This is an open letter to all writers, scholars, reporters, and policy-makers. More specifically, we also address this piece, respectfully, to editors from the world’s leading newspapers and news bureaus. The ask we are making is: Please, when you write the name of the planet, use the capital initial E: we live on a planet called Earth. Earth is a proper noun, a place, like New York, Nairobi or Nazca. By contrast, the word earth means soil or dirt.
The two may appear together, in the same report, on sustainable farming practices, for instance, but the distinction is important, and failure to recognize this distinction conveys a cavalier attitude about the facts. It may not be the case that a reporter is actually cavalier about the facts, but the message is sent, implicitly.
Such confounding of meanings affects the way the reader receives the report. For instance: no distinction between earth and Earth, a general assumption that greenness is a kind of implied wisdom, perhaps less respect than my 3rd Grade teacher gave to the Earth, as an entity with its own name, maybe this is an issue I can treat as a casual consideration.
Now, writers, scholars, reporters and policy-makers will all complain: such an explanation does not hold the average person accountable for a general disengagement from policy. True. We stipulate to that. But given that we know that we face this problem in the communication of meaningful facts about life-sustaining Earth systems, we cannot be casual about whether our communications conjure understanding or reinforce that problematic disengagement from the facts.
Whenever anyone writes earth in reference to the planet we inhabit, it suggests a series of intellectual confusions that diminish the relevance of the report subliminally in the reader’s mind. These include:
- Confusion about the difference between Earth (planet) and earth (dirt);
- Confusion about the urgency of the problem (threats to soil or threats to Earth’s life-support systems);
- Confusion about how language is structured and why;
- Confusion about which conceit (capital or lower-case) resonates with readers;
- Confusion about whether the planet we call Earth deserves full consideration as a place with a name.
- Confusion about which is more salient: individuals with proper names or a planet which does not get one.
- Confusion about the gravity and purpose of the report in question.
First and foremost, we urge all writers, scholars, reporters and policy-makers to consider: does it make sense to demote your own words before the reader’s gaze in any or all of these ways? Whom does this benefit, and is there any cost to correcting this unfortunate and uniquely problematic distortion of our standard grammar?
Beyond that, we also urge everyone to consider the various inauthentic intellectual postures that are suggested by this orthographic conceit:
- A derivation of the idea that using god as the name of God implies a greater degree of humanism (it may not);
- A derivation of the idea that defying the “institutionalizing power of proper names” means that using earth instead of Earth suggests a more “modern” or up-to-date way of thinking;
- A derivation of the idea that poetic writing about feeling the earth beneath our feet shows ecological awareness, so…;
- A derivation of the idea that using all lower-case letters in poetry provokes a more conscious way of reading (which it can, in poetry);
- A derivation of the idea that earth directs our thinking to ecosystems, while “Earth” directs our thinking to science fiction.
No writer should aspire to imply that these postures are behind his or her writing on the subject of the Earth’s climate system or the Earth’s life-support capabilities, or our common home, the planet Earth. Achieving that would only suggest the writing does not stand up on its own quality, but rather on the premise of imitating one of these postures.
It’s a simple thing, really: when you write about the planet, whether or not you precede its name with the article the, use the capital letter. Earth is a place, with a name; it makes no sense to say otherwise and only conveys a less than present conscious engagement with the topic.
Let’s start to send the signal that we want to do our planet justice, by at least using its proper name.