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.

In Chapter 2, I group together as natural those dynamics that are studied by the natural sciences: physics, chemistry, geology, evolutionary biology, ecology, and so on (pp. 30, 36-37). Social dynamics, by contrast, arise from "relationships among people" and include political and economic institutions, laws, and conventions as well as the ideals and norms of culture (p. 37-38).

In short, I do little more than point to a distinction I hope will be familiar to most readers. In fact, this may be good enough for the task I set myself in Chapter 2, which is to wrest environmental ethics away from environmental ethicists, who tend to equate "the environment" with natural dynamics and, often, to look to those natural dynamics themselves for moral guidance. All I need, then, is to include within the scope of "our environment" dynamics that are not associated with wild nature, especially those at work in places where people actually live.

Now, though, I would like to do some heavier lifting with the distinction, and I find my first pass at drawing it is unsatisfactory, for at least two reasons.

First, characterizing natural dynamics as those dynamics that are studied by the natural sciences seems to beg the question, or at least to leave us scratching our heads over which came first. As Plato might ask, are the dynamics in question natural because the natural sciences study them, or do we call them natural sciences because the dynamics they study are natural?

Second, and more to the point, the distinction does not specify clearly enough what counts as a "relationship." After all, some kinds of relationships among human beings are very much open to study by the natural sciences. I say as much in Chapter 4, as I attempt to enumerate and distinguish some of the dynamics that have shaped American metropolitan areas in particular:
It should also be said that there are natural forces at work in humans. It is because we are animals of a certain type, with certain natural capacities and limitations, that we rearrange our environment to begin with. Aside from metabolism, with its demand for food and water, we have other drives or instincts that arise from our origins as social mammals: we tend to live together, to cooperate or compete with one another, and perhaps to seek the approval of our peers. One particular feature of our lives as animals relates directly to metropolitan growth: natural population increase, though the particular ways in which we find mates and raise children is at least as much a matter of culture as of nature (p.63).
To the extent the social sciences may be integrated with the natural sciences, say, as psychology finds more of a footing in neurology, the distinction between the natural and the social will become still more blurry.

The turn I take at the end of the quotation suggests a different way of drawing the distinction: natural dynamics stand opposed not to social dynamics in any empirical sense, but to culture in the full, nineteenth-century sense of the term. Nature is the domain in which everything is causally determined, while culture is the domain in which humans pursue our vocation as free moral beings, forging history in community with other free moral beings. This way of distinguishing the natural from the social very much corresponds to the distinction between behavior and action I drew in an earlier post, and to the distinction between the natural and social sciences on one side and the humanities on the other.

But here's the rub. The point of drawing the distinction between natural and social dynamics is to inform the experience of place as a field of opportunities and constraints. To define social dynamics in terms of culture, though, is to suggest social dynamics do not act as constraints at all, nor even as opportunities in the main sense of the term, like an open door. The definition instead suggests social dynamics are subject to the control of humans acting as autonomous moral beings. To be autonomous is to be capable of choice and action that is unconditioned and so, in a sense, unconstrained. (Ought implies can, says Kant.) If I can govern myself as an individual, then you and I and the rest of us can join together in a republic to govern ourselves collectively, setting up or altering political and social institutions, critiquing and refining laws, conventions, and norms, and so on, all as acts of freedom.

Drawing the distinction on the basis of what we can control and what we cannot seems also to suggest an instrumentalist view of technology, which takes artifacts as neutral media through which we can enact our will in the world.  In short, we assert control over our environment by learning to manipulate natural dynamics to suit our own purposes. As I write in Chapter 4, "a metropolis has its roots in the most basic technological activity of altering the natural environment to support particular human projects." (p.62)

Now, I'll be the first to say the humanist ideal of culture as a domain of human autonomy has tremendous appeal. I have suggested elsewhere (and, in fact, Herr Kant would insist) that the regulative ideal of human autonomy is indispensable to any complete understanding of human decision making. On those grounds, I would like very much to stand by the characterization of social and technological dynamics as a product of culture in just this sense.

But then, such a view of social and technological dynamics on its own doesn't really shed much light on place, and it underplays the very concrete form social and technological dynamics can take in our lived experience. Someone pursuing a project in a particular place will encounter the products of social and technological dynamics as features of the world that may help or hinder a particular project, features that may be more or less resistant to human will, or even to human understanding. Indeed, elsewhere in the book, I devote considerable attention to the obduracy of socio-technical ensembles and the limits obduracy can impose on human action and even on human autonomy itself (pp.143-144).

