IT IS FREQUENTLY CLAIMED that the human species already possesses the know-how to avert the direst consequences of climate change and environmental collapse – it’s now simply a matter of deploying this know-how.

And if humanity does navigate the perilous 21st century, history might one day reflect how a change in attitudes and behaviours allowed those deployments to proceed. In other words, a future history’s key topic would answer this question: How did we manage to persuade ourselves to stop destroying the planet?

Persuasion is the terrain of rhetoric, a 2500-year-old discipline with roots in Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. Rhetoricians study the way we use language to induce actions and effect changes in beliefs. You might say that nothing in the world gets done without an accompanying slice of rhetoric: goods aren’t sold without sales pitches, politicians can’t get elected without campaigns, children rarely leap into bed without wrangling, and scientific paradigms don’t shift without debate, negotiation and accommodation. It’s generally easier to make a persuasive case if truth is on your side, yet truth doesn’t pop into view without rhetoric as its midwife.

Rhetoricians don’t always focus on the conscious, motivated use of persuasive language by speakers. They often think more like scientists, imagining the world as a series of puzzles or problems that require answers or solutions. If a social or ecological system shows signs of distress, for instance, scientists may ask what sorts of inputs and activities are causing it, and what changes are required to eliminate it. Rhetoricians work along the same lines: What aspects of social reality are so distressed as to literally demand rhetorical solutions? The theorist Lloyd Bitzer used the term “exigence” to describe what emerges whenever some urgent situation needs rhetoric to put out the fire. If a friend tells you of the death of her parent, the situation demands a rhetorical response: sympathy, words of comfort and so on. If a president dies, the situation demands that the vice-president not only utter words of comfort to a shocked nation, but also tell its enemies that the chain of command remains unbroken.

If the planet is dying, what is demanded? This is the great exigence of our time. Granted, our best response would be massive, co-ordinated actions across a number of fronts. But we’re not ants. We don’t react as one mind – in fact, quite the opposite! So the exigence requires rhetorical aid to get everyone on the same page. None of the technical or social solutions we already possess will ever gain traction unless, in an odd inversion of a common phrase, we match our actions with rhetoric.

And how do we do that? Solutions that resonate do so because they meet the exigence with emotional or aesthetic appeal, often achieved by the suggestiveness of the nomenclature itself, the way that words spur the imagination, perhaps through encrusted connotations or metaphoric power. Even mathematicians don’t just seek the correct equation: they seek the elegant correct equation.

Resilience answers nicely to the real and rhetorical exigence. To be sure, resilience is in one sense merely the capacity of systems to absorb stress and maintain or even repair themselves. But resilience is also metaphor that embodies a number of characteristics that Aristotle required of all good figures of speech: it is active, primordial, concise and appropriate.

Resilience implies action, as in “building resilience.” To be resilient suggests an inner toughness: the strength, as its etymology tells us, to “jump back” to a previous state. Sustainability, by contrast, suggests a defensive posture: a desire to stay the same, to resist change, without the attractive ability to push back against change and win out. Resilience also connotes a measure of risk, while sustainability suggests that systems are set: they simply need to be cared for and so carried forward. Resilience acknowledges that risk is a constant, and that systems are always in a struggle against dissipation. If the seas are always calm and the weather mild, you don’t need to be resilient. But in this world, you must be resilient to survive.

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that political metaphors in North America have tended to cluster around the two poles of strict father and nurturing mother (guess which political parties align their rhetoric with each). It may be a stretch to claim that resilience is the tough-minded approach to environmental challenges while sustainability represents the softer touch. But it’s no exaggeration that the exigence of ecocide demands great attention to the rhetorical potentials of the concepts, words and metaphors that can best address our situation.

Andrew McMurry is an Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo

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