Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Worry?

As the year draws to a close, I have been looking back over my various posts on the tragic outlook, to draw together the main threads of the discussion and to set a research agenda for the new year.

It strikes me that I have left an essential question unanswered, though I posed it in my post of 11/11/11.

I raised two question at the beginning of that post:
First, what has the tragic outlook to do with ethics in the built environment? Second, what do I mean by 'outlook'?
I suggested, very briefly, that
[t]he quick answer to both of these is to say that I propose to consider the city in its cosmological context.
At the time, I developed an answer only to the second question:
I take an outlook to be a basic orientation to the cosmos, a basic set of beliefs about how and to what degree the world is ordered, how and to what degree it can be expected to make sense.
More specifically, I connect a tragic outlook to a skeptical approach to cosmology:
When considering the city and the cosmos, I am aware of the possibility that things may go very badly wrong, and that there is little reason to believe there are any built-in safeguards against the logical consequences of our folly.
Implicit in this is an answer to the first question, regarding the relevance of a tragic outlook to ethics in the built environment: it is a matter of what we expect and what we hope for as we carry out our particular projects in particular places, how prepared we are - as individuals and as communities - to respond to uncertainty, change, and the possibility of loss.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Bizarrely Incomprehensible Post

As long as I am acknowledging my intellectual debts, I should pay tribute to a writer who had an early, deep, and not entirely explicable influence on my outlook on the world: Douglas Adams.

Yes, it does seem strange to be writing this. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not exactly part of the canon of essential philosophical treatises.

It's very funny, of course, and has tremendous appeal to people of a certain culture who went through adolescence in the 1980s, but is it really worthy of serious tribute from someone who claims to be a serious philosopher?

Well, that's part of the point, of course.

Friday, December 16, 2011

From the Archive: From the Margins (1991), part two

With my presentation at the Earth Day Forum in 1991, I took a few, tentative steps toward a phenomenology of place intended to inform a practical environmental ethic.

I mainly focused on a pervasive theme in Berry's work, a theme made explicit in his essay, "Preserving Wildness" (1987): the intertwining of the domestic and the wild in the landscapes we inhabit, and even in our own bodies. Wildness pervades our experience, at the margins of the domestic realm, the boundaries between landscapes.
Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. the margins are of utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins - lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like - are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are placed on human intention. (Berry 1987, p.151)
Berry dubs this alternative to monoculture a "landscape of harmony" (Ibid.). To get there from where we are, we must move from an exploitive attitude to a nurturing attitude, a profound cultural shift that cannot originate within the exploitive attitude itself.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


This past Saturday, I traveled with my family up to the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. We go to Brasstown fairly regularly: my wife and daughters have attended classes there, and I have played fiddle and my wife has called for contra dances in the excellent dance hall in Keith House.

The occasion this time was a dance party to honor our friend, Bob Dalsemer, who coordinates music and dance programs at the Folk School. At the event, Bob was awarded the Lifetime Contribution Award from the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS).

Dancers and musicians from around the region and beyond converged for an evening of contra, square, and English country dances, punctuated by performances of traditional clogging and English ritual dance, including Morris, rapper, and garland.

While I danced, and listened, and watched, I began to think about the geography of traditional dance, starting with the odd fact that Brasstown, which barely amounts to a crossroads in the mountains of far-western North Carolina, looms so large in the imagination of people in the traditional dance community. The programs at the Folk School draw together dance and music traditions from the southern Appalachian region with those from New England, the British Isles, and elsewhere.

Friday, December 9, 2011

From the Archive: From the Margins (1991), part one

Following up on my last post, I dug deep into my files to find the notes from a presentation I gave at the very beginning of my work in environmental ethics. Doing so has brought me around to acknowledging one of the oldest and deepest of my intellectual debts.

For giving shape to my thought in environmental ethics, and for raising questions about place and character with which I still grapple in every aspect of my life, I owe a debt of gratitude to Wendell Berry.

I first became aware of the field of environmental ethics in 1988 when, as an undergraduate student at Miami University, I enrolled in a course in the subject offered by Stan Kane (to whom I also owe a debt of gratitude). One of our readings for the semester was an essay by Wendell Berry, titled "Preserving Wildness," which had just been published in his collection, Home Economics (1987)

The essay had a profound influence on the direction of my thought but, until this last trip to the archives, I had forgotten just how profound and pervasive was that influence.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Wild

A few weeks ago, I was in the car with my family on our way home from visiting friends in another part of Decatur. It was well after dark.  I was stopped at an intersection when I was surprised to see a large canine loping up the middle of the street, moving quickly away from us.

