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). 

Consider my office door, for example. If my project is to sit in my office and write without disturbance, the door is a barrier to others who might interrupt me.  It is effective, and valuable, to the extent it is difficult for others to open and substantial enough to block out much of noise they might make moving up and down the hallway outside.  If, at some later point, I need very urgently to leave the room, the meaning of the door shifts, and it becomes good to the extent it opens easily and, depending on circumstances, quietly.

It usually helps us, when deciding whether pursuing a particular project is (or was) a good idea, to learn as much as we can about the place in which it is to unfold, to bring to light opportunities and constraints that might otherwise remain hidden. We develop theories of various kinds to make sense of the opportunities and constraints we typically encounter in various circumstances. Theoretically speaking, and for purposes of analysis, it is possible to distinguish among the natural, social, and technological dynamics that give shape to the places in which we pursue projects, though the boundaries between these dynamics may be blurry and the interaction among them complex (Kirkman, 2010, pp. 35-39).

Environmental ethics and policy enter the picture as soon as it is acknowledged that human projects interact with and alter the dynamics that shape the places in which other people - and, indeed, other living things generally – are also pursuing projects of their own.  In the experiential approach, environmental ethics is recast as the ethics of our common environment, the shared domain in which “projects interact with one another, with the projects of other organisms, and with underlying physical dynamics” which afford opportunities and constraints to all alike. Within that shared field of possibilities, the activities of one person or group in pursuit of one project may interfere with or even preclude the activities of another person or group in pursuit of another project (Kirkman, 2010, p. 32).

In this light, the main question of environmental ethics is easy to articulate even if it is usually very difficult to answer: Which project or projects ought to be given priority in a given circumstance?

In addition to the diversity of values and obligations that may be at stake, answering the question of priority requires careful attention to matters of scale. The place relative to a given project may, from the point of view of the person pursuing it, seem fairly small: if my project is to sit quietly and write a paper, the relevant place is on the scale of this one room for the next few hours. Stepping back to consider both the common environment and I share with others and a theoretical understanding of what makes my work here possible, I can begin to see this place as nested within a place that is larger in both space and time, and conditioned by dynamics that work at a still larger scale (see Norton, 2003, p. 67ff).  For example, I am breathing oxygen in order to exploit energy derived from food I have eaten in order to do this work, food that came to me from various sources by way of a complex system of food production and distribution. I am working at a computer provided to me by my employer, powered from an electric outlet in the wall. In short, my working here is conditioned by natural, social, and technological dynamics that reach far beyond this small place and this brief time. 

At this moment, this place and the opportunities it affords seem stable. I can work here as long as I need to today, until the project of going home and having dinner with my family takes precedence. I assume that, when I come back tomorrow, I can continue to pursue this project, and again the day after that.  When I focus on the small scale of my project, it would seem that, much of the time, I can take the stability of this place for granted. In any case, I can reassure myself of that stability so long as I cannot foresee a change in the dynamics that maintain it: the presence of oxygen (and absence of, say, carbon monoxide) in local atmosphere, the terms of my employment, the availability of food from the supermarket and electricity from the outlets in my office.

But note that my reassurance may result as much from a failure of foresight as from any actual stability at larger spatial and temporal scales. While there seems little reason to worry about a long-term change in the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere, there may be serious reason to worry about the long-term availability of electricity at the levels to which we have all become accustomed, as fossil fuels become more scarce and demand continues to increase.  There may also be serious reason to worry about the habitability and viability of this entire region, and the productivity of agricultural land, given the long-term consequences of burning fossil fuels to produce electricity.

This is a sketchy, hypothetical example, of course, but the point is straightforward: what seems stable, cyclical, and indeed normal in a narrow time horizon might well be seen, within a broader time horizon, to be merely a passing phase in a linear path into an unknown future.  All of this is only to introduce a new possibility into the experiential approach to environmental ethics, the possibility that places we are pleased to experience as stable may, with a slight shift of perspective, come to be seen as transitory, whether in the short or long term.

Kirkman, R. (2005). Ethics and Scale in the Built Environment. Environmental Philosophy, 2, 38-52.

Kirkman, R. (2010). The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth: The Future of Our Built Environment. London: Continuum.

Norton, B. G. (2003). Searching for Sustainability: Interdisciplinary Essays in the Philosophy of Conservation Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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