In my 2003 book, Grounding Knowledge, I attempted to articulate in somewhat respectable philosophical terms a thesis that has largely escaped the notice of environmental thinkers. This is the thesis that the places in which a person dwells and the landscapes they call home can, on occasions, exert a subtle influence on the way they construct their understanding of the world. This is not the trivial claim that the world supplies much of the contents of our minds through our sensory faculties. It is the much more radical thesis that a physical landscape can sometimes form part of the machinery of the mind, subtly influencing the way that we think about things. On this view, landscape is not wholly exterior to the mind. It works with the mind to give us both a sense of who we are and some shape to how we think.
Framed in part as an exploration of Paul Shepard’s provocative claim that there is “a strange and necessary connection between place and mind,” the book engaged in turn with science studies, anthropology, native American thinking, philosophical psychology, cognitive science, and personal narrative in search of support for the view that “thinking, knowing, and believing [are tethered] to some rich and earthbound material roots.” The book offered a wide-ranging pursuit of the idea that the contours of a physical environment are not just a blank canvas upon which a human drama is scripted. They co-constitute the drama, taking an active role in determining some aspects of how that drama gets written. Place is not simply a backdrop for thought. It exudes a power that can bring shape to portions of our conceptual life.
There was a strategic reason to write the book, namely, to start to tie environmental philosophy into epistemology and the philosophy of mind and give it a more mainstream purchase. There was also a personal reason. As an immigrant to America from England, living in Oregon, working in Alaska, it seemed clear to me that I was very much influenced by the landscapes from which I had come and by those landscapes I was now inhabiting and exploring. The idea of an “epistemic location”—literally “a place from which one knows”—developed by feminist thinkers such as Lorraine Code and Sandra Harding and originally referring primarily to a social context, seemed like it also had an obvious, but neglected, application to physical context.
In what follows, I plan to revisit the thesis and explore a bit further some of its normative implications. In particular, I am interested in considering how the thesis bears on the way human activities shape the large scale landscapes in which we dwell. Much of the inspiration for returning to the topic comes from my Montana colleague, philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann, and the ideas articulated in his book Real American Ethics. In Real American Ethics, Borgmann urges us to think about the moral import of the material reality that surrounds us. In contrast to theoretical ethics (which he thinks is too theoretical) and practical ethics (too applied), he posits “real ethics” as a third strand of ethics that begins its analysis rooted firmly in the common practices of day-to-day living. He considers initially how those practices can hinder or enhance our ability to flourish.
Practices, Borgmann then asserts, typically take place within a set of built structures that in some sense set the parameters for how those practices end up influencing us. The built environment matters, in other words, for the constraints it imposes and the opportunities it opens up. He urges us to pay attention to the virtues of economy and design for the way they can helpfully (or harmfully) construct that material reality. The arrangement of the household, for example, or the layout of the interstate highway system can do something to us, Borgmann thinks, and what they can do is ethically significant. Borgmann’s ideas amount to the claim that material reality is morally thick and so philosophers need to pay more attention to the lives it creates.
The claim about the moral power of constructed objects has its origin in the philosophy of technology. Peter-Paul Verbeek, for example, suggests that technologies can be seen to “materialize morality” and claims that designers of those technologies are “doing ethics by other means.” Don Idhe has also discussed in detail how technologies can shape us by directing our possible interactions with the world. Most of the work done by philosophers of technology on these topics, however, focuses on small-scale artifacts such as cell phones, computers, hearing aids, or perhaps automobiles. But, as Borgmann shows, these insights can also be applied to the constructed physical environment writ large. Though larger physical environments such as cities and rural landscapes tend not to be designed as unified wholes and in such an intentional fashion as cell phones or iPads, they presumably exert no less of an influence on the lives that we lead and the range of interactions available to us. If technological devices can embody ethics, then these wider constructed environments are unlikely to be silent in conceptual and moral life. Presumably they too carry moral values, values we would do well to notice.
