Language influences the way people perceive the world. And their environmental consciousness

10-10-2018

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change launches a new alarm about global warming, a recent study suggests the language we speak influence how much we care about the environment.

We already know that language is deeply rooted with culture, and significantly impacts the way people perceive the world, interact with other people, and even experience time. A new paper published by a team of Australian researchers on the Journal of Comparative Economics investigated the correlation between the way a language refers to the future, and the consequences on environmental behavior and policies.

Results show that native speakers of a language without a distinct future tense, such as Finnish or German, care more about the environment than speakers of languages with future tense marking, such as Spanish, French, English or Italian. According to their research, switching from a present- to a future-tensed language decreases individual willingness to contribute to climate protection by 20%, and willingness to pay higher taxes to fund environmental policies by 24%. At country level, stricter climate change policies can mostly be found where present-tensed languages are spoken.

Explanations might go back to cultural differences. Talking about the future as if it were today (it happens for present-tensed languages) probably makes people feel tomorrow as something close, so worth considering and addressing now. This might elucidate why people are more open to bear costs of sustainable measures, or pay higher prices for environmental-friendly products. Conclusions are partial, and however hard to be extended to cultures such as the Pirahã in the Amazon Rainforest, the Hadza in Tanzania or Mandarin Chinese, that do not distinguish between present and future in verb conjugations.

Nevertheless, some interesting insights for environmental campaigns can be inferred. In future-tensed countries, a highly urgent and pressing tone of voice should be sought, mitigating the effects of language by describing the dangers of climate change as worrisome as ever. But don’t overindulge in risk communication, or you might feed suspicion, fear and opposition, thus generating a counter-productive response.