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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.
The root of the problem is the slipperiness of the term "relationship." Whether tacitly or explicitly, there is a pronounced tendency in environmental thought to speak of "relationship" in a personal or interpersonal sense. when the bases of environmentalism are articulated as philosophical principles, the emphasis is almost invariably on moral, spiritual, intellectual or even perceptual relationships. All of these share the common trait of being relationships of consciousness and, in some measure, relationships to consciousness. A thorough treatment of what I would call "relatedness-as-such" is frequently taken as being sufficient for a sound environmental philosophy.
I was painting with too broad a brush, of course. I did better in subsequent writings, but this does get to the core insight that motivated my dissertation work: to justify one or another vision of relatedness-as-such, environmental philosophers would often get sloppy with important distinctions, including distinctions between scientific understanding of material relationships and an ethical or spiritual yearning for personal relationships.

One of my concerns was that
even though it is meant to open up new possibilities for thought - and perhaps it does serve that purpose to some extent - the principle of relatedness is detached from the world of living experience. When taken too seriously, it becomes little more than a kind of incantation - or worse, an advertising slogan - which may be edifying or inspirational, but which is ultimately misleading. As a result, it is not likely to be of much help when we are trying to make decisions.
Again, I was using too broad a brush, but I here introduce as a theme the limitations of human perception, and the possibility of a disconnection among what we perceive, what we believe, and what is actually the case.

What is most interesting to me, looking back at this paper from the midst of my current projects, is how I set up the question of perception.
Viewed from American suburbia, the Earth presents a confusing picture. Gleanings from the media and from casual conversation raise a vague foreboding of global doom, while everywhere the call goes out for humans to be kinder, gentler and more respectful of the Earth. Her portraits are everywhere, some of them with the caption: "Love Your Mother." So, to save the Earth, we seek out "simple things" we can do, like recycling, using non-aerosol deodorant, or carpooling to work over in the industrial park with one of the neighbors - as soon as we have introduced ourselves to one of the neighbors. We do all this with assurances that they have something to do with burning rainforests, blind penguins, and why it rained so much in California last winter. By acting in small ways, our worries about the Earth and our lives here may be eased a little.

But caught up in the cares of suburban life - I pick on suburbia because it is my native habitat - the idea of a relationship with the Earth seems a little strange; it has the taint of New Age fuzziness that is not to everyone's taste. It is hard to bring something so large and all-encompassing into connection with this street, this lawn, these trees and those birds; there are so many distractions, like the mortgage payment, property tax deadlines, the electric bill, and the nest of wasps under the eaves.

Everyone knows that suburbs are not natural, so on our two weeks of vacation we flock to the National Parks, and utterly fail to connect with the Earth there, too. Even if we get some inkling of wholeness out there, jostled by our fellow tourists as we struggle to get a good video shot of dust-bathing bison, we cannot bring that connection home with us. When the work week starts up again, vacations never seem quite real anyway.

So maybe the astronauts are the only ones who ever really get to see the Earth as a whole. Even so, how many times have we looked at various photos of the Earth, trying to see where we live? when we find the vague brown-gray or green-gray smudge that is supposed to be our own corner of suburbia, it seems unfamiliar. It just does not look like the place where we live from day to day, any more than that line on the map tells us anything about that big pothole we have to avoid just up the street, or the way the yellow leaves scatter across the pavement in the fall, making it dangerously slippery.

In one final effort to connect, we close our eyes and try to imagine the wholeness suffusing and embracing all of these scattered parts. Failing any definitive mystical revelation or communion, we open our eyes and go on trying to find a way to keep the rabbits out of the flower beds. The Earth takes her place on the shelf next to God: out of the way, but available to be paraded out on appropriate occasions.
Note that my goal here was not to decry the suburbs as alienating people from what would otherwise be an easy and natural communion with the Earth. Rather, I now think, part of the point is about perception and scale, and part of it is about the possibility and limits of systems imagination, that is, the question of whether and to what extent abstract theoretical understanding of larger- and smaller-scale dynamics can shape perception of local place.

While I like the way I wrote this, looking back on it, I had not yet distinguished these various threads from my main objective, which was to sort out what I saw as prevalent confusions about theory, especially the conflation of scientific with speculative claims about relatedness.

I concluded by outlining and approach to environmental ethics that, frankly, startles me in the degree to which it prefigures the current trajectory of my thought. I had forgotten.