In Grounding Knowledge, the only normative conclusion I drew was that the diversity contained in natural landscapes was a cognitive resource of a sort, with more variety of landscapes having the potential to sponsor more diverse viewpoints. It seems, however, that there is much more to say about the epistemic impact of physical surroundings on our thoughts. If the surrounding environment can itself be a purveyor of values, actively shaping thought processes, we might ask what different surroundings contribute to our sense of how to live? If physical surroundings can indeed perform the function of “materializing ethics,” then is there a way to shape these environments so that those who interact with them are more likely to develop appropriate ethics? Clearly there is plenty to investigate about the impacts of the built world on the contours of our mind, impacts that Shepard calls the “reciprocity of place and person.” Here I only offer very rough and preliminary remarks on the possible impacts of three general types of environment. Splitting the landscapes humans influence into three rough types, what messages about moral values should urban, rural, and wild landscapes convey?
Consider first the environment that is changed most deliberately and dramatically as the result of our actions, the urban environment. It is in the urban environment that humans take the most active role in designing the spaces within which they work and live, utterly transforming their surroundings into places that serve perceived needs. Urban planners, architects, and landscape designers are fully aware that these constructed landscapes are not silent but exert an influence upon us. Borgmann quotes Winston Churchill in this regard who cautioned architects charged with the rebuilding of London after the German blitz, “First we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Borgmann is no architect, so in Real American Ethics he does not speak so much to the shape of the buildings themselves as to an insidious effect that a poorly designed material environment can create.
Borrowing an idea from E.P. Thompson—an idea with obvious roots in Marx—Borgmann starts the argument by lamenting what he calls “moral commodification.” Moral commodification is a process that strips goods and services from the context out of which they arise and the important connections that make them into what they are. The geographical origin of a market good, the labor and materials that went into producing it, the ecological impact of its production, and the lives that were impacted at point of origin and in transit become increasingly veiled, less “transparent” and “direct,” as moral commodification takes place. The social and environmental costs are hidden, often pushed “beyond the space and time horizon,” as Maria Mies has put it, and dumped on the global poor. The worst kinds of moral commodification suck meaning from our lives, says Borgmann, by taking “the things and practices that are dear to us, reduc[ing] them to slick and available merchandise, and sell[ing] them back to us . . . without their centering and consoling power” (161). The overall effect of such commodification is to make our lives shallow and banal, what Charles Taylor has called the “narrowing and flattening of our lives.”
Borgmann’s complaint about moral commodification sounds like it is directed towards the character of consumer goods and artifacts such as processed foods and laptops and certainly, in part, it is. But the commodification Borgmann laments operates not just on things, but also more abstractly on places, spaces, and other aspects of our lives not so typically thought of as consumables. One of the examples Borgmann uses is the U.S. interstate highway system. The empirical effects of the interstate highway system on generating suburban sprawl and contributing to inner city decay are familiar to us already. Here Borgmann focuses more on how the highway system has the moral effect of commodifying space and time. The pleasure of not having to drive through the traffic of every small town on a cross-country trip is alluring. But the system also comes with moral costs. Borgmann describes the trips he used to make with his wife through the old mining town of Wallace, Idaho, on his way from Missoula to Seattle:
For twenty years we would look forward to Wallace with dismay and pleasure. Wallace invariably arrested our smooth and pleasant progress, ensnarled us in slow-moving traffic, and more often than not stopped us at Seventh and Bank Street. But inevitably also we were captivated by the courageous grace of the Victorian buildings and by the waning aura of mining and prostitution. At times we stopped to look at the fading splendor of hotels and banks and to immerse ourselves in the talk and smells of a coffee shop, witnesses to the slow and familiar ways of small town life. . . . On th[e] day [the overpass went in] the heroic substructure had become invisible; Wallace was reduced to a picturesque jumble of roofs and facades. (178)
The time saved by the highway reduced Borgmann’s interaction with Wallace, both with its history and its present. As Borgmann put it, “public exertion imploded into private ease” (178). The implosion dematerialized and depersonalized the surroundings. Wallace no longer had texture and depth; it was reduced to a two-dimensional scene worth only a moment’s glance. The time saved might in principle be put to good use. But it could also lead the drivers of air-conditioned cars hastening to the malls in Spokane or Seattle to forget the trials of unemployed miners in Idaho or to ignore the toxic legacy of metals extracted from the mountain west.
