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.

More than anyone else I've considered, to this point, Kunstler makes the connection explicit. He holds, first, that human life is, essentially, tragic.

He holds, second, that we in the United States have compounded the tragedy by building a landscape and cultivating a way of life aimed at avoiding tragedy - or, at least, at distracting us or concealing from us our essentially tragic condition. Our efforts are so over-wrought, and so overdraw natural and economic resources, that we have made even greater losses all but inevitable.

But I well know what the objections will be. In addition to the moral hazard argument I raised in the above-referenced post on Kunstler, there is the long-standing optimism of American culture, the faith in progress, and the steadfast confidence that everything will work out, that there will be some tidy closure to all our stories.

I've been introducing my daughters to Star Trek, beginning with the original series, and it has struck me that, more than almost anyone else in popular culture, Gene Roddenberry held an unshakable belief in the inevitability of human progress, even in our perfectibility. Watching Star Trek VI the other night, Spock articulated an explicit cosmology of hope. To paraphrase: the universe is such that everything will turn out for the best, so we need not fear uncertainty.

Dr. Pangloss, it seems, may have been Vulcan (in the same way that, according to one amusing character in that movie, Shakespeare may have been Klingon.)

So, really, why worry?

Why not go forward with confidence that all will be well, or with a steadfast resolve to make sure it does turn out well?

Part of my answer, already articulated in my post of 11/11/11, is skepticism: the kind of optimism espoused by Pangloss and Spock is founded on a set of dubious cosmological commitments.

Part of my answer is that acknowledging our vulnerability, attending to the inevitability of loss, not allowing ourselves to be distracted by false hopes or by superficial amusements (like watching Star Trek? Mea culpa!), can afford us the opportunity to develop habits of thought and action that will help us to cope with our general condition and our particular predicament.

Surely, we will be better off, in any case, if we can cultivate attentiveness, mindfulness, agility, modesty, compassion, and courage.  We will be better off if we can prioritize, identifying the most essential of our projects and practicing both the intellectual and practical resolve to pursue those essential projects even if all other projects fall away, even if we ourselves will never taste the fruits they yield.

We will also be better off if we develop the social and technological systems of our built environment to be adaptable in the face of uncertainty and changing circumstances . . . or, at least, if we do not so overdraw the resources available to us that we further compound the magnitude of our eventual losses. In short, we should live closer to the ground (figuratively and, perhaps, literally), so we don't have quite as far to fall.

Why worry? In part, because the only alternative is to so anesthetize ourselves or so blind ourselves to our predicament that we cannot respond to losses when they occur. In part, because facing up to our predicament will help us to develop the capacity to muddle through and save what we can.

Looking ahead, I have a number of things on my to-do list for my first posts of the new year. At some point, I'll have a closer look at Kunstler's book, The Long Emergency, where he responds to inevitable loss by focusing on the essential project of keeping civilization going . . . though the form of it may change beyond what we can currently imagine. I also have unfinished business with Gardiner, Nussbaum, and Voltaire, and with the difference between tragedy and pessimism or fatalism.

I think I'll start the new year, though, by taking up another persistent theme in the work of Wendell Berry: the inevitability of loss and the hope of an odd, very local kind of redemption.

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