In Search of the Ethics of Place

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7 minutes of reading

In Grounding Knowledge: Environmental Philosophy, Epistemology, and Place, Christopher Preston has two goals—one he accomplishes, and one he does not.  I wish he had accomplished both, for both are important.

Preston’s first goal is to establish that physical places are both epistemologically and morally significant.  In other words, where we are influences how we think, and what we should be and do.  He begins his book with a thorough explanation of epistemological history, from Plato to post-modernism.  He stresses the point that post-modernists are not content merely to locate our epistemologies within a general or abstract social and cultural context, but also insist upon “looking at the particular spaces and places in which we do our thinking” (p. 74).

His appreciation of this specificity and concreteness is convincing, and he then builds on it in interesting ways. For example, Preston differentiates between spaces and places: “Space is something abstract and undifferentiated that is simply moved through or mapped from the outside. Places are the result of people pausing for a while in a location and instilling some of their cultural values into the landscape” (p. 74). Places become places by the meaning we instill in them, and they influence us in return. He is also careful to say that we must avoid “biological determinism”—assuming that people are bound by the natural places they come from—as he sees this as a form of racism. He is equally skeptical of any form of cultural or historical determinism.  He argues instead for what he calls “environmental possibilism”— by which he means that people and ideas should be seen as enriched and informed, but not determined, by their places of meaning.

Preston’s secondary (and, unfortunately, less convincing) point is that natural (ecological) places have a privileged status among all types of place— natural, cultural, historical—because natural places are inherently the most diverse. Diversity of place creates diversity of mind. And diversity of mind fosters creativity, which, for Preston, is the ultimate good.

I rooted for Preston all the way with his second point, as it seemed to be especially significant in a society where many people, perhaps most, are not inclined to value nature adequately.  Preston sees a powerful link between humans and nature—the life around us and our humanity.  Don’t we all know many people who do not inherently feel that nature is exceptional, but who do value diversity and creativity quite highly?  I certainly do.

But before I stand to give Preston an ovation, I have second thoughts. Is it really the case that natural places should be seen as especially valuable in the place-hierarchy, should be given pride of place among places? Preston does not provide a solid argument for this conclusion, and the reader is left with too many unanswered questions. For example, how do we know that diversity of mind influences creativity in a positive way? A particularly complicated environment might actually make it more difficult to be creative because this form of diversity can be distracting. Conversely, the uniformity of a given landscape could spur creative thought through its intense non-diversity. In terms of writing, I am at my most creative on train rides, while Preston would not even consider trains to be “places” because his definition stresses dwelling and rest, whereas the place-being of a train is a state of being in motion. For other examples, think of Huck Finn in motion on the Mississippi, or Jack Kerouac on the road. Placeless selves, but hardly strangers to diversity or creativity. Furthermore, if a more diverse place is always more valuable than a less diverse one, we might value certain built environments over certain natural ones. And even if we are to accept that nature is always more diverse than cultural or social space, do we then have to draw a clear line between nature and culture, and isn’t that precisely the line that Preston ultimately wants to blur?

These questions arise because Preston unabashedly writes from a personal angle. He assumes that the reader shares his perspective of what constitutes “the good life.” He does not sufficiently define or defend contested concepts, such as nature or diversity. He also uses anecdotal evidence from his own travels, which are always voluntary and allow for the preconditions necessary to give one the capability to experience and appreciate the sense of natural place. One of his main examples of feeling dislocated, for instance, is a trip he chose to take for seemingly spiritual reasons to the Alaskan wilderness (pp. 89-93). If Preston’s study were to successfully have the universal scope he intends it to have, it would need to more adequately address those preconditions and how they can be made more equitably accessible in the world today. Millions of today’s travelers, after all, are not spiritual tourists. They are immigrants or prisoners whose encounters with natural places are the antithesis of what Preston is looking for.

Lorraine Code similarly criticizes Preston for speaking from a privileged, patriarchal perspective. Code advocates for an alternative theory of place, which she lays out in her book Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location. Like Preston, Code wants to uncover an epistemology that takes place into account, but she wants it to be more universally tolerant of the diversity of experience in today’s world.