As it happens, I have for some time been grappling with just this duality at the heart of human moral experience: that we can and perhaps must regard our conduct both as behavior and as action or, what comes to the same thing, both as natural (and hence as conditioned and constrained) and as free (and hence as unconditioned and unconstrained). I have elsewhere articulated this duality as an inescapable tension between empiricist and humanist approaches to ethics; see, for example, the follow-up to the above-referenced post on behavior and action.

I have made my own peace with this duality, but I find myself wishing I had been much clearer about it in the book.

What it comes down to is this: the simple tripartite division - natural/social/technological - is too simple, because it assumes all three sets of dynamics are of the same basic ontological type and can be understood by the same means.

For most people, this would imply that all three are empirical phenomena to be studied by empirical means: the natural sciences study natural dynamics, of course, and the social sciences study social dynamics, which are really just a special case of natural dynamics that involve complex primate brains and complex primate social structures. Again, this would tend to blur the distinctions among them, just as technological and social dynamics are folded together within the field of technology studies.

But each of the three dynamics can also be seen through a humanist lens, which would highlight the distinction between culture and nature based on the scope of human autonomy: nature is that which is "other" to culture, beyond our control and perhaps ultimately beyond our comprehension. To go a step further, following a suggestion one of my students made this afternoon, the very idea of nature-as-other can itself be seen as a contested cultural construct.  Here, then, the distinction tends collapse in the other direction, with natural and technological dynamics folding into culture.

Perhaps, then, we can and should play these perspectives off one another, leaving us with a much richer and more nuanced or, at least, more complex analysis of our experience of place.

So, why do I have to deal with all this before I can write about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan?

As noted, the sheer, sublime horror of what happened last Friday prompted me to move forward with a project I've been contemplating for some time: to elucidate our experience of the vulnerability or fragility of place, and to consider particular places that may be characterized as transitory, passing away or passing on to some new configuration of opportunities and constraints. One aspect of vulnerability, of course, concerns the interaction of our built environments with the natural dynamics that surround and pervade them, dynamics that can, at times, loom very large and very much beyond control.

That, at least, is the narrative that had started to take shape: while most of the time we rely on natural dynamics to silently do their work supporting the social and technological dynamics we have woven together with them, we are occasionally confronted by a vast and uncontrollable natural process that upends all our intentions, breaks up our tidy domesticity, and wantonly violates human autonomy and human dignity.

There is something to this narrative, of course, but matters are not nearly so simple.

Consider, for example, Rousseau's provocative response to the Lisbon earthquake, from my last post. Let me reconstruct the narrative he offers. When the earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon, it was not as though autonomous human beings - full of infinite possibility - were suddenly confronted by a vast, impersonal Other. Rather, human beings who had been corrupted by civilization, human beings who were constrained by cultural expectations and conventions, by their desire to hold on to mere possessions, were not free enough to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. ("Man is born free," Rousseau would later write in The Social Contract, "but everywhere he is in chains." p.41). Tens of thousands of people died in Lisbon, he seems to be saying, because they had allowed themselves to get stuck in Lisbon, lost in a social and technological labyrinth out of which they could not find their way even, quite literally, to save their own lives.

Again, this is a cold, harsh judgment, and no doubt it is unfair. I'd like to see Rousseau or one of his "noble savages" walk away from a tsunami, even on open ground, unhindered by buildings or mobs of fellow humans seized by panic.

But there is a kernel of truth here. Consider, for example, the growing realization among engineers and others that, in a sense, there is no such thing as a natural disaster, only failures of human foresight and human engineering. The flooding of New Orleans after Katrina was a catastrophe, but the hurricane itself was only a natural variation that occasioned the failure of an engineered system of pumps, canals, and levees, compounded by a failure of human institutions and human foresight. Trusting too much to the pumps, canals, and levees, people built houses and neighborhoods on land below sea level, sometimes right up against the levees themselves.

But then, foresight may fail because of certain natural (!) tendencies in human perception and cognition concerning risk.

The failing Fukushima No. 1 power plant, the condition of which is, at this writing, continually threatening to spiral out of control (!) is a case study in itself. The plant is part of a larger socio-technical system of energy production and consumption; as such it exhibits obduracy, if only to the extent that it is not now possible to undo the decision to built six nuclear reactors at a single site on the shore of an island in a known earthquake zone. The rest of Japan has been reeling because other systems and projects had come to rely on the power contributed to the grid by Fukushima No. 1 as though it were a natural (!) feature of their environment - which, in a sense, it is, since it is a physical structure organized so as to manipulate natural forces to make electrons move through copper and other materials that are naturally conductive.

There is much more to say along these lines, but I hope the complexity of place and its underlying dynamics is starting to come clear.

I also hope to have more to say about Japan - and about Christchurch, New Zealand - soon.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1997). The Social Contract and other later political writings (V. Gourevitch, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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