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| Thursday, August 30, 2018

“Tropospheria” is a word (starting today) meaning things of the troposphere. Since in our latitude the troposphere extends from ground level to about seven miles up, this faculty column will over the next few months clarify everything under the stratosphere.

Or maybe not quite.

The “tropo” in troposphere means “turn.” The troposphere includes the air that turns and moves with and around us. It is where we live.

The fauna and flora that share this turning air with us shaped my boyhood in the Appalachian corner of Maryland. But as a teacher of literature, I find myself drawn as much to another sort of troposphere, the world of tropes. These are the “turns” of speech that give us metaphor, irony, hyperbole, synecdoche, personification and so much more of what lets language dance.  

This troposphere of figurative language also turns and moves with and around us. It too is where we live.

The power and beauty of the figurative troposphere have held my interest for the past half century — and I hope that of my students. I sensed my mental home was there long before coming to these lines by the modern American poet, A.R. Ammons: “you have your identity when / you find out not what you can keep your mind on but what / you can’t keep your mind off.”

Of course, metaphors are not just for those of us who can’t keep our mind off them. We all use them and, when we do so unconsciously, are often used by them (metaphorically speaking). We often have no trouble recognizing the difference between literal and figurative meanings. Even in a stadium loud with the hopes of 85,000 people, it’s not hard to know that the verb in “What would you fight for?” means something different than the two-fisted leprechaun on the video board suggests.

The cause that feels increasingly worth fighting for is our fragile environment. And one available weapon in that fight is the readiness to analyze our discourse for the metaphors we use collectively and automatically.

Take the notion of “growth,” as applied to inorganic things, like economies, corporations and universities. Growth is usually an unquestioned goal. It is a mark of success for CEOs or academic leaders to say that their companies or colleges grew by X amount during their tenure. Presidents and parties like to promise growth and brag about it if it occurs, even if they have nothing to do with it.

Who could be against such an organic and energetic and healthy thing as growth?

But when we stop and think about that healthy part, we can imagine contexts in which growth is less welcome. After adolescence, the words “grow,” “growing” and “growth” are not reassuring in a doctor’s office. Even “benign growth” does not sound, well, benign.

Still, it’s hard to shake the idea that growth is good, that increase is always improvement. Legend has it that some years ago an Ivy League college asked members of its largely prosperous 25th reunion class whether they were satisfied with their income, and only two said yes: a billionaire and a forest ranger. Many of the rest said they could use about 10 percent more. Probably they soon got their wish — and soon reformulated it.

Whatever it might say about individual psychology, many environmental thinkers argue that a collective addiction to growth has brought us to our environmental moment. The so-called Great Acceleration from about 1945 to now has been a growth spurt like no other in human history. During this period the human population multiplied three-and-a-half times, economic activity increased more than 15-fold, and the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere reached relentlessly globe-warming levels.

Most people alive today are creatures of the Great Acceleration and have trouble understanding just how extraordinary it has been in the history of humanity. As the Great Acceleration’s native speakers, we so far have found learning another language very difficult.

The connotative language of growth may be the most important place where the physical troposphere and the figurative troposphere merge. Understanding that growth and health are not synonyms will be essential to our maintaining a physical troposphere that can support human civilizations.

Pope Francis writes in “Laudato si” of our extreme “rapidification” of life and work and notes that the “speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution.” This encyclical calls emphatically for a more intense “ecological education,” grounded in scientific understanding and strong enough to foster a “distinctive way of looking at things,” a “new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature.”

“Laudato si” is of course not the first papal writing to make such a call. Francis echoes the 1990 “Message for the World Day of Peace” in which Pope John Paul II called for “an education in ecological responsibility.” John Paul argued that “churches and religious bodies” should lead the way in such an education.

In his visionary 1999 book, “The Great Work,” Passionist priest and environmentalist Thomas Berry criticized universities for failing to teach economics students that a “rising gross human product” at the expense of a “declining gross Earth product” is pointless. More broadly, by teaching that “the nonhuman world is there fundamentally for the use of humans,” universities become “one of the principal supports of the pathology that is so ruinous to the planet.”

With thoughtful critiques like these in mind, one might expect that a Catholic university striving for an “unsurpassed undergraduate education” would excel in offering an education in ecological responsibility, one in which courses in earth systems, ecology, climatology, human geography and environmental economics would be, if not required, abundant and inviting for non-specialists.

With that expectation in mind, go to the class search and start scrolling through our current course offerings. Then, with your search results in mind, please email me your thoughts about how we — faculty and students — might need to grow. Figuratively speaking.

Professor Sitter teaches courses in poetry, satire and environmental literature in the English Department and team-teaches the introduction to the Sustainability Minor. He can be reached at [email protected] 


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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