The Wordsmith


Protecting the environment and fighting global warming have become obsessions, and with good reason. Everything comes down to environmentalism. So much so that there are now countless words featuring the prefix “eco,” from “ecocide” and “eco-activism” to “ecotourism” and “ecofeminism.”
© Sylvie Serprix

Whether climate change deniers like it or not, the effects of global warming are increasingly stark worldwide. Every year sees a new wave of natural disasters, the scale of which is driven by human activity. The term “eco-anxiety” has now appeared, describing the fear that these phenomena inspire.

Having decided that action is the best remedy for anxiety, eco-activists regularly take a stand. One of their favorite actions is to deface – symbolically – famous works of art. In this game, designed to attract media attention, British activists have been particularly imaginative. In late 2022, paintings by Constable and Van Gogh were the targets of their “performances.”

Anyone can see that words formed using the prefix “eco,” from the Greek oikos, meaning “house” or “habitat,” which is also used in the term “economy” (“management of the home,” from the original Greek), are cropping up everywhere in daily speech. Many commercials and government messages promote eco-citizenship, eco-products, and eco-actions such as turning down the thermostat and turning off public lighting at night. Eco-driving is also encouraged to save gas. By what miracle? By keeping revs low and maintaining a steady speed – which means avoiding forceful acceleration and breaking. And don’t forget to turn off the engine when at a standstill!

A quick glance at the dictionary can be useful. The entries and words cited include “eco-physiology,” “ecoterrorism,” “ecospecies,” “eco-grazing,” “eco-neighborhood,” “eco-tax,” and “eco-toxicity.” These are, of course, accompanied by “eco-industry,” “eco-planning,” “eco-construction,” and “eco-tourism,” also known as “green tourism” and focused on the discovery of nature and agricultural systems. This is twinned with “eco-accommodation,” which offers a vast number of options including “eco-hotels,” “eco-lodges,” “eco-homes,” “eco-camping,” and “eco-villages,” all of which are certified by “eco-labels.”

“Eco-house,” “eco-habitat,” and “eco- farm” are just a few of the English portmanteau words that, as in so many other economic and social fields, have inevitably entered the French language. Visitors to France may see products touted as “eco-friendly” despite the fact that the Gallic terms écocompatible and écoresponsable are just as suitable.

Another term increasingly used is “ecocide,” formed from the same root as “genocide” and “ethnocide.” What’s more, the proposal to task the International Criminal Court with punishing serious and sustained attacks on the environment seems to be making progress. Upon further inspection, we find that this “ecomania” has a long history. Many years ago, in the mid-20th century, people were already talking about “ecosystems.” Borrowed from the life sciences, in which it describes a basic unit formed by an environment (desert, mangrove, forest, lake, etc.), this term has now entered other fields such as computer science, where it refers to an ensemble of complementary devices and software.

In the 1970s, the word “ecodevelopment” was already in use. Invented by economist Ignacy Sachs, born in Poland in 1927, it consists in pursuing “economic growth that is both environmentally friendly and socially inclusive.” According to Sachs, a pioneer of today’s ecological struggles, sustainable development and social equity must go together.

However, careful you don’t start seeing ecology everywhere. Degrees in éco-gestion (“eco-management”) taught at French universities have little to do with the environment but a lot to do with the economy, offering careers in banking, finance, marketing, and computer science.

Used as much as an adjective as a noun, the French term écolo (“environmentalist,” “eco-warrior”) was an informal and even pejorative word not too long ago, but has since become commonplace. However, strict environmentalists are no longer alone on the political playing field. Eco-socialists are now trying to hog the spotlight, while another movement, ecofeminism, is scoring points in far-left circles.

And that’s not all! Eco-fascism, even if the leaders of this school of thought reject the moniker, is making its voice heard on the other end of the political spectrum. Calling for the rise of a totalitarian regime and claiming that is the only way to protect the environment, part of the far right is suggesting nothing less than the complete abandonment of modern technology and a drastic reduction in the human population – similar to the idea developed by English economist Thomas Malthus in the 19th century. A manifesto that sends chills down the spine.

Being green, it seems, can come in many different shades!

Article published in the April 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.