Code begins by criticizing the authority that society gives to science in general and to all of those structures, such as courts, which hold the power of objectivity. She believes we over-value objectivity and therefore create a violently hierarchical system of knowledge. Code imagines an alternative system where knowledge-production would be based on what she sees as an ecological model. Ecological thinking, according to Code, is about attention to detail, even (or especially) when a detail seems an isolated aberration from the normal type. Ecological thinking is decidedly self-reflexive, and it is analytical of interests, presuppositions, and place, as they combine within the knowledge-seeker. In this way, ecological thinking is supposed to be more understanding of true diversity, as well as inclusive of how places influence thought.

Although I, like Code, hope for a system that would be sensitive to true diversity, her study is difficult to translate into substantive changes. I found myself agreeing with everything she was saying, and yet not seeing how my agreement required me or anyone else to act any differently. Code’s idea of attention to detail also has potential, but it is almost impossible to understand how her theory would have practical application. In her attempt to avoid Preston’s pitfalls, Code falls into her own.

Martha Nussbaum’s latest book, Creating Capabilities, brings us back to the questions that plagued Preston’s study—such as the preconditions for creativity and what we mean by the good life. Unlike Preston and Code, Nussbaum does not work specifically on the topic of place, and her book Creating Capabilities is chiefly an attempt to find a new paradigm of what human and social “development” mean and a critique of the mainstream development model that measures development in terms of gross domestic product.  However, it can provide insight into why a just society should value places and nature more generally.

Nussbaum attacks the practice of measuring development by GDP for many reasons: because it does not take inequality into account; because it is not adjusted for foreign investment that makes no difference in local lives; and because it ignores whether individuals have access to economic gains. Nussbaum instead proposes her capabilities approach, an alternative method that would more accurately evaluate whether actual lives are improving in a particular place. Nussbaum argues that minimally just societies must give all their citizens the chance to live with dignity. She then makes a list of criteria for allowing humans to live dignified lives. She hopes to ask a given society not about its economic growth, but rather about what real opportunities it has provided for its people. At the same time, Nussbaum values freedom of choice highly, which is why she tries to focus on capabilities and opportunities rather than actual standards of living. For example, human beings flourish not because they have an abundance of economic resources—many very full, rich lives are lived under quite frugal circumstances—but because they live in the midst of social and ecological conditions that permit them to utilize resources to support the capability of living a full human life. Such a life is in fact made up of many different capabilities, and each person should be free to develop some more than others and to create the special set of capabilities that they value most. In her complex, plural conception of the human good or flourishing, none of the capabilities are valued more highly than others. But if people are not permitted access to a full array of these potential capabilities, they are not living in a just society, they are not truly free, and their human dignity is not being respected.

Nussbaum’s study raises all kinds of its own problems, chief among them how her approach could be implemented. However, the study does give an argument for place-protection that glimmers with hope for environmentalists. Toward the end of the book, Nussbaum emphasizes the importance of an assured future as a basic opportunity necessary for human dignity. This requirement of future security, she argues, necessitates environmentalism. It gives a strong theoretical framework for arguing against reckless development of non-renewable resources and lands of all kinds. At the same time, it is inclusive of diversity and disallows involuntary displacement.

The debates between these three authors show how complex and contested the concept of place truly is. Despite its difficulty, however, a deeper understanding of place is vital to the environmental project. Without investigating what places mean to us, we cannot hope to argue for their preservation.

For more information on contemporary debates about place, readers can consider Tim Cresswell’s Place: A Short Introduction, which explores various competing theories of place. Cresswell separates contemporary thought on place into three, at times overlapping, categories. The first category is the descriptive approach, the second the social constructivist approach, and the third the phenomenological approach. For example, we might locate Code and Preston in the second and third approaches, respectively. Cresswell also pushes beyond these theories of place, focusing instead on behavior that is seen as “out of place,” particularly homosexual behavior and the existence of the homeless. Through these explorations, Cresswell does not resolve the tensions between different definitions of place, but he explains these tensions in order to argue that place is an important and complex topic that academics from a variety of disciplines should pay attention to. Environmental thinkers should heed Cresswell’s call and continue to investigate how our connections to place affect the natural world and how we might come to better protect it.

  • Juliana DeVries

    Juliana DeVries is a law student at University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

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