I started with three characteristics of relationships between human beings and our environment:
First, it is the material relationships that are important, as opposed to conscious or rational relationships. Put simply, materiality is that which does not bend or bow to our intentions. Material relationships are the limiting and enabling conditions of our environment, the "I can" and the "I cannot". This applies to all of our purposes, both practical and intellectual: materiality confounds or accommodates our will to act, and it resists our will to know. above all, even though it limits or enables us, materiality is indifferent to us and to our purposes.
In effect, I start to outline what I now call place, understood as a field of opportunities and constraints. Then, as now, the language of "I can" and "I cannot" expands on an insight from the French phenomenologist Maurice Merelau-Ponty.
Second, the relationships with which we concern ourselves are many, of many different kinds, and at many different levels of material interaction. Ecology, for example, does not offer a single, unifying vision or concept for the natural world; rather, it offers a number of concepts which inform the study of a number of different kinds of biological and physical interaction.
I now would cast this in terms of the natural dynamics that shape particular places, operating across various scales in space and time.
Third, it is often the case that the relationships that are the most important are the least obvious on the surface of things. Ecological relationships are understood on the basis of concepts which have a long history; these relationships are not available directly either to thought or to the senses, but only indirectly by the mediation of the theoretical and technological apparati [sic] which have been developed in the course of that history.
This third point brought me to the punch line of the paper:
To put it simply, there is no view of the Earth from the suburbs, or from any other point on or in or above the Earth; they system of material interactions that we call "the Earth" are hidden from any direct intuition, making the Earth a poor candidate for any kind of personal "relationship".
From this characterization of our relationship with our environment, I develop "a harsh vision" of the human predicament as the basis for a practicable environmental ethic:
we are part of a wondrous and unique - but isolated and temporary - system of living things. We are conscious of ourselves and our interactions with the world around us, which is still rarer and makes it impossible for us simply and dumbly to participate in the functioning of ecological systems at any of their multiple levels. We are conscious, and we have our own goals and values that transcend the material relationships of our environment; at the same time, we are material, which is to say that we are still bound and bounded by those relationships, even those relationships of which we are not aware.
I would later articulate this, in an ongoing series of papers, as an irreducible duality in human nature, according to which we are fully free and fully natural at the same time.

This brings me to the passage I found most striking. It prefigures even the language I now use in considering place within a tragic outlook and yet, until I sat down to work on this post, I'd forgotten I'd written it.
As we reconstruct the long history of how our lives here became possible, we become ever more painfully aware that we and all our works are fragile and transitory. We are subject to disruption by forces that are beyond any rational control, and we ourselves are often not under our own rational control.
As I begin to sketch the practical upshot of this decidedly tragic outlook, I pose a series of questions that may represent my first, halting steps toward the framework in The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth:
In evaluating our plans and hopes, we must ask: Where are the energy and matter that support this activity coming from? Where does the waste go? What, to the best of our knowledge, are the long-term consequences for ourselves, for other people and for the world around us? Are we prepared to take responsibility for those consequences? Is there a better way to accomplish the same goal? Is the accomplishment of that goal really desirable in light of all this?
As I draw toward a conclusion, I consider how it might be possible to grasp connections with "the Earth" even if we lack any sort of intuition of the whole:
We come to see ourselves as intertwined in human and non-human networks of material relationships, as well as the personal, social and political relationships we have with other humans; we also begin to understand that the human network is surrounded by the non-human in numerous, particular and concrete ways. Everyday activities - such as driving to work or to the shopping mall, living in a place with suburban zoning laws, flushing fresh water down the toilet three gallons at a time - take on new layers of significance, and it becomes possible to evaluate them in order to see how reasonable they are.
Again, the possibility of "added layers of significance" depend on the possibility of what I now call systems imagination.
When all of this is taken into account, environmentalism is transformed. It seems that the proper goal of environmentalism may be simply to make our human world more human in the long run - that is, more humane, more livable, more sustainable, saner - for our own sake. If it did not sound slightly ridiculous, I would propose a "radical humanist environmentalism," or an "environmentalism of human solidarity."
It's now a matter of record that I no longer consider "humanist environmentalism" to sound ridiculous

There is one, brief postscript to this paper. I do not remember details of the discussion that followed my presentation of it in 1995, though I seem to recall some lively exchanges with other graduate students both during and after the session. A longtime friend of mine - we had grown up a block apart, in the suburbs - was also at the conference; he reported to me that one of his grad-school colleagues had (half jokingly?) dubbed me "The 'I Hate Nature' Guy" because of my paper.

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