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Metaphors of Belligerence: Wars by and against Nature

Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else. Aristotle, Poetics (1457b)

It all seemed familiar. Anthropomorphised Mother Nature in vengeful mood; humans wondering if they might meet a frozen demise in trapped vehicles; the planners taking stock as to how best to cope with grim circumstances. The New York State governor Kathy Hochul was happy to stick her head out in declaring the latest lethal winter storm in Buffalo to be nothing less than a “war with Mother Nature, and she has been hitting us with everything she has.”

Having found her less than imaginative metaphor, the governor ran with it, suggesting that Mother Nature had laid waste to the region around Buffalo. “It is [like] going to a war zone, and the vehicles along the sides of the roads are shocking.”

Sappy media outlets have also taken up Hochul’s call from the parapets of battle, scouring the record for heartfelt accounts of the human spirit. The Guardian warmed to “stories of endurance, survival and rescue” – these are the sorts of things you expect when under attack from an omnipotent enemy. “Good Samaritans took stranded travellers into their homes; strangers worked together to help a snow-trapped expectant mother through some birth.”

Metaphors of war and the environment are rarely helpful. They conjure up false notions of battle, fictional platoons, ready reserves and resources marshalled against a retributive god or some sentient force of agency. Unfortunately, they are everywhere, and often conceptually shaky. “A solidified metaphor, a metaphor accepted unambiguously as truth,” writes Scarlet Marquette with accuracy, “is, in fact, a most pernicious force, inimical to truth.”

Officials have made it a habit to see war everywhere, often involving inanimate and abstract notions that do more to distort than clarify. They operate as enormous distractions in the service of not making policy. There are wars on sugar, salt, fat, poverty, homelessness and that colossally failed project known as the “War against Drugs.”

Such tendencies have seen a slew of publications, many of the specialised variety. One co-authored article in the dedicated journal Metaphor and Symbol argues that “war metaphors are omnipresent because (a) they draw on basic and widely shared schematic knowledge that efficiently structures our ability to reason and communicate about many different types of situations, and (b) they reliably express an urgent, negatively valenced emotional tone that captures attention and motivates action.”

That the action is necessarily well-directed or founded is another matter. Susan Sontag picked up on this point in examining illness and its various metaphors, writing that “military metaphors contribute to the stigmatizing of certain illnesses and, by extension, those who are ill.”

But the theme of Nature can also be taken from the other side: that humanity has brought wrath against itself for its plundering, fecund, and warring ways. Nature, in that sense, is the recipient of human bad behaviour, with humans refusing to come to the table and make peace.

The UN environment chief, Inger Andersen, sees much in that comparison. Unlike Hochul, her concern lies in the concern that human beings have been the unilateral aggressors, exploiters, and marauders. “As far as biodiversity is concerned, we are at war with nature. We need to make peace with nature. Because nature is what sustains everything on Earth … the science is unequivocal.”

Pausing to reflect on the birth of the 8 billionth human being was an occasion to celebrate, but “the more people there are, the more we put the Earth under heavy pressure.” That pressure came in the form of “the five horsemen of the biodiversity apocalypse,” namely, land-use, overexploitation, pollution, the broader climate crisis, and the spread of invasive species.

The same sentiment is expressed by the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who shifts the focus to humanity as the warring problem on Planet Earth. He puts his hope in the children to save us from this dilemma, hoping the young will be far more sensible in making peace. “I am continuously inspired by their commitment & leadership in tackling the war against nature.”



If one starts off with the premise that human beings are prone to such innate war making tendencies – and this premise has been challenged – alternatives have been suggested. The philosopher William James proposed a re-channelling of such desires in his address, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Instead of killing each other, humanity might go about other pursuits.

Unfortunately, such redirections bring environmental consequences James could scant see. “To the coal mines and iron mines, to freight trains … to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youth be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

Another rechannelling is required, but it will not be found in the exhortations to survival suggested by Hochul. Her language is not that of humans bound to nature as collaborative ecological agents, but warriors besieged. In that analysis, nature itself is stigmatised. Like Medea, she will kill her children, and is accordingly to be feared.


