When Confucius was asked what his immediate priority would be if he took over the government, he answered, “I would put the words right.”
He defended his view by arguing that if the words are wrong, people will not believe what the government says, and if they don’t believe they will not obey the laws, and if they don’t obey the laws there will be chaos. He did not have a mechanical view of language, but advised people to study good models, and to speak honestly, to give a true account of the nation. Weasley language leads to weasley policies which do not effect what they claim.
For example, take “net zero emissions” Now you might think that this means that any actual carbon emissions are offset by actual reductions now of the carbon in the atmosphere. No such luck: net zero emissions means that actual emissions are offset by purely notional reductions in carbon, to be achieved in the future by planted trees and the technology of carbon capture. Paying for these future means of carbon reduction allows me to continue polluting now.
So Net Zero Carbon actually means lots of carbon plus a good story.
If we want to survive we may need to put the words “net zero” right by going back to talking about real zero emissions now, and legislating for that, no matter the screams and threats from the petrochemical corporations.
Confucius talked about putting the words right first. The Gospel,of John says, “in the beginning was the word.” Confucius spoke of making a true account, and Sarah Ruden’s recent translation of the Gospel says, “In the beginning was the true account.” The Jesus tradition like the Confucian, sees the primacy of right language which comes from beyond but is used amongst human beings by the wise man or messiah. Jesus disliked promotional language. “Why do you call me good? Only one is good, namely God.” “Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything more comes from the devil.” His whole ministry can be seen as an assault on the false meanings given by religious leaders to words like “sinner,” “just” “blessed” “saved”. He tells Pilate that people who belong to the truth will hear his voice. Like a true COP26 politician, Pilate replies, “What is truth?”
As Confucius and the Christian tradition know, the true account is foundational, and can be discerned by honest people with help from the True Leaders. We must bring the rigour of our spiritual traditions to bear on what we are being told about net zero carbon. And the rest. If we put the words right we may be able to put the world right.