The point here is not that an interstate highway is an inherently bad technology. The point is that the technology and the material structure of the highway system are playing a largely unnoticed role in deciding for us what to take as significant in our lives. They quietly dictate where to focus attention, what to value. The highway system is neither neutral nor silent in our moral epistemology. Material constructions such as interstates possess a largely unnoticed power that points our attention in one direction or another. The structure we utilize has materialized morality for us in a way that it is easy not to notice.
If the thesis is correct that our surroundings have the potential to direct us towards some sets of values and away from others, we might consider how to intentionally structure the built world so that it directs us towards desirable values and away from problematic ones. A helpful suggestion in this regard is made by philosopher Yuriko Saito. Offering an echo of Churchill’s point in the arena of environmental aesthetics, Saito suggests that “designed objects and human environments are never mute; they always have something to say if we know how to listen.” Saito suggests that we develop more respectful attitudes towards environments that we perceive as taking care of us, promoting our well-being, and providing us with pleasurable experiences. Cultures with such perceptions, Saito suggests, tend to be more sustainable and enduring. Saito thinks we ought to work to preserve, create, or restore environments that promote well-being and transform those that do not.
Putting the lessons from Saito and Borgmann together, one might urge the construction of built environments that palpably take care of their residents, doing so in visible ways, without the veils that are raised by moral commodification. We face a design choice about whether the fabric of urban space will be revealed or concealed. Built environments can be designed so they make visible their contribution to the food residents eat (through urban gardens), the recreation residents enjoy (through cafes, entertainment, parkland), the workspaces they depend upon, the social connections they are nourished by, and the shelter that all urban residents require, including those that are low-income or homeless. Making visible the richness and diversity of urban spaces and especially the way that urban spaces support (or fail to support) their residents creates a material environment that is, in the first instance, more honest, and, in the second, is more capable of speaking an ecological message of relationships and dependencies to its residents. Surroundings might regain some texture and depth as the full range of their contribution to our lived experience is revealed.
The flip side of this honesty is also to make visible the costs. It is important not to hide landfills, power stations, polluted, diverted, or buried waterways, and sewage treatment plants. They should be located as close to the population cores as possible (and particularly close to those who consume at the greatest rate). Costs that are visible speak with a clear voice to the impact of our lives on the local ecology. Costs rendered invisible, or “externalized” in the language of economics, are no longer perceived as costs but as inconveniences that need to be made to go away.
In towns and cities across the nation there are numerous examples of places where costs are made visible. A striking example is Valdez, Alaska. One of the notable things about Valdez is that planted squarely in the viewshed of every resident is the terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline. America’s dependence—and Alaska’s own extreme dependence—on petroleum is made appallingly (but perhaps beautifully) visible across the water to residents of Valdez. Residents can see the tankers that ply those waters 24/7 with their grubby smokestacks staining the brilliant white of the snowcapped peaks and the glaciers that disgorge their melting ice into the Valdez Arm.
There is an unusual honesty about petroleum embedded in the Valdez landscape, and that honesty can sometimes pay dividends. I was surprised when returning to Valdez after a seven-year hiatus to see the low-hanging blue smoke of airborn particulate matter that swam with benzene and ground-level ozone mostly cleaned up in the time I had been away. Citizens had got active on the issue. It was, after all, in their face every day. No doubt the consortium responsible for operating the terminus owed the town after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Nevertheless, if the terminus had been in the next bay over, it is less likely that these changes would have occurred.
The constructed landscape is rarely morally neutral. The values it carries are not silent but get into our minds and shape our attitudes both toward human neighbors and toward the non-human environment. Making costs visible does not automatically lead to those costs being ameliorated. It does, however, lead to a fuller understanding of the dependent relationships of human communities on natural communities, communities which sometimes lie firmly within the space and time horizon, and sometimes lie beyond it.
