What follows is the abstract of a talk I will be giving at the University of Utah next month; it's a further development on one aspect of my first post on the topic. I welcome all comments and suggestions.
How do we secure what we value and meet our obligations when the places we inhabit are in the grip of inexorable and irreversible change?
Human beings pursue projects in the context of particular places, which afford particular arrangements of opportunity and constraint shaped by underlying natural, social, and technological dynamics. Ethics may be understood as a form of inquiry into the motives and consequences of human projects, with environmental ethics drawing attention in particular to the impact of human projects on the non-human inhabitants of our various places, and even on place itself.
Many of our projects have been based on the assurance that place itself is deeply stable, that we can rely on particular arrangements and cyclical patterns of opportunity that will endure regardless of what we do. A growing concern among environmentalists is that we may undermine that stability through our continuing interference with the natural dynamics on which it rests. Seen this way, it seems imperative that we bring an end to that interference so that we can hold on to the stability we have always known and trusted. The moral touchstone for many environmentalists – and many environmental ethicists – is the status quo ante.
But what if it is too late? What if we are already on a one-way trip to some unknown destination, a landscape in which the apparatus we have built for pursuing our projects no longer functions? What if much of what we value is already, irrevocably lost?
In such a condition, human projects take on a peculiar ethical complexion. In particular, we undergo a shift in what we experience as important as well as a shift in what we perceive to be the opportunities and constraints afforded us now and in the future. Projects to secure values that are tied to such fragile places may take on the desperate urgency of a rearguard action, or the wistful resignation of a lost cause, or perhaps the hope of something utterly new.
Global climate change will no doubt spur a proliferation of cases in which a place shifts out from under the projects people are pursuing there. To get inside the experience of a fragile place, though, it is useful to focus on a smaller example driven by different dynamics: the Karori Sanctuary in Wellington, New Zealand.
The Karori Sanctuary was created in the 1990s with an ambitious goal: to restore a small (225 ha, 550 acre) patch of native New Zealand forest to a state as much as possible as it would have been before humans arrived on the island. Exotic predators are excluded from the sanctuary by a specially-designed fence, and native plants and animals are gradually being returned to the area, though some of the endemic bird populations will be dependent on supplemental feeding for some time to come.
Seen in context, though, the sanctuary seems to be an attempt to push back a surging tide. Not only is the sanctuary in the midst of a busy and relatively dense urban area, but it is on an island that has been undergoing a profound biogeographical upheaval since the first canoes arrived from Polynesia 800 years ago. Many of the bird species that would have been part of a pre-Maori New Zealand are now extinct, and many exotic plants and animals will be all but impossible to exclude. Seismic activity and climate change will also do their work here to ensure that the entire area will never be as it was, nor as people might want it to be.