Friday, July 6, 2012

Transitory Places, part 3

Ethics in Transitory Places
What does it imply for the conservation project at Karori if the place in which it unfolds is, in some meaningful sense, transitory? What does the possibility of transitory places imply for projects in general, and for our evaluation of their means and ends? It seems to me there are at least three important lessons for environmental ethics to be derived from an acknowledgement that time and change can be unidirectional.

The first lesson is that the ends of the project at hand, not just its means, should be informed by a deep understanding of a particular place and the dynamics that shape it.  It may be obvious that the means for reaching a projects’ ends should be selected on the basis of what is available. That is just a matter of prudent, practical thinking. But that the ends should also be so shaped is less obvious. In this, the goals adopted by the Karori Sanctuary Trust are instructive.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Transitory Places, part 2

Karori Sanctuary as a Transitory Place

I paid two brief visits to Karori Sanctuary in early 2010, in high southern summer.  My visits were about two weeks apart, and I stayed for only a few hours each time, so my direct experience of the place barely amounts to a snapshot. I did not even visit the sanctuary at night, when the kiwi would have been active, or in the early morning, when I could have heard the “dawn chorus” of resurgent native bird life.  The relevant scale of my own visit, then, was a matter of minutes and hours, rather than days and weeks.

Had I been able to stay on in New Zealand to study the sanctuary, and perhaps even volunteer there, or should I be able to go back to visit sometime soon, the relevant scale would still only be a matter of months and years. This would amount to a narrow slice of the half-millennium scope of the conservation effort Karori.  Within that narrow slice, the broader context within which the restoration effort takes place might well seem to be relatively stable: Wellington and its surrounding region seem unlikely to change very much during that time, so those carrying out the project will know what to expect: as they attempt to push the sanctuary back in time, as it were, they can at least know what they are pushing against.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Transitory Places, part 1

Transitory Places

Very briefly, an experiential approach to ethics takes the project as its basic unit of analysis, considering what it is like to choose and pursue a project, and how people, alone and together, actually deliberate about whether a project is worth pursuing. By project I mean nothing more than a course of action aimed at a particular goal. Projects may run the gamut from the small, short-term, individual projects, like driving a mile to buy a cup of coffee, to large, long-term, group projects, like passing a vibrant culture on to the future. (Kirkman, 2010, p. 10).

All manner of normative questions may be asked about a given project, concerning its ends, its means, and even the manner in which it was chosen.  A variety of ethical frameworks may be brought to bear both in choosing a project and in evaluating its progress and its results, encompassing virtues, values, and obligations.

Projects do not take place in a vacuum, of course. In pursuing a project, a human agent is always interacting not only with other people but with a particular place, which presents itself as an array of opportunities for and constraints upon choice and action (see Kirkman, 2010, pp. 35-36).  Place, in this sense, is relative to the project, so that the meaning of any particular object – and its value – will shift as one project gives way to another (Kirkman, 2005, p. 44). 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Transitory Places: Introduction

My paper on the Karori Sanctuary has at last seen the light of day, in The Journal of Environmental Philosophy. Since the journal has a small circulation, the editors have encouraged contributors to share our papers more widely.

Below and in the subsequent three posts I offer the final typescript version of the paper, beginning here with the introduction.

*  *  *

Sic transit gloria mundi

“Thus passes the glory of the world.”

The phrase stole into my thoughts as I took my last walk through the Karori Sanctuary in Wellington, New Zealand, in early 2010, just before I returned home to Atlanta.  Even at the time, it struck me as an odd thing to be thinking, in that context. Nestled in a steep-sided valley only a few kilometers from the central business district, lush with vegetation and teeming with bird life, the sanctuary is, to all appearances, doing very well. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Note from Maumee: More of the Same

In the Preface of the book, I gave an account of a formative experience of change in the built environment focusing on a triangular field adjacent to the elementary school I attended. Because of a slow down in the housing market, the landscape was for a time frozen in the transition from agricultural production to suburban subdivision. It was, for a brief time, on its way to becoming a meadow that could support what seemed to me a surprising diversity of bird life.

That field was a short walk from the house in which I grew up.

My parents have moved twice since then, most recently to a new condo development in unincorporated Monclova Township, just outside Maumee. When I first visited them here, just over a decade ago, I heard a rumbling out back, some time after sundown. When I looked out the back window, I was surprised to see the words "John Deere" pass by, just a few yards away. The field behind my parents' place was then still in cultivation.

Since then, the same developer who built my parents' place has been at work preparing the surrounding fields for further construction but, as with the triangular field of my youth, the housing market has soured and the pace of development has slowed to a crawl. Once again, a landscape is stuck in transition from one state to another, and so is taking the opportunity to become something else entirely.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Note from Maumee: Glamor

I'm back in Maumee, Ohio, for a few days, visiting my parents and siblings. I have a few brief notes on recent developments in the built environment of the Toledo Metro Area. This is the first of them.

The day after we arrived marked the grand opening of the new Hollywood Casino, over in East Toledo, just a few blocks from where my dad lived as a teenager.