In the urban environment, humans have the most dramatic influence on the structures that might shape thought. In the rural and the wild, the landscape is progressively less shaped by human intention. Natural forces occupy more of the resident’s gaze. Humans are not so liable to rapidly and completely transform the character of the landscape. And yet clearly neither rural nor wild landscapes are entirely free from human influence. It seems important to pay attention to ways that we can shape the messages these landscapes convey. Is there an equivalent to a moral commodification that can be wreaked on rural and wild landscapes? Are there better and worse ways to transform these landscapes so that the way they speak becomes more, rather than less, conducive to flourishing individuals living in flourishing communities?
Consider first the message sent by industrial farmlands that provide the food that satiates American’s immense appetites, appetites that, according to Michael Pollan, have steered productive land in the United States progressively more towards the production of corn. Compare these industrial lands to the image of a small-scale Shenandoah Valley family farm or the stereotypical picture of farming in the English countryside. Pastoral landscapes such as those found in some parts of the U.K. can, at their best, display signs of a long-term integration of humans and nature. Farms can speak a message of longevity. There are cart tracks visible on active farmland on the cliffs of Southern England that are 2,400 years old. The Sussex downs, previously oak forest, have been grazed by domesticated sheep for over a thousand years, with a high level of biodiversity now re-established. It is a historically peopled landscape, with the character of the land shaped by the human residents responding to natural conditions over long periods of time. The fields are shaped by the topographical contours. The many hedgerows and small woodlots point away from monotony. The message is one of the integration of human and natural worlds over the long term. The rural landscape in the U.K. in places conveys a sense of stability and acceptance of a human/nature co-habitation.
Industrial farms tell a completely different story. Hedgerows are ripped out and creeks diverted. Fields no longer follow the contours of the land but the property lines of agribusiness. The woodlots are replaced by more crops, and the eroded soils collect in the valley bottoms. The message conveyed is that the land can be forced into production without consideration of the topographic or ecological realities. This is also the message conveyed by those center-pivot irrigated fields of the U.S. Midwest and intermountain west. Those circular oases of green fascinate from the airplane only because they speak so clearly of manipulation on a grand scale, of engineering for purpose, despite the hydrological reality.
The shape of both of these types of rural landscapes is morally thick. Ethics is materialized in they way they have been constructed. They carry messages about how to live, messages that can convey desirable values like permanence, co-habitation, diversity, and integration or less desirable values like homogeneity, control, forcible change, or manipulation to serve economic needs. Some landscapes convey better messages and embody more desirable values than others. A landscape that conveys a message of reciprocity between people and place shapes a people for whom reciprocity is natural. The influence is self-reinforcing. Those people are likely in turn to treat the landscape with more care. As Saito said earlier about the urban environment, humans could surround themselves with rural environments that are seen to nurture and support or with structures that serve some other goal, perhaps a distant economic goal. Only through a very contrived translation is it possible to read the landscapes of industrialized agriculture as nurturing and supporting by providing cheap grain. The first impression is of a vast monotone that serves an economic purpose. How can this not leave an effect on our minds?
Sometimes even more so than with urban environments, rural environments can be painfully honest. Since rural environments tend to grow in a more piecemeal fashion than cities, it is sometimes harder to hide their costs. It is the in-your-face honesty that makes me perversely grateful that, near my home in Montana, I can readily see the sprawl that fills the Bitterroot Valley (a valley Jared Diamond described as being on the point of “collapse” in his book of that title). In the Bitterroot, the cost of Montana’s loveliness and the privilege of living here is laid bare before your eyes. As well as seeing the sprawl, those who venture into the Bitterroot can see rivers that rise or fall depending on the variable snowpack, carcasses of road-killed porcupine, moose, and white-tailed deer on the highways, and cattle grazing next to the orchards and plots that supply the weekend community markets. The lesson is one of transparency and directness that is a necessary counter to those who would always seek to push the costs of growing populations and affluence beyond the space and time horizon. The message that such environments convey is more nearly a reflection of how those environments function ecologically in the lives of local residents. When done well, such landscapes are shaped so that the material surroundings convey a message of nurturance. When done poorly, the surroundings make it quite clear how residents are not living sustainably.
