Thursday, April 29, 2010

Coal and Oil

As I write this, an oil slick is spreading in the Gulf of Mexico, following the April 20 explosion on an offshore oil rig that left 11 workers missing and presumed dead.  The rig sank, and oil is now leaking from the well at rate - reported just this morning - of 5,000 barrels a day.

On April 5, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia resulted in the deaths of 29 workers.

Both accidents involved the extraction of resources that make modern life possible.  The computer on which I type this is powered mainly by coal-fired generators, with a bit of hydroelectric and nuclear rounding things out, and I rode to work on a train likewise powered by largely by coal-based electricity.  To get to the train, I rode on a bus powered by diesel fuel and, later, I'll need to fuel up my car for a possible weekend road trip.  Those are only the most obvious connections between my daily life and the risks involved in resource extraction.

Both accidents are drawing scrutiny to the practices of corporations involved in resource extraction, and both are drawing scrutiny to government energy and worker safety policies.

But there the similarities between the two accidents end, or so I gather from media accounts. To be honest, I have not followed either story in close detail, but I've come away with an impression that the two accidents are being invested with very different sets of meanings.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


April is the cruelest month, here in Decatur, Georgia, but not for the reasons posited by Eliot.

Spring settled in a few weeks ago, bringing fine, warm days with bright blue skies and the fresh green of new leaves.  Winter has already receded into memory, and the most oppressive heat of a Southern summer is yet a month or two off.

If my family lived elsewhere, we might have our windows open all the time to take in the crisp, blossom-scented springtime air.

But we don't live elsewhere. We live here, in Decatur, a block from a busy commuter road.  When we open the windows on even the finest of spring mornings, the air is laden with the sickly smell of car exhaust compounded, we think, with mold and a simple excess of greenery.

It makes the healthy to wrinkle their noses, and the sufferer of chronic asthma to gag and reach for the inhaler.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Karori Sanctuary: Introduction

The Karori Sanctuary is an ambitious restoration and conservation project in Wellington, New Zealand.  It is a 225ha (550 acre) reserve nestled amidst suburban development, just a few kilometers from the central business district. I visited the sanctuary twice while I was living in Wellington, earlier this year, as part of a study abroad program run by Georgia Tech.

View Larger Map

I say the Karori Sanctuary is ambitious, but "audacious" might be a better term. The stated goal of the sanctuary is to restore the Karori Valley to some approximation of what it would have been the day before humans arrived in New Zealand, some 800 years ago. That's about when the Maori (often referred to as tangata whenua, "people of the land") arrived by canoe from eastern Polynesia.

According to the Karori Sanctuary Trust, completion of the project will take 500 years.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Mind Made Manifest

I'm currently reading David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, a mixed bag of observations and reflections woven together with his experiences bicycling through cities around the world.  Some of the observations are astute, some less so, but it is not my purpose here to write a book review.

Riding in and around cities offers what Byrne calls his "panoramic window" on the world. He writes:
Through this window I catch glimpses of the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in.  Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are. (Byrne 2009, 2)
He continues, a bit further on:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Freedom of Choice: Behavior and Action, part 2

The distinction raised in my last post comes out of a research project I've been pursuing for some years alongside my work in ethics of the built environment. That parallel project is more theoretical than practical, drawing from a range of sources in philosophy, biology, cognitive science, technology studies, and other fields to shed some light on the experience of being a moral agent, I hope revealing something of the character, scope and limits of agency.

This theoretical project has spilled over into my more practical project before, perhaps most notably in the final chapter of The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth (p.134), where I consider the limits of ethics in light of the problem of "impure agency" (following Walker 1993, p.241).  The two projects have also begun to intertwine in academic journal articles I've written, one of which is forthcoming in Ethics and the Environment, in which I ask, "Did Americans Choose Sprawl?"

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Behavior and Action

I've been attending a conference in Atlanta called Emerging Issues Along Urban/Rural Interfaces 3.  Organized by the Auburn Center for Forest Sustainability with support from an office of the USDA Forest Service, among others, the conference brought together ecologists, foresters, social scientists, and others (including two philosophers) to explore various dimensions of environmental change at the advancing edges of metropolitan regions.

From the first day of the conference, I noted a curious duality in discussions of human conduct, both past and present conduct that has led to environmental change and future conduct many at the conference would like to see from people.  In short, conference participants would sometimes talk about action, sometimes about behavior,  and sometimes about both at the same time.

They are not at all the same thing.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Maumee, Ohio

In the Preface of the book, I describe a series of aerial photographs that spurred my thinking about suburban environments.  For a variety of reasons I decided not to include those photographs in the book, but offer them here for your consideration.

These were sent to me by my cousin, Drew Sager, and show the same area of Maumee, Ohio at five different moments in its history.  The first is from 1938: