The one planet that harbors all life as we know it, and makes our existence possible, deserves at least a capital ‘E’ in its name.
This is an open letter to all writers, scholars, reporters, and policy-makers. We also address this piece, respectfully, to editors from the world’s leading newspapers and news bureaus.
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 a 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 that message comes through, implicitly. It also communicates that there is a hidden communicational conflict in the writing itself.
Such confounding of meanings affects the way the reader receives the report.
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 science, policy, or environmental consciousness. True enough. But, does that justify a less precise communicative strategy?
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 resonates with readers: the proper ‘Earth’ or the dismissive ‘earth’;
- 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.
Beyond that, 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.
All of these, in the writing of prose about our home planet, are pretensions and postures that impede the flow of clear meaning.
We urge all writers, reporters, scholars, and editors, to consider the value of NOT demoting your words, your work, your contribution to human learning, in these ways. When you write about the planet we call Earth, you are writing about the one place we know of that harbors life as we know it, and you are suggesting, whether you describe them or not, something about the value of the natural systems that sustain life.
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.
So, please: when you write the name of the planet, use a capital ‘E’.
It is literally the least you can do to support global awareness of our responsibility to be good stewards and protect that which protects us all.
This article was updated on March 26, 2018
Let’s do our planet justice, by at least using its proper name.