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  1. Clakka

    Seems that’s how they like to roll.

    They’ve been whacked with a cold spoon, yet they fiddle. Getting off on an ism or anything else that can pass their lips or they can put their hand to.

    Such is the land of hope and glory.

  2. Canguro

    I’m not optimistic, if the likes of Hochul are at all representative of where the cognitive interpretations of so-called ‘leaders’ are at. A clear-eyed perspective cum analysis of the imperatives and motivations of the whole political class, whether stateside, European, Australian and no doubt practically everywhere on the planet will reveal a dearth of wisdom and abundance of ignorance in relation to this vexing and imperative existential issue currently beggaring the whole of mankind as well as the myriad of fellow organisms unfortunately tethered to the orb and destined to share the future with the environmental wreckers & pillagers known, ironically, as Homo sapiens.

    Voices in the wilderness, Guterres, Thunberg, Andersen, Monbiot, and others, driven to despair at the obdurate ignorance and utter inertial incapacity to rationally respond to the snowball trundling downhill and about to swallow all in its stride – poor metaphor that that is – it can’t be easy being a spokesperson on behalf of impending disaster when the larger mass of humanity remain hypnotised and glued to their distractions but this, alas, is the default reality, and thus it comes as no surprise when ignoramuses such as Hochul declare, wide-eyed and astonished, that Nature is at war with humanity. Where the fuck has she been for the last thirty years, aside from having her head, ostrich like, stuck up her arse?

    A cartoon circulated around NYE, showing two aliens in conversation. One says to the other, ‘What are they celebrating?’, and the other replies, ‘Their planet completed another revolution around its star’, to which the first responds, ‘I told you they were unintelligent.’

    We’ll reap from what we’ve sown, nothing surer, such are the inviolable laws of physics along with all the ancillary sciences, biology, chemistry, and the rest.

  3. Kerri

    If we are at war with nature? Then nature is Ukraine and we are Russia.
    And Canguro?
    I could not agree more. If there is extra-terrestrial life, it has probably looked at earth and decided to seek intelligent life instead.

  4. Stephen S

    War “against” nature, not “with”. Not at all helped by the UN, which refuses to see the eight billion as the problem.

  5. andy56

    see i see nature as having a sense of humour. We defy nature with science and medicine. Nature fights back with stupid. Yes the morons who would normally become a minority are also living longer. Unless we can raise the standard of humanity, the number of idiots in this world will become a constant and nothing will change. Evolution has stalled, hahahahahaha

    we have tried education and that made a small difference but really, it hasnt achieved anything like what we expected. Mean while, medicine is saving more people from an early grave. How ironic indeed.

  6. Leigh B

    Interesting to note that conflict metaphors are used to galvanise the populace into action, but really it is a distraction the problem is the atmospheric gases, and until those gases are reduced, the planet will continue to warm, with the climatic disasters we now witness, will continue and the overpopulation is an overriding factor, We seem to prone to pushing the limits, with a climate giving clear signs of a diminishing production we continue in the opposite direction.
    Taking the long view it can only get worse and a proverbial perfect storm of storms seems to forming

  7. Donald JT

    Yes, projecting onto nature a human quality, in this case weakness called vengefool belligerence. As if nature cares.
    If NY State gov Kathy Hochul wants to decrease the severity of storms she could call on the Dept of Defense and see how their ‘Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025’ program (1996) is going. It should be close to full speed by now if not a decade earlier. I’m sure they can help out. In their 1996 paper under the heading ‘DEGRADE ENEMY FORCES’ there’s this capability – ‘Storm Modification’. Given the advances in tech over the last 27 years it’s easy to imagine the DoD can ‘degrade’ any enemy force, including nature without batting a covert eyelid. But until the facts are declared by some cookie-cutter trusted news-reader parroting a narrative it’s all just a conspiracy theory.

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