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2020 in Words: Insights into the Trajectory of Humanity on the Blue Marble

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” 

– Rita Mae Brown, American feminist writer

At the end of each year the Oxford English Dictionary selects a word of the year. The selection is both retrospective, chosen because of dramatically increased use in both published and social media, but also prospective, for calling attention to the word of the year tends to increase its use.

A year ago I wrote a blog about the 2019 word of the year: Climate emergency. Before discussing the 2020 Oxford Dictionary word of the selection result, let me review the connections among the words of the year for the last four years.

The post-truth era was ushered in by Donald Trump’s election and his stance denying climate change. That contributed to the growing awareness among youth that political leaders were not acting on climate change thereby creating a strong sense that their future was being put in jeopardy. The youthquake emerged and has been building momentum since. The youthquake has unfolded in a toxic environment that includes multiple dimensions of toxicity: toxic political polarization, toxic relationships between police and minorities, toxic political rhetoric, toxic white nationalism, and, of course, toxic pollution of the air, land and water in many forms.

So, dealing with the climate emergency means reversing toxicity while the mobilization of youth, the “youthquake,” is dramatically and urgently taking on the post-truth denial of the climate crisis. Beyond climate deniers, and perhaps even more concerning to youth, are the politicians who are climate change believers but despite their stated beliefs and knowledge, are failing to act. The youthquake is aimed at dramatic and urgent action to reverse the climate emergency, for without such action, the future of humanity is threatened.

Youthquake and Climate Emergency Update

On November 30, European states were ordered by the European Court of Human Rights to respond to a climate lawsuit from youth activists. “It is no exaggeration to say that this could be the most important case ever tried by the European Court of Human Rights,” said Marc Willers QC, who is representing the young plaintiffs. He said that it puts an onus to act on the 33 governments named in the lawsuit. “We know they are not yet doing enough and the court’s decision to give the case priority status will add to the ever-growing pressure on European governments to act on the science and take the necessary steps to tackle climate change.”

The plaintiffs are four children and two young adults from Portugal who argue that tougher climate action is needed to safeguard their future physical and mental wellbeing, to prevent discrimination against the young and protect their rights to exercise outdoors and live without anxiety. The details of the case and its potential consequences are worth perusing. (Thanks to Ian Davies for forwarding this.)

Blue Marble Evaluation Implications

Two Blue Marble Evaluation principles are especially germane to the climate emergency    framing, one overarching and one operating principle:

  • Anthropocene as Context Principle: Know and face the realities of the Anthropocene —   and act accordingly. The climate emergency is a manifestation of the dire consequences for humanity of the Anthropocene.
  • Time being of the essence principle: Act with a sense of urgency in the present, support   adaptive sustainability long-term, grounding both in understanding the past. Emergencies are, by definition, urgent.

2020 Word Selection Result

For the first time since it began identifying a word of the year in 2004, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) staff found that they could not settle on a single word. “It quickly became apparent that 2020 is not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single ‘word of the year,'” the OED said, with the language adapting “rapidly and repeatedly.” Instead, they identified…

Words of an Unprecedented Year

bushfire”  Increased forest and brush fires around the world herald the acceleration of the climate emergency in the Anthropocene.

Many of the year’s words capture the Blue Marble Evaluation transformational engagement principle, signaling major systems transformations underway and the turbulence, uncertainty, and unpredictability that accompanied those transformational trajectories throughout 2020.

Covid-19,” a completely new word, first recorded on February 11. That was followed by other words capturing related systems changes throughout 2020:

  • “lockdown,”
  • “social distancing“
  • “reopening“

Black Lives Matter” at the center of the social justice uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis

“cancel culture” a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – either online on social media, in the real world, or both. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to be “canceled.”

“BIPOC,” an abbreviation of “Black, indigenous and other people of color.”

“Mail-in” related to a greatly expanded and controversial voting option in the US presidential election

“Moonshot” connoting the mammoth scope of the search for a Covid-19 vaccine

“net zero” – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge that the country will be carbon neutral by 2060

“superspreader,” a word that dates to the 1970s, according to the OED, but saw a spike in use after a cluster of Covid-19 cases at the White House.

Tracking Anthropocene patterns and trajectories

There are a great many quantitative indicators of the state of the world as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. Data show record-setting temperatures globallymelting glaciersrising seasspecies extinctionloss of biodiversityincreased climate refugeespandemic infection and death ratesmounting disparities between the haves and have-notspolice violence, and any of the more than 200 SDG indicators which are failing to be met. But these words of the year offer qualitative data to enrich our understanding of the human dimensions of trends depicted by the quantitative data. Words tell stories. They carry meanings. They emerge, grow in use, and become embedded in our communications because they call our attention to important things that are happening, things we need to pay attention to, things that matter, now and for the future in our personal lives and collective well-being.

Words for reflection

Writers savor language. Readers savor the language constructed by writers, or at least writers so hope. Blue Marble Evaluators track and savor language. Pay attention to, savor, inspect, deconstruct, and use these and other 2020 emergent words to make sense of our unfolding lives on the Blue Marble.

  • What do these words of the year tell you about 2020?
  • What words would you add from your own local experience to our global lexicon, making them glocal?

Share your own 2020 word nominations in the comments.

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