. Don’t say that every high-of-75, sunny, no clouds, no rain day is actually a grim reminder that this place has been parched for weeks, the air getting drier and water levels dipping lower. Don’t say that there was actually a “red flag” fire warning on the second day of May this year, which hasn’t happened since 2014. Don’t say that you actually wish it would rain and rain and rain, enough to swallow the fires that would have swallowed people and homes, and then rain a bit more, enough to wash away the guilt of enjoying those 75 degrees outside, grass prickling my bare skin, droplets of dirty fountain water stinging my shirt, sun burning into my scalp.

As someone who hopes to make a living off of writing, it feels like a failure when I can’t find the right words to describe to my friend this messy ball of anxiety and hope and guilt and love and dread and awe. There isn’t a word, or a combination of them, specific enough. Even if there were, by the time I could find those words we would have moved on to something else. So instead I commiserate: I know, right — the audacity the rain has to fall on our spring quarter.

The biggest perpetrators of the climate crisis have found ways to profit off of this sort of confusion, guilt and anxiety. The famous 1970s “Crying Indian” television advertisement shows a Native American (actually played by an Italian American actor) paddling a boat through a river of trash, the camera zooming in on his face as he sheds a tear and as a voiceover narrates, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Funded in part by huge beverage and plastic packaging companies like The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, the messaging is clear: Plastic pollution is your problem, not ours.

The fossil fuel industry would borrow from the beverage industry’s playbook a few decades later. The concept of an individual’s carbon footprint, or the total amount of greenhouse gases that our daily actions generate, is at its core a manipulative public relations stunt, carefully crafted by big oil companies like British Petroleum (BP), which was the first to unveil a carbon footprint calculator, profiting from a consumer’s guilt. Emissions are also your problem, not the problem of just a hundred companies like BP that create 70% of global emissions.

I’ve been told to blame these huge corporations, but that doesn’t ease the responsibility I still feel. I chose to be a journalist because I think that’s the best way for me to meet that responsibility. But I still question what to do when words fail me. I know that estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey show that California has permanently lost six trillion gallons of water due to groundwater pumping practices that have reduced the state’s capacity to store that water. I know that each year, we’re set to permanently lose tens of thousands of species in a mass extinction for which humans are wholly responsible. But I don’t know exactly how to express what I think about it all.

I try these words: devastation, tragedy, concern. Loss. It’s not the right word, either. Loss doesn’t perfectly describe something that’s changed forever, and not just a forever as we can imagine it in our short lives, but a forever that is even a forever to a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth. I had always wanted to impart this world with something permanent — but not this way. Increasingly I wish I could make myself smaller and smaller. The more easy my actions and I are to forget, the better.

The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board wrote two weeks ago that there is no drought — not if a drought means a period of dry years followed by a return back to the norm. Droughts are deviations from the norm, they wrote, and what we have now is no deviation. “It is the norm itself.”

All I could think about is how we have said these words, “returning to normal,” over and over in the past year to describe patterns of people who are trying hard to forget what it’s like to be constantly bombarded with pain. When that phrase seems to be just a little too good to be true, we temper it: So it won’t be a return to normal as we once knew it, but it’s at least a new normal. And who doesn’t like shiny, new things and spaces rife with opportunity and excitement?

I think about the marine fog that used to be a Bay Area staple, now missing from the coasts, and Pacific Island nations losing homes and roads and livelihoods to sea-level rise the same way people in San Francisco will if we wait much longer to act. I think about how the coral reefs bleached paled in the face of environmental ruin, almost as if they can see what we refuse to, and they’re frightened. Is this what we mean by getting used to a new normal? Because if so, those words don’t seem quite right to me, either.

Maybe the right word to describe the state of our planet now is the one we’re afraid to use: abnormal. That word is concerning, it’s undesirable. It’s dizzy with worry, it’s the type of feeling I’d call my doctor to ask about, not one I’d happily launch myself into the future with, armed with all the gusto of someone who has spent a year trying to experience growth and reinvention.

And maybe the right word for how I feel is something like homesickness — something like longing for a place you once loved, something like grieving for the loss of a home you might not be able to return to, even though you never really left, something like an uneasiness because the longer you spend away, the more formless that image of home gets. I need to commit this specific creature to memory. I’m remembering you, specifically, in this moment. 

“Belly,” for the bird’s distinctive orange stomach and the way it puffed its chest up, proud. “Emma,” because the squirrel paused and turned toward that name when someone else called it, and I took it as a sign. “Ochre,” because that’s the color of the paint I would have chosen to illustrate the way the sunlight hit the branches of that tree and turned its dark shadows golden.

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Elena Shao '21 is from Suwanee, Georgia. At The Daily, she is a Managing Editor for News. Outside, she's studying political science. She also enjoys learning foreign languages and is hoping to pursue a career as an investigative and data journalist. Contact her at eshao98 'at' stanford.edu.

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