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.