The Problems with Popularity: “Catagenesis” and Other Buzz Words

Thomas Homer-Dixon gave a public lecture in Westmount [Quebec] this week. He is political scientist based out of the University of Toronto, currently gaining more renown for his “general writing” in books like The Ingenuity Gap than his “academic writing” (a dualism which he himself constructs via his website, and one which seems to depressingly devalue the weight of his “general” best-sellers). His work – all of an academic grain, I argue – centres around mechanisms of societal adaptation to major economic, technological, and environmental rupture.

Homer-Dixon’s lecture was aimed at a large, public audience, and thus did not delve deeply into densely theoretical jargon or details. Broadly-speaking, he spent an hour discussing his own diagnosis and prescription (his analogy, not mine) for effecting action in environmental change. As a result, there are a multitude of avenues for discussion – about the environment and further – that I could explore here. But I have decided to use this blog post to discuss a conspicuous element (and slight exasperation) I found in both his writing and speaking: the invention, use, and promotion of what I label “buzz words” to iterate – and reiterate – or elicit an awareness of contemporary environmental issues.

Homer-Dixon’s creation of choice is “catagenesis,” a combination of “catastrophe” and “genesis,” which also generally outlines the thesis (and title) of his newest book: The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization; in other words, he posits the notion that societal adaptation stems, in part, from the necessary renewal and rebirth that follows major upheaval – like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which he cites in both book and seminars.

I must emphasize that my contention is not with the explanatory frameworks such combo-words provide, but rather the popular culture trends they espouse. Trends, by definition, lose momentum and quickly disappear, consequently rendering that which they encompass virtually meaningless. Like “sustainability,” I fear the aforementioned terms may only serve to arouse short-term, large-scale interest, rather than turn the material it intends to convey into concise, comprehensible, enduring language. “Sustainability,” for example, seems to have become something people think is supposed to be good, and of which they are supposed to be proponents; comprehension is superficial at best, and because it was the “buzz word” of Al Gore’s 2006, its use and enthusiasm for its pursuit is fading. Thomas Homer-Dixon addressed this point himself at the end of his lecture, joking that “resilience is becoming the new sustainability.” He did not seem to acknowledge that this sort of jargon transience may in fact be dangerous. I posit that the increased use of these catchy-sounding (and now, combination-style) “buzz words” is actually the first step in steering society away from clearly understanding and consequently caring about and acting on environmental issues such as climate change. People cannot engage in discussion or debate over words that do not carry weight.

4 Responses to “The Problems with Popularity: “Catagenesis” and Other Buzz Words”

  1. sieber says:

    The reliance on the catastrophe for change reminds me so much of Naomi Klein’s new book, The Shock Doctrine. I realize he urges us to act before the catastrophe occurs and to look for the sliver lining when it does. But I wonder if, just a little bit, we get absolved of any contribution to the drivers for the catastrophe or of any need to unravel the complex interactions. Instead we are allowed to enter into a nihilistic fugue while waiting for the cataclysm to happen.

  2. crocus says:

    Well said. I think that this is precisely why there is more public discussion about environmental issues (why it is bad) and not about environmental action (what we can do about it). People feel overwhelmed by environmental crises and yet all they hear is jargon without knowing the meaning behind it: “I believe that sustainability is a good thing, but I don’t know how to live in a sustainable fashion” (what it actually means to put it into practice). These “buzz words” do not help to show the connection between ones actions and the outcome of those actions

    Perhaps this is where science needs to up it game – instead of touting words that only carry meaning if you know the basis behind it (resilience only means something if you understand the adaptive cycle and what the consequence of “non-resilience” is), we need to put more emphasis on how these concepts work in everyday life. This is what I felt lacked in the presentation by Homer-Dixon, and indeed in many public presentations about such concepts.

    I think this also goes Sieber’s comment about letting society off the hook for what we are doing today. If we know how our actions today translate into the breakdown tomorrow we are more likely to work against it instead of waiting for the catastrophe to occur.

  3. merle says:

    Following the same line of thought as Crocus, I think that this critique of using “buzz words” in science really bites when one considers beyond the discourse scientists have with their peers. Of course, “buzz words” can already be seen as problematic within a community of scientists belonging to different disciplines, as is the case, for instance, at the MSE. Having in mind Dr. John Holmes lecture on science and policy making, however, it seems to me that privileging the use of a jargon made of “buzz words” where it is not always necessary is adding an unnecessary difficulty to an already problematic discussion among scientists, policy makers and the public.

  4. Jones says:

    About “buzz words”: I like to think of them as mere rhetoric. Words like freedom, liberty, justice, even democracy, are words touted by many people to argue a position that is often wrought with intense emotion and political implications. They are forceful words because their meanings are obscure. Many have no agreed upon definition – like sustainability. Almost anyone can use the word for one’s own ends. The reason, therefore, that I think such empty words as sustainability and freedom become so popular is that anybody can act in the name of sustainability and freedom with respect to their own interpretation of the word.