Connecting Why to How

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Ethics is not a luxury—so environmental ethicist Michael Nelson emphatically reminded those attending the inaugural Chicago Regional Forum on Ethics and Sustainability last October. Nelson noted that ethical discourse on decision-making—the (frequently unstated) “ought to’s” of policy, law, science, economics, and so forth—most clearly emerges during challenging times and is an inescapable part of being human. Do it well or do it poorly, but all people live, move, and have their being in an ethically charged world.

The more remarkable reality may be that so many persons with concerns about the natural world don’t often pause to collectively reflect on how our actions embody ethical commitments, and what can be done to bring these actions into alignment with our beliefs. The Chicago Regional Forum on Ethics and Sustainability was organized as an attempt to address this gap and to consider how we might engage others in our communities on the level of shared values and challenges. While there are too many highlights from the Forum to try to recap them all here, I’d like to distill a handful of notable themes that emerged. (Videos of each of the speakers’ talks can be viewed on the Center for Humans and Nature Web site: www.

As we were organizing the forum, anthropologist Alaka Wali raised a concern that struck me as critically important. To paraphrase, she said that she hoped the conference would not focus only on the moral reasons of why we should care about the natural world, but how we go about caring. The implication, with a healthy infusion of Chicago can-do spirit, was something along the lines of “Let’s not waste energy pontificating to the choir. Let’s get down to the business of making it happen.”

The speakers we invited to this year’s Forum were persons who all have the enviable ability to clearly express their sense of connection to the natural world, articulating deep feelings of why we should care. Four of our speakers were contributors to the recently published anthology Moral Ground, which is discussed more fully by Moore and Nelson’s article in this issue. It is a book that is framed by the question, “Do we have a moral obligation to take action to protect the future of a planet in peril?” In the book, that question is answered in the affirmative by over eighty different luminaries from around the globe.

I don’t think Alaka intended to discount the value of why. However, as she was so keen to point out, life is lived off the page—sometimes away from the support of people who think alike about land health, the needs of other species, and the rights of future generations to live in a beautiful and well-loved world. The real, everyday work that we do inevitably runs up against the particular challenges of connecting why to how.

One of our invited speakers, community activist Michael Howard, provided a sense of these challenges. About fifteen years ago, concerned about high lead levels in the soil and general blight in the area, Michael began a project to transform Fuller Park, his south Chicago neighborhood. This was no small task. In a vacant lot—which had been used as an illegal dumpsite for many years—Michael and his crew began to clean up and create what eventually became Eden Place Nature Center. Given such neglect and abuse of the land, the transformation has been remarkable—Eden Place is now a restoration site and an active urban garden, echoing with the laughter of children and the clucking of chickens.

On the day the forum began, Michael and I had a cup of coffee together before others arrived. I asked him some questions about his work. After we were well dosed with our morning caffeine, Michael told me, in passing, that his house had been firebombed once, then continued talking. Startled, I put down my cup and asked him to explain. Michael told me that his plans for the revitalization of Fuller Park initially met with some resistance from local gangs, especially the jobs-extension program he helped manage. In short, Michael was siphoning off the labor force of drug-dealers in the area by providing career alternatives. He posed enough of a threat that he became the target of intimidation tactics, including the firebombing.

What would give someone like Michael the strength to continue despite such dangers to himself and his family? Disquieting benchmarks of 385 ppm of CO2? Statistical analyses regarding biodiversity loss? Well-reasoned arguments about consequentalist ethics or the intrinsic value of Cerulean warblers? Probably not. This speaks to why we chose to hold a “regional” forum and invited local conservation leaders to share from their experiences. Given that the ethical dimensions of conservation cut across various geographical boundaries—the international scope of climate destabilization being perhaps the foremost contemporary example—regional concerns may seem less worthy of attention. However, something that was affirmed during the forum was that high-profile, controversial conservation issues don’t have a lot of traction in people’s hearts and minds if they are not grounded in a tangible place.

What does it mean to “ground” ethics in place? My hunch is that most of us understand international issues, if and when we think about them, with reference to our everyday relationships. In other words, place provides the baseline and meaning for our experiences of the world, for our understanding of why these issues matter, and for how we might actually do something, however modest, about them.

It is no mistake, therefore, that many of the forum speakers and participants shared their unique stories of place. One remarkable participant, Sherry Williams of the Bronzeville Historical Society, spoke about how her vision of a walkable community in the Pullman District of Chicago inspired her to organize local birding excursions for her neighbors—with a twist. Because of its proximity to Lake Michigan, Chicago is a migratory flyway for many bird species. Chicago also has a remarkable legacy of human migration. Sherry lives in a predominantly African American community, a place that was a primary destination from the 1890s to the 1950s for blacks who left the rural south for opportunities in Chicago during a movement known as “The Great Migration.” Sherry has taken this heritage and used it as a point of contact in understanding and generating interest about the birds that pass through her neighborhood. The response has been remarkable, and on Sundays, she told us, she now finds different waves of people waiting on her porch for these birding walkabouts.

Sherry is showing how culture and nature can be—as they have been for millennia—intertwined through narrative. Indeed, in some ways the distinctive power of the forum was captured by conservation writer Scott Russell Sanders during his talk when he remarked, “Place is geography soaked with stories.”

