Word Play

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

I’m sure that everyone is wondering what I’ve been reading these days. [Well actually I’m being facetious. I don’t for a minute think that anyone woke up on a February morning thinking to themselves, “Gosh! It’s bothering me that I haven’t the foggiest notion what Paul Thompson has been reading of late.” But it’s a way to get things rolling and in fact I’m not really going to blog about all the stuff I’ve actually been reading, in any case. Now pretend that we didn’t even go down this wormhole and that you’re sitting there in front of your screen saying to yourself, “Yeah! What have you been reading, Paul?” and I’ll just continue on with the blog as if this never happened.]

Well I’ve been reading a book by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy called Resilience. Before I start knocking it (and that, after all, is the main reason that I would bring up anything I’d been reading in the Thornapple Blog) let me say that this is a very good book. Zolli and Healy use the idea of resilience as a pretence for stringing together stories about work being done by scientists and innovators in a number of diverse fields. I read a lot of books like this. I think of James Gleick as the master of this genre. His 1987 book Chaos is the archetype. On the one hand, it’s science journalism at its best. Short vignettes on individual scientists, heavy on character study and biographical detail, provide a narrative frame for conveying the scientific concepts that are central to their work. On the other hand, Gleick’s strategy of border crossing allows him to build bridges across scientific domains that seldom intersect. This allows him to achieve a synthetic vision of thresholds and cultural momentum that transcends the work of the individual scientists he surveys. Zolli and Healy are doing a pretty good job of that, too.

These books are pretty easy to read compared to the other stuff I’m reading but not blogging about. I read them because I imagine junior executives who have been upgraded to first class on coast-to-coast trips reading them, and I want to check the temperature of the water they are swimming in. Not that I would be familiar with more than a fraction of the scientific work being covered: I learn something, too. So I’m enjoying and learning from Resilience, which has pretty much been strung together by following up on the way that the word ‘resilience’ is being deployed in a number of very different scientific contexts. My context has been the work of ecologist Buzz Holling, who has been studying the way that ecosystems do (and do not) recover from catastrophic challenges and persistent insults. (And by the way, for Lansing locals, I’ll plug the upcoming visit of Carl Folke from the Stockholm Resilience Institute. Dr. Folke will be speaking on Feb. 25.) But Zolli and Healy include work on people who are resilient in the sense that they seem to function well in the face of personal catastrophes. It is a provocative synthesis.

BUT (and now you know the gripe is coming) they pissed me off right from the get-go by suggesting that ‘resilience’ is the new new thing, that sustainability is “getting long in the tooth” and that we need to just get over it. Both of my regular readers may recall that it was just about a year ago that I teed off on this thought, arguing that resilience has always been a part of sustainability thinking. Here’s my beef: Zolli and Healy are neglecting the way that “essentially contested concepts”—ideas that cross borders and therefore spark contestation and debate—are crucial to the resilience of our ways of talking, our ways of connecting, and our ways of thinking. And as my friend Bryan Norton has told us, ordinary (as opposed to specialized technical) language is our environment.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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