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Guest blog: Sustainability and Resilience as Metaphors

A few years ago I discovered that I am a member of a group of scholars and teachers known as environmental humanists: these are academics in a variety of departments--philosophy, languages, the various arts--who connect their disciplinary research with environmental issues. In my case, I “do” environmental discourse analysis or, more humbly, the rhetoric of the environment. Generally, I’m interested in what I’d call the “cultural politics of survival.” That’s a great nominalization for what really drives me: I’m scared spitless, and I think we’re all screwed. But to keep up the pretense of scholarly objectivity, I say that my work examines the narratives, concepts, and discursive structures that, unfortunately, are smoothing our way toward planetary catastrophe. Just to sound the obligatory note of hope, I add that my work also examines the capacities and affordances of those same structures to slow or halt our descent into the maelstrom.

Let me explain. Environmental rhetoricians would like to get a handle on the ways that language constructs our interchanges with the world around us. Words matter. We can all think of examples. What’s the difference between calling a certain place a dump as opposed to a sanitary landfill? There is motive to those metaphors. How about global warming versus climate change? Ancient forest versus timber resource? Or take the growing interest in the resilience metaphor.

Professor McMurry reading a book in the water

Resilience acknowledges the inevitability of stress, shock, and change in systems but it adds the connotations of adaptation, mitigation, and overcoming. Naomi Klein notes in her This Changes Everything that resilience as a metaphor is, like sustainability, “a passive process, implying the ability to absorb blows and get back up” (447). But to my mind that’s like saying a boxer is passive. I see resilience as an active, energetic metaphor, of the sort rhetoricians since Aristotle have preferred. It suggests that we must proactively steel ourselves against the impending storms and at the same time build up the resources to strike back after being knocked about. Resilience embraces risks and opportunities; sustainability hunkers down and husbands resources. Resilience is dynamic; sustainability is static. While sustainability chastens us, resilience flatters us: the metaphor implies we possess the wherewithal to absorb punishment and fight back with renewed strength.

Well, whether Klein’s gloss is right or mine is, it’s well-established that our metaphors do help shape our attitudes. You keep telling yourself the same thing over and over you may start to believe it, and to operate within the conceptual regime the metaphor embodies. We’ve been telling ourselves over and over for decades that what we need is sustainability, and too many of us believe that we’re on the cusp of it. We aren’t. The only thing we are sustaining is a devastating assault on the planet. That won’t continue much longer, as Earth begins to throw more punches at its pesky opponent. We’d better be ready for the blows. A resilient attitude could be of some value as we enter a warming world in which we can be certain of very little--other than the fact we stand to lose a great deal. A resilient society fully expects the sky to fall, and goes about the task of blunting the impact. The gutsy attitude of resilience may be one of the few resources we humans possess in abundance.

In the long run, attitudes matter less than chemistry and physics. But the courage to carry on in the face of unpleasant facts is one of the more admirable traits in our species’ mixed bag of qualities.

For more information about Professor McMurry's background visit his web page to find out more!

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