Scott told a memorable story of his own. He recalled a time during his boyhood when his dad took him out into the woods, and with all earnestness, introduced him to an individual tree by having him feel its bark, look at its shape, and hold and smell its seeds. “Scott,” his dad said, “this is Black Walnut; and Black Walnut, this is Scott.” Scott’s story highlights another theme that emerged during the forum: the cultivation of empathy. As a child, Scott probably did not think of his introduction to Black Walnut as an introduction to interspecies empathy; nevertheless, his dad was offering him a way of being, a way of seeing, based on empathy: a profound recognition of the presence and uniqueness of others who share this interconnected world with us.

The “No Child Left Inside” movement is one way to reach young people, allowing them the structured and unstructured places they need to stoke their curiosity and connect to the natural world, and this was much spoken about at the forum since one of our topics was “place-based education.” But it was wildlife biologist John Vucetich who provided the most sustained (and perhaps most surprising) reflections on what he called an “ethics of empathy.”

John argued that the scientific paradigm that has dominated Western thinking for the last four hundred years is in need of an overhaul. Unfortunately, conquering and controlling nature—forcing her to reveal her secrets, in the infamous words of the “father” of science, Francis Bacon—persists as a thought paradigm despite indications of strain. John’s call to scientists, and his general prescription for fostering ethical human-nature relationships, was to embrace as the primary purpose of science an “ethics of empathy,” the skill of understanding the perspective of an Other as a means of generating what he called “wonderment.”

For John, this understanding had a very specific, almost revelatory, origin. John has been a field researcher on wolf-moose population dynamics for over two decades. Relatively recently, however, he came to the conclusion that his knowledge had been severely limited by his scientific methodology. Though considered a world expert on moose, and despite his many contributions to the study of moose behavior and ecology, he realized, “I had no idea what it is like to be a moose.” His life has since become a meditation on what it is like “to be a moose,” which has generated a series of little connections to other animals, which in turn led to lifestyle changes because he understood better the impact of his choices upon these creatures. His last encouragement was to find any creature that lives close—a house sparrow or a grey squirrel, for example—and meditate on that creature for a year.

What is it like to be a moose? You may trade the word “moose” for your own totem animal, vegetable, mineral, or ecosystem. The point is, empathy that generates “wonderment” may be the key to any environmental ethics or sustainability movement worthy of the name.

Cultivating an ethics of empathy points to the reality that sustainability is not reducible to individual lifestyle changes. Humans are not hermetically sealed individuals, airtight containers of thoughts and emotions that move along a cosmic conveyor belt toward their final destinations. Humans are porous, transactive creatures, from the food we eat to the air we breathe to the water that circulates through our bodies. Ultimately, an empathic ethics recognizes and cultivates the links between humans and nature, necessarily raising the question of collective flourishing.

The tasks before us, of course, are magnificently large. As one participant put it, the human-earth relationship is akin to a “collective trauma,” in which we have been un-settled, like hipbones from their sockets. In the why to how equation, the how is the messy part. This how is really about the joys and struggles of building community. This is when the whys we carry around in our heads meet the real, sometimes painful, always complex process of how we practice our convictions with others.

Healthy communities aren’t about one-size-fits-all solutions, top-down pronouncements, or decrees from an enlightened elite. They require people deeply committed to work with others for a common good. People who know that psychologically, socially, and spiritually, we are dependent on natural systems. People who understand that process is as important as product. People who realize that relationships—with other humans, with the natural world, with the places we call home—provide the tensile strength that holds us together when confronted with forces that fragment our neighborhoods, our communities, and the land.

Sustainability has been defined in many ways in political documents and academic literature. The purpose of the forum was not to add one more definition to that stew. The forum was intended to highlight that sustainability means little without embracing its moral and relational dimensions. The forum reminded me that the intersection of ethics and sustainability lies somewhere in the realm of what anthropologist Laura DeLind has referred to as “sweaty sacrifices.” The words sacrifice and sacred are etymologically related. It may be common to think of the sacred as something that drops from the sky, or some mysterium tremendum that overwhelms us and sends a shiver down the spine, like the grandeur of a prairie thunderstorm. I find Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday’s perspective on the sacred more compelling. Momaday argues that particular places are made sacred. The sacred is earned—literally with blood, sweat, and tears—and, he hastens to add, with joy, song, and story, “offerings of life and death.” Sweaty sacrifices. We become bonded to others, to the land, to our places by giving—deeply—of ourselves. These places are valuable because we have become part of them, physically and mentally, not just by “spending” time on them but by dwelling in and with them. We earn the right to live in such places.

It would be nice to have ethical panaceas. What we’ve got is a place. The forum was an opportunity to think about, and see living examples of, our remarkable place in the greater Chicago region. Reconnecting to place and one another through shared stories, collective struggle, and an ethics of empathy may not give us clear prescriptions. But we can be confident that sustainable cultures are those that are built through “sweaty sacrifices.” The forum provided a venue to foster such connections—between people and place, between knowledge and empathy, and between why and how.

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for Humans & Nature Press Books. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of the award-winning Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Humans & Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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