Something about its size and proportions, and about the way it moved, the way it owned the street, suggested it was not a domestic dog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sense of Time Passing

I am currently in the process of revising a journal article in which I take the Karori Sanctuary in Wellington, New Zealand as an example of what I call a transitory place. I intend the paper, in part, as a revision and expansion of the notion of place as I articulate it in the book, as part of an experiential approach to ethics. I also intend it as one contribution to my current, much larger project of examining the possibility and practicality of a tragic outlook in environmental ethics and policy.

In the original version of the paper, I ended by introducing what I take to be the next question: What does it actually mean to have a sense that the Karori Sanctuary, or any other place, is transitory? What does it mean to have a sense of time passing, a sense of things passing away?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Quick Take: Tree Removal

I was hoping to write something of more substance today, but didn't manage it, for various reasons. This photo might provide some diversion in the mean time.

It isn't every day the world offers up a genuine sight gag, free for the taking.
This was on Ferst Drive, on the campus of Georgia Tech in midtown Atlanta. As it happens, I messed up in taking the picture: when I took this, the tree marked for removal (with a large orange 'X') is still standing, just to the left of the frame.

At first glance, it just looks as though someone missed. (Hey, give 'em a break! At least what they are removing was made of wood!) But, on reflection, there's something more deeply odd about this. 

Clearly, whoever is carrying out this removal is required to post public notice that a tree removal permit has been secured from the City of Atlanta. There seems to be no such requirement for posting notice of a permit to demolish a house, however.

A colleague jogged by just as I was taking this picture, and he also commented on the oddness of the scene: it seems to indicate the relative power of Atlanta's tree ordinance.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Quick Take: Packaging

I walked over to my local coffee shop earlier this week to grade papers, and I was amused to see a new product in the refrigerator case by the front counter.

Now, I have no real objection to this product. I'm sure it's perfectly fine water, and the packaging would seem to have a number of advantages over plastic bottles. According to the company website, 76% of the packaging is from a renewable resource - trees - and the particular trees in question are grown in "certified, well managed forests." The packaging can be shipped flat and, in many places, can be recycled.

So, if you're going to rely on packaged water, boxed water has something to recommend it. Of course, this begs the question of whether you ought to rely on packaged water in the first place. Maybe the return of public drinking fountains would be better still.

What amuses me about this product is what might be called the packaging of the packaging: the box is designed to look simple, generic, and unpretentious. Two sides of the box tell you - in large, friendly letters (with apologies to Douglas Adams) - how you should evaluate the product, its packaging, and your own character as reflected in the mere fact of your impending purchase: it's better and, by extension, you are (or would be) better.

There you have it, a pre-packaged ethical judgment . . . in black and white, no less!

Monday, November 14, 2011

From the Archive: Phenomenology and Systems Imagination

I'd like to expand a bit on one question arising from the phenomenology of driving I sketched last week: How is it that theoretical knowledge from the sciences can enter into the ordinary lived experience of projects and places?

Ordinarily, I do not experience the car I am driving as a mechanical device. While I drive, I generally do not perform calculations of torque, mass and velocity, nor do I think about force of impact as proportional to the square of the velocity.

If my approach to driving were ever reduced to those terms, I suspect I would find it impossible to drive.

But is there a way in which knowledge of Newtonian mechanics could color or, perhaps, infect the fluid experience of driving so as to make me more attentive and more cautious?

Friday, November 11, 2011

The City and the Cosmos

I've been writing quite a lot about the tragic outlook, and I've noted a number of points still in need of clarification. I'll start today by raising two more questions, though I think I'll only really start to consider one of them in this post. First, what has the tragic outlook to do with ethics in the built environment? Second, what do I mean by 'outlook'?

The quick answer to both of these is to say that I propose to consider the city in its cosmological context.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Half-Measures: The Transportation Investment Act

Yesterday was World Town Planning Day. Last night, I attended a symposium in observance of the event, organized by the Georgia Tech Student Planning Association.

The symposium focused on a new mechanism for funding transportation projects in Georgia. Here's how the organizers set it up on the event website:
In 2012, the 10-county Atlanta region (Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton,Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale) will vote on whether to pass a 1% sales tax. The revenue generated by this tax will be used to fund a list of transportation projects, ranging from transit, roads, safety, pedestrian and bike improvements, and technology updates.

This year, the annual World Town Planning Day Symposium at Georgia Tech, entitled CENTS & SENSIBILITY: Atlanta's Transportation Vision, will focus on how the final list of proposed transportation projects, to be funded by the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) if passed, can support planning goals for the environment, economic development, and regional equity.
The Atlanta Regional Commission website provides more background on the TIA:

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Tragic v. The Merely Sad

I have some work to do in distinguishing tragedy and a tragic outlook from other outlooks and assessments with which it might be conflated. I will have to say, at some point, what the difference is between a tragic outlook and an apocalyptic outlook, or between a tragic outlook and pessimism or fatalism, or between a tragedy and a calamity or catastrophe.