Consider finally those wilder environments that are the least impacted by human activities. Are there messages that such lands also convey? Is there a moral epistemology to wilderness? The problem of starting with the suggestion that a wild landscape conveys a certain message is that the whole concept of “the wild” in north American is tarnished. It has become one of the accepted truths of contemporary environmentalism that the idea of wilderness “unimpacted” and “uninhabited” by humans was the product of an ignorant myth, a myth simultaneously both attractive and repellent to European immigrants who spread themselves, their religions, and their diseases through landscapes already well-inhabited by indigenous peoples. Ideas contained in the U.S. Wilderness Act such as “untrammeled” or landscapes described as places where humans are “visitors that shall not remain” are clearly problematic in the light of what is now acknowledged about the historical indigenous presence on the North American continent.
While acknowledging the problems inherent in the North American idea of “wilderness” is it possible to still identify a way that such landscapes do consistently speak? Are there any aspects of the wilderness idea that might still contain something important about what the structure of those wild lands convey?
Consider the ideas that the U.S. Wilderness Act tries to capture of land “retaining its primeval character and influence” and land “with outstanding opportunities for solitude.” Here an important and consistent message might be found. Provided one understands solitude as “relative freedom from other humans,” as opposed to the absence of all inspirited beings, and provided one understands primeval character and influence as something approximating “consistent with the historical accounts used in a culture,” it might be argued that the retention of such undeveloped lands exerts a significant and similar influence on both immigrant and indigenous imaginaries. The sense of being in the presence of land that embodies distant time and of being in an encounter with only non-human others might to some extent transcend cultural differences. Wild lands might speak a parallel message to different peoples, informing cultural ideas about the people’s relationship to the land, about the historical past and promises of the future, about life and death. Despite all the problems with the concept of wilderness, there might still be an important and consistent set of values that is picked up through interaction with wild lands.
The Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana recently implemented its new travel plan for an area of the Rocky Mountain Front adjacent to both Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Nation. The Badger-Two Medicine area, known to the Blackfeet as the “backbone of the world,” is a roadless landscape not currently protected as wilderness, nor part of the National Park system. The Lewis and Clark National Forest recommended designation of that part of the forest as a “traditional cultural district.” The travel plan recently implemented bans most motorized use of the area and recommends non-motorized traditional uses only in the Badger-Two. The overwhelming support for this decision both from indigenous and non-indigenous residents of Montana and surrounding areas suggests that the conflict between indigenous and non-indigenous visions of this landscape is less significant than the confluence. The physical character of the land might be characterized by different people in different contexts as “vast,” “dynamic,” “peopled,” “empty,” “historic,” “wild.” Yet despite all the different characterizations, these lands speak with a clear enough voice to both indigenous and non-indigenous parties. The message is to some extent a common message. It is a voice that provides a recognizable meaning to the land whether it is conceptualized as “wilderness” or as “sacred land.” It is also evidently a voice compelling enough to warrant the land’s protection from human impacts.
Jack Turner, Tom Birch, and others have lamented the commodification of wildlands. They complain with some justification that the boundaries, the regulations, and the recreational emphasis used to manage wild lands turns them into artifacts, in the process squeezing what is truly wild out of the landscape. It seems as if they are saying, with Borgmann, that there is a moral commodification of wildness taking place, one that detracts from the true texture and depth of these wild landscapes, contributing to a narrowing and flattening of our experience there. One can imagine a wilderness so intensely managed that the land starts to speak with only a muted voice. Moreover, this may not be true only of heavily trammeled “pocket wildernesses” in the eastern United States. There are parts of Montana’s huge Bob Marshall wilderness complex where the trails are badly cut up by the mule and horse trains favored by the outfitters. Backcountry permits in Alaska’s Denali National Park are issued by quadrants in order to reduce the chance of running into other users and the chance of encountering a bear that might be having too frequent human contact. Even a backpacking trip in Denali turns out to be, against the odds, a heavily managed experience.