A few years ago, the state legislature approved casino gambling on four sites, one in each of Ohio's four largest cities. The Hollywood Casino is the second of those to open. There's a great buzz of excitement surrounding the opening, in part because the casino is supposed to bring more than 1200 jobs to an old industrial city, and in part because the whole thing is just so glamorous.

These two sources of excitement are not unconnected.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fair-Weather Buildings

I went to bed last night thinking today would be dismal. A cold front was approaching Atlanta, and rain was forecast to start just after midnight and continue into the afternoon. I imagined a heavy, dark sky and a dispiriting slog through puddles to get to the train.

What I failed to take into account is that it isn't winter any more. I stepped outside this morning into a light rain shower. Birds were singing, and the sky was just that kind of gray that makes colors more vivid.

That was in my own neighborhood in Decatur, though. As I rode the train, it occurred to me that Midtown Atlanta would not fare quite so well.

The problem is one I noticed long ago, as a graduate student at Stony Brook: some buildings are clearly designed to look their best only in bright sunlight.

One building in particular on the Stony Brook campus - the Earth and Space Sciences building - was a clean, spare, modernist structure that almost glowed in the sunlight. Let a little rain fall, however, and it seemed to develop a terrible, seeping ailment, breaking out in dark streaks and blotches.

It was almost repulsive.

Much the same seems to apply to a number of buildings in Midtown Atlanta. Here are a few I passed on the walk from the train to my office this morning.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Quick Take: From a Distance

A minor theme may be emerging in my choice of things to photograph for this blog: things in the built environment that project one image when glimpsed in passing or viewed from a distance, but that reveal something quite different on closer inspection.

Walter Benjamin had his "Arcades Project," so maybe this could be "The Facades Project."

Today's exhibit is the Carnegie Education Pavilion in Hardy Ivy Park, along Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta.

From a distance, approaching on foot or driving up Peachtree from the south, it looks modestly impressive: not a grand monument, by any measure, but solid, respectable, and public-spirited enough for a small park:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Bafflement of Colleagues

I recently wrote to an economist colleague to request some references on the idea of moral hazard as it has made its way into economics form the insurance industry. I have since found further references by other means, but my request sparked an exchange in which I found myself confronted by puzzlement on the part of my colleague . . . and a pressing need to further clarify what I mean by the tragic outlook, and what some critics have meant when they said such an outlook poses a moral hazard.

One crucial point of clarification - a point on which my colleague insists - is that the original meaning of moral hazard is very restricted in scope. It really only applies to principal-agent relationships under conditions of uncertainty, particularly relationships within which the principal (i.e., an insurance firm) in effect shields the agent (i.e., the insured client) from certain losses. The hazard, from the insurer's point of view, is that being shielded from risk will change the behavior of the agent with respect to those same risks, possibly bringing about greater losses than would otherwise have occurred.

So, on the face of it, the tragic outlook cannot be subject to the moral hazard objection, because there is no principal involved, and agents (i.e., you and I) are not shielded from risk. I'll have more to say about a possible extension of the moral hazard objection in another context, but I think the intuition behind it is having, in some more general sense, "nothing to lose."

But my colleague started asking other tough-minded questions about the coherence of the tragic outlook itself and, in formulating my responses, I've come to a better and more articulate understanding of what I mean.

To that extent, I am generally grateful for the bafflement of colleagues.

Here is how I first characterized the outlook:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Following up on an aside in my first post on Brown's book, I'd like to consider an essential question of ethics and political philosophy:  What is the smallest self-sufficient unit of human life?

For myself, I lean to the ancient account, from Plato and Aristotle: the smallest self-sufficient unit of human life is the city, that is, the polis, which entails community and political order as well as geographic proximity and economic interdependence.

An adult human being may indeed be able to eke out a bare subsistence, alone in the wide world, but to thrive, to have any hope of developing our capacities and leading fully human lives worthy of the name and, indeed, to have help in getting through hard times, we need community and some kind of political order.

It is a peculiarly modern folly to think not only that the individual can be self-sufficient, but that we somehow start out as self-sufficient, and only come into civil society by choice or by contract.

What the ancients realized, what the moderns seem to have forgotten, is that we are always already in some kind of community. We cannot come into the world and reach adulthood without communal cooperation involving at least two other people.

We members of H. sapiens sapiens aren't exactly precocial, able to leap from the womb and start fending for ourselves.

(I sometimes comment to my students that the "state of nature" thought experiment, introduced by Hobbes, could only have been written by a man, and probably one who had never raised children. That Rousseau never raised children is entirely too well known, and a blot on his character: he sent off to the orphanage the children he fathered with his companion, Thérèse.)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been reading Plato's The Republic with my students in a political philosophy class. In order to figure out what justice is, Plato has Socrates build a hypothetical city. In the following, Socrates is using the first person; he is speaking to Adeimantus who, as it happens, is Plato's brother:

Friday, February 3, 2012

14 Days and Counting . . .

I have been continuing to read Wendy Brown's book, Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, though sporadically. My train commute really isn't all that long, and I've had many, many other things to read in the mean time.