As a start, and in the spirit of going back to my own archives, I'd like to state explicitly my intention to reserve the terms 'tragic' and 'tragedy' to a much narrower range of uses than is common these days.

This is actually a pet peeve of mine, the way the terms 'tragedy' and 'miracle' are widely overused and misused. I wrote about this back in 2005, in another (currently inactive) blog:

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

So, here's the convergence of ideas I mentioned in yesterday's brief post.

Yesterday morning, I was discussing risk and risk perception with my engineering ethics class, focusing on the distinction between the risk expert's quantitative approach to risk (risk = probability of harm x magnitude of harm) with the lay public's qualitative and experiential approach to risk.

There are a number of reasons, I noted, why Americans regularly accept the relatively high risk of injury or death from automobile accidents (with ~40,000 car-related deaths in the United States every year), but are skittish about flying in airplanes and exposure to other risks that are, statistically, of much lower probability.

People are generally more likely to accept risks they take on voluntarily, for example, than risks that are imposed without their consent. People are also more likely to accept familiar risks than those that are novel. They may also, I speculated, be more willing to accept risks when they have a sense of being in control of their own fate. In fact, when we are in a familiar circumstance with a sense of being in control, we may not even perceive a given activity as risky at all.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Quick Take: Too Much Information?

I've been teaching this semester in the newest building on the Georgia Tech campus, the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons (CULC).

When I first entered the building, at the end of August, I was surprised to see hints of brutalism in the design of the interior: bare concrete on the ceiling and open stairways, as well as on columns and other supporting members. As with classic brutalism from the 60s and 70s, the wood grain of the forms is still visible in the concrete. Unlike classic brutalism, though, there are other elements in the design that serve to soften and lighten the effect.

Here are a couple of pictures I took earlier this semester.

The first shows the brutalist effect of the impressions of wood grain on bare concrete, as well as the way this is off-set by actual wood:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

From the Archive: The Earth, as Viewed from the Suburbs (1995)

As my first dispatch from the archive of my own writing, I offer the very first paper I ever presented at a conference. The paper is titled "The Earth, as Viewed from the Suburbs," and I read and discussed it at the conference Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture at SUNY Binghamton in the spring of 1995.

The conference was a favorite among graduate students specializing in one form or another of "continental" philosophy, that is, nineteenth- and (especially) twentieth-century philosophy from the European continent, which is to say, not from Great Britain. 

At the time, I was hard at work on my dissertation, developing a critique of what I saw as the speculative excesses of environmental philosophy and of some strains of environmentalism more broadly. I later had published a heavily revised version of my dissertation as Skeptical Environmentalism: The Limits of Philosophy and Science (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).

As I cast it in this paper, a core speculative project of environmental philosophy is to establish a new basis for the relationship between human beings and nature. In the loose talk of many environmentalists, this might sometimes be expressed as a call to love and care for "the Earth."

I found (and still find) such talk problematic.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Quick Take: The Original Perfect Storm

I'm sitting on my front porch, handing out candy to neighborhood kids and reading Stephen M. Gardiner's new book, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Can you guess why?

I'll have more to say about the book soon, but reading it on Halloween night, and coming across references to Sebastian Junger's book and the sinking of the Andrea Gail, it occurred to me that this is the 20th anniversary of the original perfect storm, the Halloween Nor'easter of 1991.

I was living on Long Island at the time but, lubber that I am, and preoccupied as I was by graduate student life, I remember it only as an especially nasty few days of rain and wind.

It was only years later, when I read Junger's book, that I began to grasp the immensity of what had gone on all around me.

There's a lesson in that.

It was some years still later that I began to grasp that I had, in effect, been present at the birth of a robust meme.

To the Archive!

I'm planning an irregular series of posts drawing from the 20-year archive of my own writings, not all of which have been published. The series will present extended excerpts from old papers and presentations, with commentary to provide context and connection.

I have a number of reasons for doing this:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kunstler on Tragedy

While I'm gathering resources for a critical assessment of a tragic outlook, it occurs to me to acknowledge one of the main inspirations – if that's the appropriate term here – for this project: James Howard Kunstler's Home From Nowhere, particularly the first chapter.

This is the sequel to The Geography of Nowhere, his funny, scathing, and sometimes infuriating critique of the suburbanization of the United States.

For Kunstler, tragedy has a dual aspect: life is essentially tragic and, in our efforts to avoid tragedy we have fallen into a logic that is itself tragic. As he puts it:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

No Solution

I'm beginning to gather some resources for an inquiry into the tragic outlook.

Take the question as I posed it in a recent post:
How do we solve the problem of making our built environment good, just, and sustainable?
One part of the tragic outlook is taking seriously the possibility that the answer to this question is: We don't.

I currently have three sources in mind to inform this aspect of the tragic outlook.