The worry about commodifying these landscapes is real. The experience of wild lands should not be packaged in a way that human interests impede upon the qualities the natural landscape offers. Generally speaking, however, Birch’s and Turner’s claims would appear to be exaggerated. Those experience of “primeval nature” and “opportunities for solitude” are still there in both Montana’s Bob Marshall and North Carolina’s Bob Creek Pocket Wilderness. As Bill Cronon and others have pointed out, wildness can be found very close to home, in the arc proscribed by the blowing of a glacier lily in a spring breeze. The richness, texture, and depth is still usually present even after the land becomes, in Birch’s term, “incarcerated” in a park. Birch’s and Turner’s mistake, perhaps, is an over-emphasis on how the idea of wilderness is impacted by management rules, GPSs, and eager recreationalists. They exaggerate the effects of the actual practices on (what can still remain) a vibrant material reality. Wild processes, given room to operate, and appropriate conditions to be experienced, can continue to speak a clear and important message about size and scope, history and transience, humility and care, points made with clarity by Holmes Rolston III in his defense of the management of Yellowstone National Park. Management decisions do not automatically destroy the quality of wild lands, though it is important to notice how some decisions (e.g., ATV access) create more impact than others (e.g., fee structures).
Environmental Ethics and Environmental Epistemology
In each case of urban, rural, and wild landscapes, it is evident that there are better and worse ways of designing and managing the environment so that the values materialized in those surroundings are more likely to be desirable ones. Recognizing the power of surroundings to influence the mind is an important first step in the process of paying increased attention to how we construct the physical spaces through which we move. This recognition is part of the larger project shared by almost all environmentalists of emphasizing the connections and dependencies that exist between landscapes and human cultures. If we don’t simply depend on the environment physiologically and ecologically but also psychologically and cognitively then we have additional reasons for treating the land with a great deal of care and attention.
Before closing I wish to offer both a brief caveat and a note of reassurance about this paper’s central claim that environments can influence the thought processes of those who dwell on them. First, the caveat. On the one hand, it may seem entirely progressive to talk about surrounding landscapes being able to permeate the mind. It could be a way of making sense of the powerful but enigmatic notion of a “sense of place.” On the other hand, it is important to notice that this line of inquiry also has regressive elements to it, while raising a number of tricky additional problems. For example, it raises a worry about environmental determinism, it risks ignoring the diverse standpoints of different social groups within the same geographical community, and it avoids the question of how material environments and cultural environments might interact. Furthermore, it leaves out the question of how people are influenced, not only on an individual level, but also through a particular socio-cultural imaginary, and it does not talk about the inflections of power (whether they be felt through race, gender, class, embodiment, sexuality) that are present for every resident of every environment. All of these worries would need to be addressed as part of any fuller investigation of how a place can influence the mind. For now, I simply note that these hazards exist and stress that they are serious. I also note that, despite the dangers of the territory, there may lie an important insight to be gained from recognizing this epistemic power of the land.
Now the note of reassurance. The reader may have noticed that the scattering of normative recommendations made for how to shape the urban, rural, and wild landscapes differ very little, if at all, from recommendations that are common throughout various environmental literatures. “Make visible the environmental costs,” “keep manipulation of the landscape to a minimum,” “pay attention to diversity,” “notice how an ecology takes care of us,” “work with natural processes rather than seek to control and redirect them.” It may legitimately be asked what, if anything, is new amid this suite of familiar sounding environmental recommendations? Where is the special insight in environmental epistemology that will be useful for policy?
The convergence of these recommendations with those found in other types of environmental thought should not be viewed as a disappointment, I suggest, but as a relief. it is a relief that the message from environmental epistemology is consistent with the one from environmental ethics. If it were not, environmentalists would not know what to think or how to proceed. The difference is that the starting point is not a set of moral values but a concern about how we maintain our values in the first place. The call to construct environments with a particular care is made not simply because it is consistent with our conscience but also because it turns out to be good for our minds. The focus remains on how to design, manage, and shape the physical spaces that surround us so as to enable our minds operate in ways more conducive to shared visions of a good life. The fact that the recommendations from environmental epistemology coincide with the recommendations from environmental ethics should offer some reassurance.
A philosopher friend once said to me, perhaps a little cynically, “You know, we rarely say anything new or different. We just keep saying the same things over and over again in different ways till someone listens.” If environmental epistemology is primarily about how nature speaks, ideas such as the ones sketched above might, at the very least, give us a new rationale for becoming more careful and attentive listeners to the messages conveyed by the physical spaces in which we dwell.