I have small addition to my review-in-progress of the book, which merges with the theme from my last post: skepticism.

Imagine I came to believe the world as we know it really would end in 21 days and, following my own priorities, I decide to meet my neighbors and to work toward getting us all organized to prepare for the end.

Why on Earth would they believe me?

Because I am convinced, I might well regard their disbelief as irrational denial. But, in all fairness, consider the possibility that it is also, at least in part, rooted in a healthy skepticism. I am making an extraordinary claim - certain knowledge of the very hour at which the-world-as-we-know-it will end - which would require extraordinary proof.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Last Man

I'm currently at work developing a new paper, which I hope will be the first publication from my investigation of the tragic outlook in the ethics of the built environment.

Since I cannot, yet, take on the whole thing at once I have, for the purposes of this paper, narrowed the focus down to the charge that, by attempting to promulgate a tragic outlook, I am guilty of creating a moral hazard.

(I first mentioned the charge here.)

The argument goes something like this: If you give people reason to think there is no solution to the problems of sustainability and/or environmental protection, they will stop looking for solutions. In fact, they may just give up and engage in all sorts of self-indulgent and self- and nature-destroying behavior.

If the game is up anyway, they might say to themselves, we may as well have fun on our way out.

My goal will be to set out a reply to this charge, an argument that a tragic outlook, as distinct from a fatalistic or apocalyptic outlook, does not set up a moral hazard.

Friday, January 27, 2012

21 Days and Counting

I could hardly resist buying and reading a book titled Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs. It falls into that happy category I call "train reading": engaging enough to hold my attention at the beginnings and ends of work days, but not so demanding that I can't break off from it when I have to change trains or start walking.

The author, Wendy Brown, is a writer and homeschooler living in New England.

The premise of the book is straightforward: imagine you live in a house in the American suburbs, and you learn that the world as we know it will end in 21 days. "It does not mean that life will cease to exist," Brown clarifies, "and it does not mean that humans will be obliterated from the Earth" (p.9).  Rather, it means the social and technological systems on which we have come to depend will simply and abruptly stop working.
Twenty-one days from right now, it will happen overnight. Just like that. The light switch goes off . . . and does not come back on. The grocery store shelves are mostly bare, and the manager just doesn't know when . . . or if . .  the next supply truck will arrive. The gas station does not have lines, because there is simply no gasoline on most days, and when there is some available, it sells out before a line can even form. The tap is dry. The power grid has collapsed. Blackouts are the norm, and having electricity is an anomaly. No Internet, no cable, no cellphones. (p.9).
Now, Brown is not presenting this as a serious possibility, but as a (blog-inspired) thought experiment: given that you're stuck in the suburbs - a landscape more than any other abjectly dependent on the smooth and ceaseless functioning complex technological systems -  how could you prepare yourself and your family to survive or, indeed, to thrive?

It's an intriguing experiment, one that can be a spur to imagine the scope and the fragility of the systems on which we are, in fact, dependent, and to imagine alternatives that might have us living more adaptably, closer to the ground, as it were. On the other hand, even though I have read only the first few chapters, the experiment is problematic on a number of counts, and may do more to foster resignation than hope.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Quick Take: Move Along! Nothing Unusual Here!

I walk by this building in Midtown Atlanta nearly every day, on my way to and from work. The bank that once occupied the building has moved to a newer, larger, altogether shinier building about a block away.

(Incidentally, the new bank building is a one-story structure on a site once occupied by a multi-story office building. This seems counter to recent trends in Midtown toward greater density, but that's an issue for another time.)

Notice the windows of the vacant building. It has, in effect, been boarded up, but in a way that serves as a kind of camouflage - though only selectively.

I don't know how many times I walked by the building before I noticed but, one morning last week, I was about half a block from the building when it occurred to me there really shouldn't have been a window where the ATM used to be. Then, it seemed to me the windows had a matte, dead look to them.

I stopped for a moment to look. The windows were obviously fake, likely wood panels painted to look like windows. It took a moment to put that together with the padlocked wooden door that had been added just inside the glass front door to see through the ruse to the intentions of the building's owners.

The aim is for the building not to draw attention to itself or, more precisely, for the building to be secured without telegraphing to all and sundry passers-by that the building is in need of being secured. Had they simply boarded up the building, with bare plywood, or even with wood painted black, it would have all but screamed: VACANT BANK!

The camouflage really is selective though.

Standing next to the building, looking directly at it, the effect is utterly unconvincing. The trick is to give passers-by no cause to stop and look.

As I say, I may have walked by the building any number of times before I stopped but, given my walking pace and lack of other distractions, there was time for the oddness of the windows to catch my eye.

Most people who pass the site do so in cars, at speed, on a one-way street. To a driver absorbed in the flow of driving, or distracted by radio or by cell phone, nothing about the building would indicate that it is in any way unusual.

For that target population, the vacancy of the building is all but invisible.