First, Garrett Hardin's classic treatment of the logic of tragedy is tied directly to the intractability of certain important problems. Hardin opens his 1968 paper, "The Tragedy of the Commons", by stipulating a class of "no technical solutions problems."
 A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality (Hardin 1968, p. 1243).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quick Take: Thinking of Tragedy

This is my first venture in posting from my phone. I'll be brief.

Following up on the idea that the problem of sustainability may have no solution, and even that it may not be possible to cope, a number of threads in my recent research are converging on what may be a medium- or long-term project in articulating and assessing the merits of a tragic outlook. James Kunstler, for one, has advocated such a view regarding the near-term prospects for sustaining human civilization.

I plan to write more substantial posts outlining the initial ideas of the project but, for now, as I commute home (by transit: otherwise I wouldn't be typing this into my phone), I offer this photo as a glimpse of what I've been thinking.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Fix

Here is another set of my notes from the conference on Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy.

How do we solve the problem of making our built environment good, just, and sustainable?

We might hope for a technological fix, which assumes that the problem is fundamentally due to a shortcoming in current technology.   The technological systems we have are inefficient or lacking in scope, capacity, and power.  All we need, then, is to develop better, more powerful, more efficient technological systems, and everything will be fine. 

We might hope for an economic fix, which assumes that the problem is fundamentally due to shortcomings in current markets and incentive structures. The markets we have are inefficient in distributing goods and services, or there are specific failures of the market in addressing some consequences of economic activity, or there are perverse incentives built in to current policies that lead to inefficient outcomes. All we need, then, is to develop better, more efficient markets with properly structured incentives, and everything will be fine.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Philosophers Do

I write this as I travel home from Washington, D.C., where I participated in a conference titled Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy, organized by the Public Philosophy Network

I have a number of posts in mind, drawing from sessions and conversations at the conference, but I'll start with a few of my notes from the conference related to my last post, on the question of whether philosophers can be experts and, if so, in what our expertise consists. 

Starting with the opening plenary session, hosted by the Center for AmericanProgress, I listed a variety of ways in which the role of a publicly engaged philosopher might be characterized:

Friday, May 27, 2011

On Expertise: A Reply to King

The first published review of the book has come out, in the Spring 2011 issue of the journal Environmental Ethics. The review was written by Roger J.H. King.

It is certainly gratifying to read a sympathetic and largely positive review. King seems to understand the main intent of the book, which is to provide, as he puts it, "a propaedeutic" to ethical inquiry, that is, a kind of preparatory exercise. In other words, this is not, as he puts it, "a theoretical book." (p.100)
The central mission of the book is to demonstrate the complexity of everyday judgments and decisions, and to encourage citizens and decision makers to uncover and analyze this complexity. (p.99)
So far, so good. This really is the mission of the book, as I understand it. It is clear, though, that King is not entirely satisfied with the book: he wishes I had taken on a different and more ambitious mission.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Vulnerability and Gratitude

Here, at last, are some thoughts on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, events which bring sharply into focus the natural dynamics that give shape to the places in which we pursue our projects, but that can sometimes overpower us and overturn all our projects.

I begin with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche, taken out of context but still evocative:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nature and Culture (on the way to Calamity)

I still aim to write an entry or two about the calamity in Japan but, along the way, I have stumbled across a puzzle in the pages of my own book.

In Chapter 2, as I develop an experiential approach to decision making in the built environment, I describe place as "a field of opportunities and constraints" relative to a given project (p.35). In the pages following that first definition, I portray opportunities and constraints as the product of the interaction among natural, social, and technological dynamics. In the entry I plan to write, the distinction between the natural and the social/technological is to serve as the basis for some reflections concerning the often-unrecognized importance of natural dynamics in shaping and sustaining the built environment, but also concerning the vulnerability of place as an extension of our own vulnerability as mortal beings.

What puzzles me, reading my own book, is how to draw a clear distinction between natural and social dynamics.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Natural Evil, from Lisbon to Minamisanriku

I am developing an entry prompted by the ongoing calamity in Japan and also by the recent upheaval in Christchurch, New Zealand. It may take a little time to gather together what I've been thinking concerning the vulnerability of place as an extension of our vulnerability as mortal beings.

In the mean time, I think it worthwhile to adapt some material I wrote on another blog for this context. Most of what follows comes from an entry I wrote on October 1, 2009, with a few further comments (in square brackets) added this morning.
From time to time, I discuss the problem of evil - or, The Problem of Evil - with my students.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Consumerism and The Good Life

I've written before about Aristotle's Politics, focusing on passages in Book VII that connect the details of urban planning - the layout of streets, for example - with prospects for the happiness of a polis and its citizens.

Well, I find myself once again reading Politics Book VII in preparation for teaching next week, and found a passage of special resonance in the wake of the Christmas season, a holiday I've come to think of as the Feast of Acquisition: